nonfiction

Book Review: Broken Faith: Broken Faith: Inside the Word of Faith Fellowship, One of America’s Most Dangerous Cults by Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr

Cults! Cults, cults, cults! This is probably my longest-running fascination. I put in for Broken Faith: Inside the Word of Faith Fellowship, One of America’s Most Dangerous Cults by Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr (Hanover Square Press, 2020) on NetGalley but was rejected (no biggie; you win some, you lose some!), but it went onto my TBR anyway. I hadn’t heard of Word of Faith Fellowship before, so immediately I was deeply intrigued and neeeeeeeeeeeeeeded to know more!

Journalist Mitch Weiss has written a stunning exposé on the Word of Faith Fellowship, a church out of Spindale, North Carolina, that consumes every last moment of its members’ lives. You can’t just show up for a church service; you have to be invited (that alone should tip people off). WOFF is run by Jane Whaley, a charismatic, power-hungry woman who seeks to control the lives of her church members and live high on the hog on their tithes, while they struggle to give more and more. Church tactics include screaming in the faces of and beating members, even infants and small children, to release all the demons that plague them, tying them to chairs, locking them away for months at a time in what amounts to prisons on the church property, stealing members’ children, and making it nearly impossible for members to leave.

What’s worse is the local government is fully involved in protecting the church and has, for decades, turned a blind eye to the abuse of the children in the cult. Members have tried for years to get justice for the many, many ways the cult has wronged them, only to be given the runaround by the police and the local court system. Hopefully with the publication of this book, more people will be aware of the shocking manipulations of this cult and the way it controls its members and the county it’s located in.

This is an absolutely shocking book. Mitch Weiss interviewed over 100 former church members to construct this narrative, as well as seeking out court documents, including a 300+ page document that had never before been released prior to his research. Despite damning evidence of the abuse of the members children (including sexual abuse- the mentions are brief, but they’re in here, so be alert if this is a difficult subject for you to read about), the county opted to tie the hands of social services and leave the children there to be further abused. I’m not going to lie; reading this is chilling. It’s yet another account of how cheap life is here in the United States and how little the lives of everyday people matter. The odds are stacked against us all, and if you’ve got money, you’re free to do as much harm as you want to anyone you want, because money is power.

Multiple times, Weiss and Mohr illustrate, usually through the words of authorities, how difficult it is for former cult members to receive justice: cults keep such tight control over their members that when they do manage to escape, they’re often ill-prepared to live in the outside world, plagued with anxiety and PTSD, and they end up homeless and addicted to various substances as a means of coping- rending them, in the eyes of legal authorities and juries, unreliable as witnesses. And thus cults such as WOFF are allowed to carry on their dangerous, abusive tactics. Members of the church have been convicted of various forms of fraud on the church’s behalf (including unemployment fraud and mail fraud), but Jane Whaley has never been brought up on charges herself.

If reading about cults interests you, you won’t want to miss this. Jane Whaley and her sycophants are dangerous and I’m glad the floodlights are being turned onto the church. I hope this helps its victims receive justice and that more people are sympathetic to what they’ve suffered at the hands of this evil, evil institution.

Follow Mitch Weiss on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness by Nathanael Johnson

How often do you notice the nature outside your window, in your own backyard, or right next to your feet? It’s easy to tune out the squirrels, the insects, the birds, the trees and plants, but there are good reasons to look around you and notice. I’m not exactly a huge outdoors person, but I enjoy learning about the world around me, and when my friend Sandy mentioned she was reading (and enjoying!) Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness by Nathanael Johnson (Rodale Books, 2016), I knew I had to read it, too. I get so many great book suggestions from Sandy; she’s dangerous for my TBR, but that’s the best kind of friend to have! I don’t think I would have read most of the books I’ve read about nature (with the exception of foraging; I got into that subject all on my own) without her. Find yourself a Sandy. 😉

Nathanael Johnson never really paid all that much attention to the nature around him in San Francisco until his daughter started asking him to name everything around him. He realized that what she was pointing to had a name beyond just ‘tree,’ or ‘bird,’ or ‘plant,’ and he set about learning in order to provide her with more answers. As he inhaled more and more information, the world around him came into deeper focus and he began noticing things that had been in front of him, but unseen, the whole time. Why are pigeons’ feet like that? What is that plant, and can I eat it? What exactly are those ants doing, and what kind are they?

