nonfiction

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl- Timothy Egan

Chalk up another book challenge win (and another book that I might not have picked up on my own. I definitely would have been interested, had I come across it without this challenge, but I probably would’ve thought, “That looks great, but I’ve got too many other things to read, and who knows, it might be boring…”). One of the prompts for Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge is to read a book about a natural disaster. As natural disasters tend to freak me out, I checked their list of suggestions first and figured I could handle The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan (Mariner Books, 2006), which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2006. In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck wrote about those who fled the Dust Bowl; Timothy Egan writes about those who stayed behind.

I read The Grapes of Wrath in high school and…loved it seems like a poor choice of words for a novel so bleak and full of suffering, but it was my introduction to Steinbeck and made me a lifelong fan. I don’t remember learning *that* much about the Dust Bowl, other than it was terrible and people starved, so The Worst Hard Time was a full-on education for me.

The American Dust Bowl was an area of the Great Plains that was stripped of most all vegetation and aggressively overfarmed; combined with what was later discovered to be a normal period of drought for the area, this led to massive dust storms that swept the area for years throughout the 1930’s. Nothing grew and livestock died; people choked and suffered from dust pneumonia; poverty was rampant and families starved. If anything, the suffering in The Grapes of Wrath isn’t painted grimly enough. Timothy Egan recounts one of the worst climate disasters in the US to date in this in-depth work of nonfiction.

The picture is stark. Babies and the elderly suffer and die in the dozens of dust storms that rage through the area each month. The dust, whipped by sixty mile-per-hour winds, blinds some folks permanently. Dust coats every surface, and cleaning just means things will need to be cleaned again hours later. Drifts of dust, parched topsoil depleted from areas farther away, pile up to the rooftops of some houses, and the dust travels all the way to Washington DC at times, coating that city with a mere taste of what the residents of the Dust Bowl experience daily. A worse situation could hardly be imagined.

Alongside the climatic devastation, the Great Depression was raging on and almost no one had an income. People bartered for what they could, made shoes out of tires and clothes out of onion bags and the stripped fabric from broken down cars. They pickled tumbleweed and canned rabbit meat. Hospitals had to postpone operations; their surgical rooms were impossible to keep clean. April 14th, 1935, a day known as Black Sunday, marked the biggest storm of all, two hundred miles wide with 300,000 tons of dirt- more than twice as much as had been dug out of the Panama Canal- whipping through the air.

However grim you’ve pictured the history of the Dust Bowl, it’s worse, and Timothy Egan pulls no punches in showing exactly how. Nor does he stray from showcasing the immense hubris on display by both government and civilians when it came to taking responsibility for and dealing with this crisis. Settlers refused to believe that this crisis was man-made (so, so much of this book parallels our current climate crisis that it’s almost chilling to read); Roosevelt is devastated to learn that the Homestead Act of 1862 was an abject failure and led directly to the creation of the Dust Bowl; many farmers scorned the new farming techniques taught to them in order to even have a slight chance of saving what was left of the soil (spoiler alert: the area never completely recovered). This book is a clear warning signal of how man can easily alter his environment to utterly devastating permanent effects.

While not a simple read, it’s an easy one; Mr. Egan’s writing style lends to his prose flowing as easily as any novel, though the subject matter often sounds nearly like something straight out of Stephen King. The Worst Hard Time is a great book to read if you’re looking for that Read Harder Challenge prompt, but it’s also great if you’re interested in history, in poverty and hunger (I was pleased to see this book recommended on the reading list at Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger), in climate or weather, or if you enjoy nonfiction in general. It’s an incredible read, a living history whose consequences we still live with today, and I’m glad it’s one I included in my reading life this year.

Visit Timothy Egan’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

How to Disappear- Sharon Huss Roat

This book right here? This is why I enjoy reading challenges so much. Without the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge prompt for a book about or involving social media, I probably wouldn’t have heard of How to Disappear by Sharon Huss Roat (HarperTeen, 2017), nor would I have been drawn to it via title alone if I had caught a glimpse of it on the shelf while browsing the library shelves. Its title makes it sound a little on the thriller side of things, but this in-depth examination of the devastation anxiety can wreak upon a teenager’s life and the lengths one goes to in order to work around it and feel seen, is in a category of its own. This novel is brilliancy in book form.

Vicky’s on her own. Her lifelong best friend Jenna, the person she used as a cover and her safety in all social situations, has moved away, and as Jenna shows signs, via text and other online conversations, of moving on, Vicky feels as though she’s been thrown to the wolves. She has no other friends, and her terrible social anxiety has her hiding out in the bathroom rather than attend class (it’s that bad). After she overhears a pocket dial phone call where Jenna calls her pathetic, Vicky uses her Photoshop skills to provide photographic evidence that she’s more than just the sad, terrified girl Jenna used to know. But why stop at just one photo? Soon, Vicky’s ‘shop-ing herself into fantastical situations- riding Buckbeak’s back, attending a Foo Fighters concert in the 90’s, dancing with Ellen on the set of her show. And then her Instagram, which she’s named Vicurious, blows up.

People are connecting to Vicurious in an amazing way. Suddenly, Vicky realizes she’s not the only one who feels alone and afraid; even some of her classmates, who don’t realize that Vicky and Vicurious are one and the same, are commenting on her digitally enhanced photographic creations. For once, Vicky feels seen, and she responds by helping others recognize those around them who are hurting as well. Scary new changes are happening for her socially as well, but it’s when tragedy looms that Vicky will grasp her newfound power of Vicurious to save everything and learn that courage doesn’t mean being fearless.

I. Loved. This. Book. I understood Vicky so well. I didn’t make many friends on my own during high school; I never really hung out with anyone on my own whom I didn’t already know from early, early grade school. Yeah, thanks, anxiety. I’m still garbage at making friends, because I can’t get past the voice in my head telling me how awful I am and how not worthy I am of every new situation, but I’ve at least started pushing myself to try new things despite all of this (and it’s STILL scary!). All that’s to say that Sharon Huss Roat writes the struggle and manifestation of anxiety, both generalized and social, exceptionally well. Vicky’s scenes of sitting in the bathroom rather than go to class, fumbling her way through interactions with other students, and panicking over class projects resonated deeply with me, because they’re still all so very real for me.

Vicky losing her best friend to a cross-country move is painful, and their distancing even more so. Her mother tries hard to push her to become more social, and it’s clear from the start that she doesn’t understand anxiety or how it’s affecting her daughter. Her character is also spot-on; my mother, who wasn’t cursed with a terrified brain, acted in similar ways. They both acted from their own place of (mis)understanding and were doing what they thought was best, however frustrating it was for Vicky and me. Their intentions were good! Lipton, the classmate who becomes Vicky’s love interest, is a million forms of adorable. He misses the mark a few times but is accepting and encouraging only in the way that adorable YA love interests can be, and once again, if you’re looking for a swoony, super-sweet sidestory romance, this subplot is a fantastic reason by itself to pick this book up.

The social media aspects of How to Disappear absolutely shine (and made me want to re-download Instagram again! I had to take it off my phone when I was running out of space). Only hoping that Jenna would notice her Vicurious account and rethink who her best friend is, Vicky uses her Instagram not only to help herself feel better, but to reach out to others, to make them feel seen, to make them feel heard and noticed and not so alone. Not only does she start a revolution of kindness, she does so in a way that’s careful of her own mental health, instinctively stepping away when the pressure builds or when her newfound (yet anonymous) massive popularity becomes overwhelming. Never does she let it go to her head; she always maintains a certain distance and the proper perspective about it, and I think that’s an extremely important message in an era when we’re all constantly checking for likes and new followers.

How to Disappear contains talk of anxiety on almost every page, and there’s a frantic scene towards the end that speculates about another character’s potential suicidal ideation, so be careful if these aren’t things you can handle reading about right now.

But if you’re up for it, How to Disappear is an amazing ode to the difficulties and the painfulness of life with anxiety, what it looks like, what it feels like, and how we can exist and even thrive despite it. Take it from me, who has dealt with anxiety my entire life: this book is the real deal, and Sharon Huss Roat gets it. I definitely feel seen. πŸ™‚

Visit Sharon Huss Roat’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Let’s Call It a Doomsday- Katie Henry

I’ve loved Katie Henry ever since I read Heretics Anonymous last year, so I was super excited to read Let’s Call It a Doomsday (Katherine Tegen Books, 2019)- as soon as I learned of its existence, it went straight onto my TBR, despite the fact that its pub date was months in the future. I’ve been looking for it at the library for ages, but it had always been checked out (which is good! I never mind waiting; I’m happy that other people are enjoying the books I too want to read, and I always have a list of books I want to read that unfurls, rolls out the door, and heads for the Pacific Ocean, so, you know. No hurry). But this time, BINGO. It was in, and into my stack it went.

Ellis Kimball is obsessed with the end of the world. Nuclear disaster, earthquake, massive snowstorm, fires that wipe everything out, plague, she knows them all and she’s prepared for each scenario, keeping go-bags stashed at home, in her backpack, and in her locker. But her obsession is affecting every part of her life, including her family, and it’s after a session with her new therapist that Ellis meets the mysterious Hannah, who claims to have been having visions of the end of the world- visions that involve Ellis.

Buoyed by her acceptance into Hannah’s friend group, Ellis helps Hannah search for a young man she refers to as Prophet Dan, all the while preparing for the massive snowstorm that Hannah claims will bring the end of the world as we know it. But things get a little more complicated when Prophet Dan’s identity is revealed, and Ellis’s need to inform the world of its impending doom becomes urgent. Desperate times call for desperate measures, but faith, new friends, and the family who has been there for her all along might just be the answer to avoiding certain doom.

There’s so much to love about this book. Katie Henry obviously knows well what it’s like to live with anxiety (if not personally, than through excellent research and a deep sense of empathy), because there were quite a few times I was reading along and stopped to chuckle because Ellis sounded so much like what my brain does when I don’t stomp it back down. Her fears aren’t necessarily mine, but the thought processes are so similar, along with the constant negative self-talk, that I understood her well- though there are times when she and her mother, who is frustrated by a daughter she doesn’t understand and doesn’t know how to help, get into it, and Ellis eventually handles it in a more understanding and mature way than I would have. If your anxiety does center around disaster scenarios or the end of the world, however, Let’s Call It a Doomsday might either help or set off your anxiety, so please be careful.