Becoming familiar with the world around you- the stuff you usually dismiss as background noise- helps you to respect nature more fully (thus working harder to protect it!) and helps you live more fully, he argues. You don’t have to get deeply involved with every single aspect of the natural world; if you find you’re more interested in birds than plants, then go with that, but find one subject that draws your fascination and go with it, because if you’re involved and invested in your surroundings, you’ll live a fuller, more engaged life.

There’s a section on invasive species here that helped me breathe a sigh of relief (for more on this subject, you *really* need to read Eating Aliens: One Man’s Adventures Hunting Invasive Animal Species by Jackson Landers), and I found his chapter on pigeons really engaging. We don’t have pigeons here in my town (or at least not by my house, and let’s face it, I haven’t been much of anywhere else for seven months now…), but I’ve always kind of been intrigued by them when I’ve seen them elsewhere. I *did* wish his chapter on plant life in the city was longer, but that’s just because I find the subject of urban/suburban foraging so fascinating. I was happy to see him give a hat tip to Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons; most writers who even so much as briefly mention foraging end up including something about Gibbons’s work, which I cannot recommend highly enough. I read it two years ago and still think of it often. Don’t let the fact that it was published in 1962 deter you; Stalking the Wild Asparagus reads as though it could have been written yesterday, and it’s fun, and funny, and it’ll have you examining the plants in your backyard in a different way.

I really enjoyed Unseen City. Most of the urban foraging/urban nature books I’ve read have been set in either California or New York; I’d love to see one of these books that deal with the Midwest and all our flora and fauna here. But Nathanael Johnson is as entertaining (and funny!) as he is educational when it comes to illustrating the benefits of developing a deep fascination with the world around us. Read this if you’re interested in taking a deeper look at the things you usually tune out.

Visit Nathanael Johnson’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

reading challenge · reading life

Crossing the Finish Line on the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge!!!

So, this week, in celebration of Banned Books Week, I read this book:

(Incidentally, it came from my own shelves. I bought it from a used book sale last summer. It’s one that I’ve always wanted to read but had never gotten around to it before. Mission accomplished!)

I didn’t write up a review; this book has been around long enough that the world probably doesn’t need yet another review of it. It’s definitely a product of its time and has a *lot* of racist and misogynistic remarks and references. I haven’t seen the movie; I thought the story line was interesting but predictable (though really, it ended in the only possible way that made sense), but it’s a good study of human nature and power.

BUT. With the completion of this book, I now have THIS:

I FINISHED!!!!!!!!!!!!!! The 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge is one for the books! (Buh-dum-CHHHH!!!!)

Whew! That was a lot of books.

My thoughts on this challenge:

I enjoyed it. Not quite as much as I liked last year’s Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge, but it was fun. I felt like there were lighter book choices for this challenge; I definitely read more YA than I did last year. There were a few books I didn’t care for (It Had to Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips; The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald; I didn’t love State of Wonder by Ann Patchett); I read a few books I haven’t been able to stop thinking about (The Color of Love by Marra B. Gad, Sunny Days by David Kamp); I read some books I’d been meaning to get around to for ages (Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithewaite), I discovered new authors I love (Dani Shapiro, Geraldine Brooks, Camryn Garrett) and read authors who are like old friends to me (Naomi Kritzer- an actual old friend!, Kathleen Gilles Seidel, Jennifer Weiner). It’s been an interesting, fun literary tour this year- not without stress and some scrambling changes, thanks to the pandemic and the months-long closure of the library (thank goodness for ebooks!!!), but it was a worthy challenge to participate in, and I’m glad I made the decision to join in.

I’m planning on forgoing the usual challenges for a bit in order to read the books off of my own shelves in between reading down my TBR, but who knows, maybe I’ll join in something else later on in 2021. Who knows. But I’m pretty proud of myself for completing the 2020 Pop Sugar Reading Challenge with plenty of time to spare!!!