I loved that Ellis’s faith and religious life- she and her family are active members of the LDS church- is woven into every aspect of the story. Family Home Evening is discussed multiple times, her family’s lax (so she feels) attitude towards food storage plays into her fears, multiple scenes are set before, during, and after church services, and how her religion may add to and help her anxiety is a huge theme throughout the novel. It’s not too often that you read stories where a character’s religion just is, without the novel having any ulterior motive, so I really appreciated this look at a religious teenager doing her best to live out her faith because of and in spite of her mental health challenges.

Hannah’s friends are great people; they’re smart, helpful, kind guys who protect the members of their group well, and this is demonstrated in multiple scenes, starting off when Ellis is warned in the beginning about Hannah having been through a hard time recently, and later on when Ellis overhears one of the boys trying to get Hannah to back off of something she and Ellis are doing that’s affecting Ellis negatively. The scenes with the guys were some of my favorites simply for eliciting such warm fuzzy feelings of friendship and trust. Tal, especially (who made me realized that the singer Tal Bachman’s first name is actually Talmadge, which I’d never considered before!), elicits a lot of warm fuzzies. The book is worth the read alone because he’s such a great character. That said…

I didn’t care for Hannah at all. I figured out her schtick almost immediately, and while I felt for her, she seemed too manipulative and sneaky to care as much about her as I did everyone else. To me, it felt like she was using Ellis and taking advantage of her anxiety to further serve her own needs, and that left a terrible taste in my mouth. Had I been in charge of the story, I would have changed how their friendship stood at the end, but I also understand why Ms. Henry let it play out as it did, and that didn’t change my enjoyment of the book itself.

Let’s Call It a Doomsday is a great read, to be read with some caution if you struggle with anxiety, but overall, to be enjoyed for the story of growth and self-acceptance that it is. Since it was published in August, it fits the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge prompt for a book published during your birthday month, so I can check another one off that list!

Visit Katie Henry’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

As A Driven Leaf- Milton Steinberg

I’ve been aware of this book for years. I think I even picked it up and paged through it when we lived in Nashville (the main library there is seriously awesome; if you’re ever in the area, stop in and take a walk around. The collection is pretty good- some slightly dated material, but still pretty phenomenal, and the building is gorgeous. There’s even a large outside courtyard with a huge fountain, a large stage for performances and talks, and a children’s puppet theater. It’s been almost six years since I was last there, so who knows what other updates have been made since then!), but for whatever reason, I chose not to read it at the time. But during our first week in my Introduction to Judaism class, the rabbi recommended it and I figured it was finally time to pick up As A Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg (Behrman House Publishing, 1939). I’m always a little nervous reading older books, since I still have a little bit of holdover fear from being made to read things like The Scarlet Letter in high school (I still can’t stand Nathaniel Hawthorne), and I’ve had some not-so-great experiences with dry, dusty historical fiction, but that wasn’t at all what I found between the covers of this book.

Elisha ben Abuyah, the son of a lapsed Jew, is raised adhering more to Greek tradition in the years of Roman rule in Palestine, but when his father passes, his uncle insists he study the Law of his people. After becoming a rabbi and becoming part of the Sanhedrin, doubts about his faith begin to appear, and though he tries hard to hold on, his questions can’t be ignored. Willing to risk everything for solid answers, Elisha begins a journey of discovery, of finding irrefutable evidence of what the truth really is, but this search will have devastating effects on him, on history, and on the lives of everyone he knows and loves.

This is an incredible book, one I cannot recommend highly enough. Elisha ben Abuyah (an actual historical person, though this is a fictionalized account of his life, with much conjecture and imagining) is an engaging, thoughtful character, and the era in which he lives is vividly alive in Steinberg’s elaborate, yet not overdone, description. Elisha’s arc is tragic; his unhappy arranged marriage and his search to view faith solely through a lens of logic ends disastrously for nearly everyone, even those not immediately involved, and there are some seriously gruesome scenes in here (torture, Roman murder, and a lion-versus-gladiator fight scene that turned my stomach and had me wide-eyed while reading in public). Steinberg doesn’t shy away from the difficult realities of life under Roman rule, nor does he tone down the more hedonistic aspects of the society Elisha found himself in after his excommunication and abandoning Palestine for Antioch.

It’s difficult to elaborate how fascinating I found reading fiction set in this time period (I believe the only other book I’ve read set during Roman rule is The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth Speare George, also a fantastic read). I haven’t ventured too much into the world of historical fiction; it’s not that I dislike it, but I’ve encountered some that have been dry, and so much of it seems to be centered around World War II that As A Driven Leaf seems absolutely…modern…by comparison. A breath of fresh air in that genre, if you will, despite the book being eighty-one years old. It’s an era I haven’t literarily-traveled to that often, so I really enjoyed my journey back in time to admire Elisha’s intelligence and dedication while still wincing at his bullheaded perseverance despite the consequences. (And because of the book being set during this time, I’m counting it as my pick for the BookRiot 2020 Read Harder Challenge prompt to read a historical fiction novel not set in WWII. Finally, I’m on the scoreboard with this one!)

This isn’t an easy book to review, as there’s so much going on and Steinberg’s messages are so profound, but it’s a deeply enjoyable read, one that can be read on multiple levels. It’s a glimpse into the past, an inspiration, a warning, an encouragement to search and an injunction to be prepared for the consequences. It’s thought-provoking in a multitude of ways, no matter if you agree or not with Elisha’s final conclusions. As a Driven Leaf is beautifully written and will leave you intrigued and wanting more from this thoughtful author, or at least for the book to never end.

Milton Steinberg passed away in 1950. You can see his other books here on Goodreads.

Mini reviews

Four mini-reviews!

I generally don’t enjoy cramming a lot of book reviews into one post, but sometimes it’s necessary, or it’s the best option. And this time I’m not even doing it as a catch-up, even though I’m a little behind. I’ve been doing some extra reading for my Introduction to Judaism class, cramming in some Jewish fiction and non-fiction around the edges of the reading I need to do for class (which varies by amount per week, but there’s extra suggested reading, and you know I read all those articles too!), just to expand my knowledge base because I find it helpful and also because I just want to know everything about everything in the world- totally an attainable goal.

ANYHOODLE. Here are a few of the extras I’ve read the past few weeks!

The Best of Sholom Aleichem by Sholom Aleichem, edited by Irving Howe and Ruth R. Wisse. Sholom Aleichem is best known for his short stories about Tevye the dairyman, which were gathered and shaped into the musical Fiddler on the Roof (which I haven’t seen, but there’s a version of it available with Amazon Prime, so I’ll get to it one of these days!). His short stories, translated from the original Yiddish, give readers a glimpse into life in nineteenth-century Eastern European shtetls. There’s laughter, joy, family, poverty, hunger, fear… The wolf is always at the door, but why not enjoy yourselves while you can? His writing is so very slice-of-life; the telling of the story is more important than a distinct conclusion. I worried that would bother me, but surprisingly, it didn’t; Aleichem’s method of storytelling is more than enough to carry each selection in the book. I’m jealous of those who can read him in the original Yiddish, because from what I’ve read, the language is so very nuanced that any translation loses a lot. I’m counting this as a pick for The Modern Mrs. Darcy 2020 Reading Challenge prompt of a book in translation.

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch. “Yet another troll-fighting 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl,” the story’s byline yawns, but this graphic novel is anything but tired. Mirka, who dreams of fighting dragons, struggles to learn the feminine skills her stepmother wants her to, and keeps finding herself in odd situations- lassoing a homework-eating talking pig with a serious attitude problem, for example. And those feminine skills come in handy when she meets a troll, of all things. This book is creative and fun and deeply imaginative, and I’m going to have to keep my eyes peeled for the other books in the series at my library (looks like they’re checked out right now! I’m glad; they deserve to be popular!).

The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt by Ken Krimstein. Hannah Arendt is a name that keeps coming up over and over again in my reading, so I picked up this graphic novel biography that covers a short period of her life. She was brilliant and complex and Krimstein presents some tough material in an easier-to-digest format. Two quotes in particular stuck out to me:

“As fire lives on oxygen, the oxygen of totalitarianism is untruth. Before totalitarian leaders can fit reality to their lies, their message is an unrelenting contempt for facts. They live by the belief that fact depends entirely on the power of the man who makes it up.”

“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

I definitely want to read more about Hannah Arendt, but this feels like a good introduction.

The last 20-30 minutes of each Sunday night class is dedicated to learning the Hebrew alphabet, and I’ve never met a class I didn’t feel the need to go full on Hermione Granger in, so thanks to an extra-long interlibrary loan, I was able to work my way through Aleph Isn’t Tough: An Introduction to Hebrew for Adults by Linda Motzkin and Hara Person. This is the first language I’ve ever studied that doesn’t use the Roman alphabet, so it was intimidating to begin, but this book is incredibly thorough, introducing only a few letters and vowels per chapter so that the learner isn’t overwhelmed. Right away, the authors have you reading and writing words, matching English sounds with their Hebrew equivalents, and listing words the reader (who is assumed to have at least a basic knowledge of Judaism) is probably familiar with (and I was!). I was able to sound out (and recognize!) some of the Hebrew words when the class went down and sat in the sanctuary the other night, both around the room and in the prayer book. If you’re looking for the best, most basic place to start learning the Hebrew alphabet, Aleph Isn’t Tough should definitely be your first stop.

And with that, I’m only two reviews behind! Graphic novels and short stories aren’t always the easiest for me to review (and then there’s the language book!), so I’m feeling okay about covering these four books with one single post. I enjoyed all of these- for very different reasons- and would love to hear your thoughts if you’ve read any of them as well.

Happy reading, folks! πŸ™‚

fiction

People of the Book- Geraldine Brooks

Phew! Last week was ridiculously busy, between life stuff, kid stuff, and the extra reading I have for the class I’m taking. I didn’t have a single chance to sit down and whip up any blog posts, even though I really wanted to! This week looks a little quieter, so hopefully I’ll be caught up in a few days…maybe. A few weeks ago, a lovely woman in the Facebook group for the podcast I’m currently listening to recommended People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (Viking Books, 2008) to me. I’d heard of it but had never picked it up, and now seemed like just the time for such a book!