Are you a fan of reading challenges? How are you doing this weird, weird year? This is the second year I’ve participated and finished my reading challenges of choice (though I made the decision to not do this year’s Book Riot Read Harder or the Modern Mrs. Darcy challenge. The pandemic threw a *lot* of things off and made reading really difficult for a while). I like that it directs my reading and introduces me to new authors I might not have read without the challenge, to new subjects I may not have considered reading about without a prompt, to new formats (last year, I read poetry for the first time in years, and I’m still planning on reading more!). It does get a little frustrating sometimes when I would prefer to be taming the beast that is my TBR, but really, the trade-off is worth it.

Are you planning on taking part in challenges next year?

Happy reading, friends, no matter what shapes your book choices. 😊

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, and One Unexpected Adventure by Rachel Friedman

And here we go, book fans! The first book off of my own shelf as per my resolution to read more of the books that I own. I picked up this copy of The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, and One Unexpected Adventure by Rachel Friedman (Bantam, 2011) either from my favorite local thrift store or from a used book sale (the books on that shelf came from a mix of those two places). I’ve always been a big fan of travel memoirs, and what better time to read one than when you can’t travel at all? (At least if you’re American. Sigh.)

Rachel Friedman, the girl who always followed the rules and the plan, graduated from college without any kind of plan whatsoever, and she surprised everyone in her life by buying a plane ticket to Ireland and applying for a student visa so she could work as a waitress to earn money to fund her travels there. She’d never traveled on her own before, never traveled without exact travel plans or a plan for the future, so all of this was definitely an adventure.

In Ireland, Rachel is bitten by the travel bug, aided by her wanderlusty roommate Carly, an Australian who hasn’t yet finished college and isn’t sure what she wants to do outside of traveling the world. When her time in Ireland runs out, Rachel’s next stop is Australia, and then on to South America. Deadly animals, blazing sun and chilly mountain air, experiences that scare the crap out of her, living out of a single backpack, Rachel’s experiences will have you longing for the days where you had no responsibility and could just pick up and go.

This was a lovely armchair vacation for me. Rachel’s experiences are so far from what my own were at her age that it was nice to read how very different her life was. I did understand her what-do-I-do-with-my-life stress, along with some of her travel anxiety; I applaud her for pushing her boundaries so much. I’m still working on working out my social anxiety (NOT EASY THESE DAYS), and I’m a massive wreck when I travel, so it’s good for me to read stories of people who do things that scare them simply because it scares them. There are a lot of reviews talking about how self-entitled and privileged Rachel is; I felt as though she does acknowledge her privilege in the book and how lucky she was that her parents had paid for her college and thus she didn’t have to immediately begin working off her student loan debt. She mentions that multiple times, and I see no problem enjoying someone else’s experiences even if they’re not struggling in the same way I do.

Reading this also made me a little sad. Rachel and Carly met each other during their travels; Rachel eventually meets her husband while traveling. How many friendships aren’t beginning right now that would have if the US and a few other countries had handled this pandemic better? How many travelers are stuck at home not broadening their horizons and experiencing the world? How many relationships and marriages will never happen because we’re not allowed to travel due to our own stupidity? Here in the US, our world has gotten so much smaller- even beyond the reason of Covid-19- and that just breaks my heart.

But reading about Rachel Friedman’s boundary-pushing journey made for a pleasant Sunday out on the porch swing. If you can’t travel right now, taking a book vacation is the next best thing, and I enjoyed seeing the world through Ms. Friedman’s eyes.  

Visit Rachel Friedman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

history · nonfiction

Book Review: Overground Railroad: The Green Book & Roots of Black Travel in America by Candacy A. Taylor

I want to say that I learned about Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America by Candacy A. Taylor (Harry N. Abrams, 2020) from one of the emails Book Riot sends out, maybe the one about nonfiction books? I might be wrong about that, though. But I do know that reading the description of the book had me flying to put it on my TBR. I’d never heard of the Green Book before, and that seemed like a pretty big gap in my historical knowledge. I will admit to being a little intimidated when I picked this up in the library; it’s a thick, heavy book (lots of pictures, though!), and I worried about my ability to absorb so much information right now (pandemic brain is real, y’all), but I figured I could try it, and I’m *so* glad I did!