Hanna Heath has dedicated her life to preserving and restoring rare books, and she absolutely leaps at the chance to work with the famous centuries-old Sarajevo Haggadah, once thought to have been lost forever. Upon close examination, there are tiny clues- salt crystals, an insect wing, a single hair- as to where the Haggadah has been and who has owned it, sending the reader on a journey through the past to visit all the times and places it’s been. But the Haggadah’s story unearths a few hidden truths from Hanna’s life and illuminates a few paths before her that she never expected.

Bosnia, 1996. World War II Bosnia. Turn-of-the-century Vienna. Venice during the Inquisition. Barcelona during the time of the forced exile of the Jews, and Seville in the years before. People of the Book takes the reader on a journey through time, shedding light on not just the daily life of these times, but Jewish history, world history, allies and enemies, customs and mores. It’s not time travel- Hanna is never present as the reader is learning the details of the Haggadah’s past- but it has that same feel since Hanna’s restoration work and personal drama are interspersed with the Haggadah’s journey through time with each new clue she finds. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book with so much information about rare document conservation before, and I found the descriptions of Hanna’s work with the book to be really fascinating. It’s obvious that a lot of research went into not only the descriptions of what Hanna was doing, but into the history behind the Haggadah, so my hat is off to Ms. Brooks for the intensity and scope of the work that went into the writing of this book.

History is often unkind in general and has been especially harsh to the Jewish people, so there are some content warnings for this book, including murder, death (including the death of children), rape, torture, slavery, and probably other things that I’m forgetting. There’s also a brief mention of a young adolescent being raised as a gender different from what was assigned to them at birth, as was occasionally the custom in their group at the time, but a mention of rape follows after this, so take care of yourself if these aren’t subjects you’re comfortable reading at this time.

People of the Book is an incredible read. It’s history that seems fresh, possibly because so much of what Ms. Brooks covers in the book hasn’t necessarily been overdone in fiction (or, if it has, I haven’t noticed!), and definitely because her writing style pulls the reader in so well, placing them directly in each period and surrounding them with the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the emotions prevalent in each era. The Haggadah’s travels bring the reader through so many different time periods that the reader is always kept wondering where it will turn up next, what excitement, what tragedy it will be witness to. I’m a little surprised I never picked this up before, but again, I think this book found me at exactly the time I needed it and was ready for it. I love when that happens. πŸ™‚

Have you read any of Geraldine Brooks’s other books? I have a copy of Year of Wonders on my bookshelf right now; I’ll get to it eventually! People of the Book was my first book of hers, but I’m absolutely planning on reading more. I’ve kind of shied away from historical fiction in the past; I think I had a few bad experiences with the genre when I was young (looking at you, seventh-grade unit on Johnny Tremain) and that made me leery in general, but I need to move beyond that and cozy up to more of these great books by Geraldine Brooks and other authors, because reading this was an experience I want more of!

And, as luck would have it, People of the Book fits the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt for a book with a map! There’s a lovely map in the book that details the travels of the Haggadah, so I’m happy to not only read a great book, but tick another box off on this challenge. πŸ™‚

Visit Geraldine Brook’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children- Wendy Mogel

I’ve mentioned before that I’m always trying to find resources to help me raise my daughter more effectively. Her personality is so very different from my son’s that I’m left scrambling 99% of the time, because I have very few tools in my box to deal with whatever she’s thrown at me. I’d heard of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children by Wendy Mogel, PhD (Penguin Books, 2001) before; she actually came through this area last year and I didn’t make it to see her (boy, am I kicking myself about that now!). But when this book showed up as one of the reading suggestions for my Intro to Judaism class, I knew it was time to see what wisdom it had to offer me.

Part Reform Judaism primer, part parenting how-to, Wendy Mogel gets at the heart of what kids need (and a little of what they want, and how the two work together). Today’s fast-paced world is tough on kids: they receive too much stuff (I don’t know a single parent who isn’t drowning in mass-produced kid stuff and constantly weeding things out), have too much input from all directions (school, family, friends, television, social media, music in the car and in stores), deal with ridiculous, age-inappropriate expectations, and get short-changed out of time with their stressed-out parents. The message they get is that in order to stand out from all of this is to behave in ways that get them the most attention, even if it’s negative attention. But Judaism has ways to teach families to slow down, unplug from the hustle and bustle around us, connect with each other, and celebrate the small, quiet moments when each opportunity presents itself.

Mogel writes about parental respect and how it’s okay and even necessary to demand it (this was HUGE for me. Like, HUGE), and how kids want to be part of the family and want to help out (and if they don’t, it’s still necessary for them to help without complaining). She discusses how to work with a kid’s nature and how to make the behavior that drives you the craziest work in your kid’s favor. She gives suggestions on how to get your kids to speak more respectfully and how to gently but firmly let them know they’ve been rude. It’s not necessarily to change a kid’s attitude toward something, she claims; change their actions first and after repetition, their attitude will follow. In Judaism, action counts more than attitude, and this applies to her parenting theories in so many different and fascinatingly effective ways.

Y’all.

You guys.

I’ve implemented quite a few things Ms. Mogel discussed in this book, with plans for more, and you would not BELIEVE the changes I’ve seen. (I’m kind of choking up as I type this.) I HAVE A NEW KID. For the past eight days, my child’s room has been clean (without me having to do it!!!) and all the toys she’s dragged to the living room have been picked up and put away, with minimal complaints, before bedtime. There’s been no backtalk, no sassing, no eye-rolling (!!!). She hasn’t argued with me about wearing shorts to school when it’s snowing. She puts her dishes in the dishwasher after asking if it’s clean or dirty, she asks to help do other chores and does some without being asked (not always effective; we had to have a conversation yesterday about why it’s not necessarily the best idea to line up the boots and other assorted winter footwear in the path between the kitchen counter and the refrigerator, but I thanked her for her enthusiasm and willingness to help and showed her a better place to line up the boots where no one would trip over them). And biggest of all?

We’ve. Had. No. Tantrums.

Like.

NONE.

This has never happened before. EVER.

I suggested that we implement a system where, each day, she earns part of an allowance (and it’s *not* a huge one) by keeping her room picked up, but her behavior is also tied to that allowance. Throwing fits, being unkind or disrespectful, not doing what’s expected of her, all that cancels out her allowance for the day. She has a calendar where she’s able to mark the day if she’s done everything she needs to. And every day, she’s so excited to mark off that she’s completed all her chores and behaved in a way that earns her something.

She’s still the same kid who gets a little too screechy indoors, the one who (of course) needs to pee the second I step into the shower and then spends my entire shower sitting on the toilet singing songs from Frozen, the kid who is slow to calm down when she’s excited and having a good time. But boy, does she snap right back into place when she gets her one warning (which is all she gets, and then the allowance is cancelled for the day), and she’s now constantly looking for ways to help out around the house.

It’s pretty wild.

I don’t know if it’s solely this book, or if she’s at the right place developmentally to finally begin responding to these kinds of measures, or maybe a combination of all that and something else, but this book has worked for us like nothing else has ever worked before. Ms. Mogel’s warning about parents who martyr themselves for their children’s sake serve no one, especially not their children, really spoke to me, and this past week, despite its business, has been the calmest, most productive, most well-behaved week of my daughter’s life, and I am deeply, deeply grateful for everything this book has taught me.

While there’s a chapter on implementing religious practice in your family’s life, you don’t need to be religious (or Jewish) to read and benefit from this book. You do need to be creative and able to apply Ms. Mogel’s lessons and ideals in a way that best fits your family. For example, you may not celebrate Shabbat weekly with a huge dinner, prayers, and songs, but maybe you can implement a weekly (or nightly, if your schedule allows for it) dinner and create your own rituals that carry weight and meaning for your family, that shape your life and give your kids something to look forward to and something they may carry on in their own families one day.

Even though I wish I’d read this earlier, I think this book came into my life at exactly the right time. I’ve got pages and pages of notes I’ll refer back to as necessary, and I’m looking forward to read Ms. Mogel’s The Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Resiliant Teenagers when the time calls for it. I’m so grateful to Ms. Mogel for sharing her wisdom; it’s really changed things for our family, and I can’t speak highly enough about this book.

Visit Wendy Mogel’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom- Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers

I love nonfiction. I could read it exclusively (and kind of have in the past), although I realize that’s kind of outside the norm for book bloggers. I so enjoy learning and getting to expand my knowledge of the world, so I was excited to find a nonfiction pick as this month’s Library Book Reading Group selection. I’ve read two books about North Korea in the past (The Girl With Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee with David John, and Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick; both excellent books and highly recommended, especially Nothing to Envy) and have found the subject alarming and deeply intriguing, so I’m really looking forward to the group discussion of In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom by Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers (Penguin Press, 2015).

Yeonmi Park lived a semi-privileged existence in North Korea, under the dictatorships of Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Un. Despite rarely having electricity, having no running water, at different times having her parents imprisoned, having to forage in the forest for plants to eat in order to not starve and weighing only 60 pounds when she escaped, at the age of 13, with her mother in 2007, Yeonmi and her sister were better off than many of the North Korean children around them. As their living situation and the conditions in the country continued to deteriorate, the family began to realize their only hope of survival was escape. But in a country where even making a joke about the leader could lead to one’s execution, escape carried with it nearly as many risks as staying.

When Yeonmi and her mother flee across the river to China, they fall into the hands of human traffickers. They’re separated for some time, but through determination, some help along the way, and more than a bit of luck, they’re able to finally make it to the safe haven of South Korea, where the fight to finally build a life for themselves, find Yeonmi’s sister (who escaped just before them) and pull themselves free of the North Korean indoctrination presents yet another challenge.

Yeonmi’s story isn’t all that different than so many other defector’s stories. There are some serious moments of heartbreak here, including multiple accounts of rape and the death of family members, so take care to prepare yourself or choose another book if this isn’t the right time for you to read this. She explains in depth how much she and her fellow North Koreans had to numb themselves to the pain of others in order to survive and maintain the regime’s facade that theirs was a prosperous country with no problems; seeing piles of dead bodies in the streets, fellow citizens who had starved to death, was nothing out of the ordinary, and ignoring it was a matter of survival, mental, physical, and emotional. When you’ve been taught to care for nothing but your country’s leader, caring for your neighbor is a concept that doesn’t exist. A particularly harrowing quote:

‘The frozen babies that starving mothers abandoned in the alleys did not fit into my worldview, so I couldn’t process what I saw. It was normal to see bodies in trash heaps, bodies floating in the river, normal to just walk by and do nothing when a stranger cried for help.’