The Green Book, originally known as The Negro Motorist Green Book, was a travel guide for Black Americans, alerting them to businesses where it was safe to stop for gas, food, lodgings, and sightseeing and entertainment opportunities. Due to America’s fierce racism during the Jim Crow era and post-Jim Crow era (and now…) and the existence of sundown towns, Black travelers weren’t assured of receiving anything they might need on the road (not even roadside assistance), and thus the Green Book came into existence in order to help them travel across the country and eventually across the world.

It’s both wonderful that the Green Book existed and a tragedy that it had to. Ms. Taylor has traveled to and photographed many of the former Green Book sights. Many of them have been abandoned or are run down, but some are still up and running; all make for wonderful photographs. Interspersed throughout the text and photos are scans of actual pages from the various editions of the Green Book so that readers can see what the writing and advertisements looked like.

This is history. It’s inspiring, it’s shameful, it’s painful, it’s difficult but necessary read. There was a lot of new information for me in this book. I knew about sundown towns; I didn’t know how many of them existed in my own state, or that a guy I dated in high school lived in one. I knew that many businesses required Black customers to use a separate entrance; I hadn’t known that some business even required their Black customers to use a SEPARATE EMERGENCY EXIT ARE YOU EFFING KIDDING ME. Before learning about the existence of the Green Books, I hadn’t considered the discrimination faced by Black people as they traveled (it made sense as soon as I read the description of the book; it was just another aspect of racism creeping into all parts of life that, because of my privilege, I had never needed to consider). Like the book states, I’ll never look at travel the same way again.

There’s a section on Route 66 that discusses why Black travelers had such a difficult time on this road and why they don’t find it iconic as so many white Americans do. It’s eye-opening for the white reader, and saddening as well. We very obviously have multiple versions of the United States, and which version you have access to depends heavily on, and has always depended heavily on, your skin color. I hadn’t known much about this history of the road (I don’t know all that much about it anyway, although it ran through that high school boyfriend’s sundown town…), so this was pretty interesting to me. It’ll definitely change the way I look at those Route 66 signs people have…

This is an amazing book, and I can’t sing its praises highly enough. Ms. Taylor’s voice is educational and informative, but it’s never dry. It’s engaging in a way that will have you wishing you could sit in her classroom, sign up for her master class, and hang on her every word. I’m so very glad I read this book, because it clued me into a whole different experience of travel that I never knew about.

Visit Candacy A. Taylor’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Uncategorized

A new challenge for a new year.

I was thinking the other day of the new year.

Not the one that starts on January 1st. The Jewish New Year. 5781 begins on Friday at sundown, and it’s traditional to spend this time of year thinking about repentance and the kind of person we want to be. And, along with many other things I won’t bore you with now, my thoughts of course turned to reading, and the kind of reader I am and want to be.

I have a lot of books- like, a LOT of them. But I mainly read books from the library. Which is a good thing. I adore my library (if I haven’t made that clear over the past few years of blogging, or my blog title). I love library books. I love librarians and library staff. I love hustling through the aisles and combing the shelves for the books on my list and checking out the New Books shelf. Pretty much everything about the library makes me happy.

But I also own a ton of books that I haven’t read, and that’s not good, especially since my reading mostly from the library keeps me from reading them. There are some great books on my shelves, but they’re not doing anyone any good just sitting there. They’re not helping me learn and grow as a person if I’m not reading them. It’s not helpful to the authors if I haven’t read them and aren’t promoting them. It’s not helpful to other people if I’m not reading them and passing them on as I would normally do. Letting them collect dust on my shelves is helpful to no one.

SO.

I considered waiting until January to start this, but why wait? This time of year is a new start as well, and there’s no time like the present. This year, I’m going to forego the regular reading challenges and embark on my own. For every book I read off of my TBR (and y’all know I do my best to read that sucker down!), I’m going to read a book off my own shelf. At times, that may be amended- some of the books I own are pretty long and heavy, and for those ones, I may read a chapter or several, or a certain number of pages each day while also reading books from my TBR. And if I’m reading books for, say, a library book club or NetGalley, those are independent reads and I’ll think of those separately.