The propaganda fed to North Koreans is incredible. Yeonmi grew up believing Kim Jong-Il could read her mind and she would be punished for any bad thoughts about him. She and her classmates are taught to inform authorities on their parents and neighbors, and even their schoolwork is taught through a nationalistic lens of propaganda (“If you kill one Yankee bastard and your friend kills three, how many Yankee bastards have you killed?”). The flow of information is tightly controlled and Yeonmi’s family has almost no idea of how the rest of the world really lives- though the propaganda they’re fed tells them that North Korea is the most powerful nation on earth, and every other country is an utter nightmare to live in. It’s all doublespeak to the extreme, almost as if the leaders of the country were using 1984 as an instruction manual.

Her escape and journey to South Korea is harrowing and disturbing, especially considering how young she was at the time. I’ve read that it’s very difficult for defectors to build new lives, even with financial support of the South Korean government, for diverse reasons but mainly due to things like PTSD, lack of education and difficulty catching up, and difficulty learning to live in a society so radically different from the one in which they were raised (and one they were propagandized against). I can’t imagine the struggle, and it’s amazing that anyone comes out the other side and manages any kind of a life at all. So much pain, so much loss, so much left behind.

My book group discussion isn’t until the middle of this month, but I’ve got four pages (back and front) of notes I can go over in order to keep things fresh in my memory. Ms. Park apparently lives in the US now, is married, and is continuing her human rights work. She’s also a huge reader (it’s really the best club to be a part of, isn’t it???), which thrills me and fills my heart with such pride for her and all her many accomplishments. That she could survive such a brutal regime and use her life to shine a light on the egregious human rights’ violations ongoing in North Korea, while still working hard to improve herself every day, is inspiring. What an amazing story.

Visit Yeonmi Park’s website here.

Watch her TED talk here. (Highly recommended!)

Follow her on Twitter here.

Monthly roundup

Monthly roundup: January 2020

Welcome to February!

Where I live, January has been cold, gray, and icy as heck. We got some snow, nothing massive, but enough that it got icy and crunchy really fast, and we’re still skating all over the place every time we step outside the front door. My driveway is an icy death trap and I live in fear each time I need to leave the house. My biggest fantasy these days involves winning the lottery (not that we play…) so I can install a heated driveway. Flip the switch to turn it on, leave it until everything is melted, turn it off. (Uh, there may need to be some sort of advanced drainage/water vacuum system in there as well, if we don’t want to be right back at the beginning once all that melted snow and ice refreeze.) A girl can dream, right?

It’s been a quiet month for reading around here; I’ve been busy getting a lot of house things in order and working on some other projects, so I haven’t had as much reading time as I would have liked. Let’s check that out, shall we?

What I Read in January 2020

1. The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis (no review, read out loud to my daughter)

2. Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer (now nominated for an Edgar Award!!!)

3. The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict

4. I Love You So Mochi by Sarah Kuhn

5. I Was Born For This by Alice Oseman

6. The Survivors: A Story of War, Inheritance, and Healing by Adam P. Frankel

7. In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreams Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language by Arika Okrent

8. The Color of Love by Marra B. Gad

9. The Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay

10. Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett

11. Tangled by Emma Chase

12. The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan

13. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (no review, read out loud to my daughter)

14. Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

15. Opera For Dummies by David Pogue and Scott Speck (no review, read as part of my own personal Read Harder challenge)

Not a bad month in terms of quality of books. Twelve of these fit prompts for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge; one was an impulse grab off the New Books shelf; five were YA (there are a lot of great YA picks for reading challenges, and I definitely find myself reading more YA when I’m participating in various challenges); two memoirs; one historical fiction; four nonfiction (this is a really low number for me for nonfiction, but I like that reading challenges force me to read more fiction. I’d be happy reading nothing but nonfiction the rest of my life, but I’m striving to be more balanced here).

Reading Challenge Updates

And here we are! I’m deep into the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge; I like that I’m reading new authors, considering new subjects, visiting new places in a fictional sense. Here’s what my list looks like so far:

Twelve books knocked off this challenge! Just over one-fifth of the way done. I’m happy with that.

State of the Goodreads TBR

*gulp*

It’s not been a great month for my poor TBR. I’ve added so, so many books, what with my fellow bloggers always reading such interesting things, and all these “You’ll Quite Literally DIE If You Don’t Read These Specific Books Being Published In 2020” lists coming out, and award winners and nominees being announced. My TBR started the month at a respectable 81 books, but has since ballooned up to a much more daunting 102. YIKES. I like to keep it under 100, but right now, I’m engaging with a lot of books for reading challenges and for the class I’m taking, so I know it’s going to go up more before it goes down. Quick, everyone leave me alone and do all my housework for me and exercise for me so I can get some reading done!!!

Books I Acquired in January 2020

My daughter and I stopped by a local thrift store on what turned out to be half price day and came home with these books, a huge stack of children’s books, and two dresses for me for only seven dollars! (I wear mostly skirts and dresses and leggings these days, with the occasional yoga pants; jeans pull really badly at my right hip and increase my pain, so dressing this way is, for me, basically the fancier equivalent of sweatpants. Looking nice is merely a side effect!) The books are:

To Be A Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life by Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman

Hanna’s Daughters: A Novel of Three Generations by Marianne Fredricksson

Missing Max by Karen Young

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks

I also grabbed a copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Jewish History and Culture by Benjamin Blech, which I’ve read before but not for a very long time. A refresher never hurts!

Bookish Things I Did in January 2020

It was back to the Library Book Discussion Group with me this month! Besides the librarian, who’s a few years younger than me, I’m the youngest group member by about ten years, but I love it. This month, we read The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict, about the actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr. I hadn’t known much about her before reading this, and the book led to some interesting discussion. The librarian also let us know that there’s a documentary about Hedy Lamarr on Netflix right now, titled Bombshell. I watched it this weekend while attacking some of my giant mending pile and it’s really interesting, if you’re into history and looking for something to watch.

Current Podcast Love

Still working my way through back episodes of Tablet Magazine’s Unorthodox; still loving it! I ended up having so many problems with my Podbean app shutting down and not playing stuff that I switched over to the Stitcher app. I don’t like that app as much as I liked how Podbean worked (when it worked), but it’ll do.

Stephanie’s Read Harder Challenge

I’ve finally finished Opera For Dummies: A Reference for the Rest of Us by David Pogue and Scott Speck. The CD that came with the book ended up being so pitted and scratched that it wouldn’t play, but I used Youtube to view and listen to the performances, and they’re all quite lovely. I’d love to be able to attend an opera at some point, and I’m particularly intrigued by Don Giovanni, mostly because of the final scene. I don’t know that I’ll ever be one of those people with season tickets for the opera (mostly because $$$$), but I like knowing more about it. The book itself is a little dated and occasionally makes jokes that haven’t aged well (it was originally published in 1997 and so, in this world, the internet barely exists and you need to actually call the opera box office to buy tickets, which seems like such a quaint concept these days…), including some sexist, fatphobic, and homophobic jokes, so consider yourself warned.

And now that I’ve finished, I’m using Opera For Dummies as the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt about a book on a subject you know nothing about (see above graphic in the Reading Challenge section). I knew nothing about opera beforehand, and now I know random things like the stereotype of operas being full of women wearing horned helmets comes from a single opera (Wagner’s Die WalkΓΌre, part of the Ring Cycle group of operas), what recitative is, the definition of an aria, what surtitles are, and that you too can chat about opera in groups of opera fans on America Online- if you need help, pick up a copy of America Online For Dummies! (I did say the book was dated.)

I’ve got more to say on my personal Read Harder Challenge in a minute…

Real Life Stuff

The kids going back to school got interrupted with my daughter being sick not long after. Nothing serious, just a random virus that left her with a fever and feeling run down, but it definitely threw my schedule off (poor kiddo, she even put herself down for a nap. Normally, she’s climbing the walls, so if she’s voluntarily going to sleep, you know she doesn’t feel good. I’m anticipating more of this, because her best friend at school came back today after being absent for illness…).

I’ve been trying to keep the house up a little better- not that it was awful before, but I’ve been on a little bit of an organizing streak. I cleared off a shelf in one of my living room bookshelves so I can put my sewing basket and my mending there. It’s the shelf right across from my chair, so my mending is just sitting there, STARING AT ME, which is much better than being tucked away in the bedroom- which is where it used to live and how it grew to such a ridiculous height. I kept putting it off, but now that I’m looking at it all the time, I’m actually getting it done. I even pulled out my sewing machine and turned a pair of torn-up pants into shorts for my daughter and put a satin binding on a blanket for my son (the cheap binding it came with torn and frayed beyond repair in the wash). And I took a grease-stained shirt of my daughter’s and, instead of turning it into rags, covered up the stains with a few heart patches (and added a few extra hearts):

I am seriously the world’s worst photographer, but you get the idea.

That took a looooooooong time to do, as I hand-stitched everything, but she was SO excited; she loves hearts, and this made her really happy. I also patched up an old bra, whose fabric between the side straps had basically shredded, by covering the straps with knit fabric. It worked; I’m wearing it today. πŸ˜€

My (Re)Introduction to Judaism course began and it’s so fascinating! It’s a pretty big group, I think about 40 people, and though we’ve only had one class so far, we had some pretty great discussions. I’ve got several books for the class and there’s a lot of suggestions of supplementary reading material, all of which I desperately want to read. I may bypass some of my previously planned personal Read Harder Challenge in order to fit some of this material in while I’m taking the class, so we’ll see. I’m very much looking forward to learning more most Sunday nights through May!

February is already shaping up to be busy. I’ll have three classes this month; my son’s school’s theater is putting on performances of The Foreigner, which we’re looking forward to seeing; my daughter’s elementary school will have a talent show, which I’m sure will be adorable. The author Andrew Solomon is coming to speak in my area again mid-month, so I’m looking forward to hearing him for the second time. There’s a local showing of the documentary Sky and Ground, about a Syrian-Kurdish family seeking asylum, that I’d like to go see, and my son has a choir performance. My Library Book Discussion group is reading nonfiction about North Korea this month, and my daughter has a Daisy Scout meeting and a tea party. I’m exhausted just looking at my calendar this month!!! I’m crossing my fingers I find ANY time to read…

I hope your January got you off to a wonderful, fresh start to the year, and that your February will be full of love, laughter, and excellent reading material. Read on, friends!