But I’ve got several shelves in my upstairs bookcases that are crammed with books that I’ve bought and brought from my downstairs bookshelves, and I have no room for new books in these shelves. It’s time to focus on being the kind of reader who reads the books she owns, and then to release those books back out in the world. That may mean my TBR doesn’t go down as quickly as I would like, but that’s something I’ll have to make peace with. The books I own, I bought for a reason, and they’re important, too.

I’ll be posting about this in my monthly updates, and I’ll probably note in each review when a book has come off of my own shelves, so that’ll keep me honest about this. And then, when I’ve read down these upstairs shelves, I’ll move some new books up from the downstairs shelves (although some of those books are permanent residents; I plan on keeping my classic lit and some of the nonfiction) and read those as well. And then I won’t feel so bad about obtaining new books!

So there’s a new goal, a new challenge for the new year. Keep me honest, friends!

nonfiction

Book Review: Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

I first became aware of Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (Knopf Publishing Group, 2020) when I was searching NetGalley for new books. My request for it wasn’t accepted (you win some, you lose some!), but I knew 100% that I had to read this. After reading their previous book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, they’re an auto-read for me. So much eye-opening information, presented in a way that keeps me turning the pages.

The American Dream is increasingly unavailable to anyone but the very rich; hard work and a determined attitude don’t count for much when your brain is primed for addiction and chaos, and there are no resources to help pull you out. In Tightrope, Kristof and WuDunn shine a light on communities in America that, through poor choices aided or directly caused by policy failure, have fallen through the cracks and are barely surviving. Some aren’t surviving at all. The pain travels through the generations; when parents suffer, their children don’t thrive either, and when they’re raised in chaos, they pass that along to their own children, and the damage works its way down the line. Poverty, violence, drug addiction, dropping out of school, lack of jobs, lack of opportunity, prison records, these aren’t merely personal choices (although some of them start out as such); they’re systemic failures that our society and our government have failed to address and at times have purposefully made worse.

Kristof and WuDunn don’t just point out problems, they offer solutions (ones that will summarily be ignored by anyone with power in order to further their own short-term gains, as our country is wont to do). The US is chock-full of problems, but they’re solvable problems, if only we stop looking at things like hunger and lack of available jobs as a personal choice.

It’s a damning book, and I fear that the people who need to read it will ignore it. Look at this quote:

‘Children in America today are 55 percent more likely to die than kids in other affluent countries, according to a peer-reviewed study in Health Affairs. “The U.S. is the most dangerous of wealthy, democratic countries in the world for children,” said Dr. Ashish Thakrar of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, the lead author of the study. If the United States had simply improved at the same rate as other advanced countries, 600,000 children’s lives would have been saved, Thakrar calculates. If America had the same mortality rates as the average in the rest of the rich world, 21,000 kids’ lives would be saved each year. Because we failed to modernize our health system the way our peer countries did, we lose fifty-eight children a day.’

Fifty-eight kids a day die because we’ve deemed them not worthy as saving. That’s over THREE of my daughter’s first grade classes. PER. DAY. We throw fifty-eight kids in the garbage every single day, and who knows how many adults, because it’s more important that insurance companies make money than those children get a chance to grow up. If you wouldn’t be okay with this for your own kids, or for yourself, you shouldn’t be okay with it for anyone else.

Why do some people thrive while others sink to the bottom? How do some folks escape difficult circumstances while others struggle for generations? The writing team covers this, as well as the resources necessary for everyone to thrive. In order for America to prosper, we can’t leave vast swathes of the population behind; America is only strong when Americans- ALL OF THEM- are strong, and the authors illustrate this well in heartbreaking example after example.

Kristof and WuDunn focus mainly on the community where Kristof grew up, in Yamhill, Oregon (famously the hometown of Beverly Cleary; she writes about it in her autobiography, A Girl from Yamhill), but they do expand their look to other states that have been hard-hit by the policies of the last fifty years. It’s a devastating look, a hard one that far too many aren’t interested in taking at the US, but one that absolutely needs to be taken. It’s not without hope, but it’s sobering, and if you’re in the US, you can’t afford to miss this book.

Read Nicholas Kristof’s writing at the New York Times here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

Follow Sheryl WuDunn on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Kaplan Carlton

Another book list gem! I picked up a copy of In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Caplan Carlton (Algonquin Young Readers, 2019) on my last trip from the library (during which I looked at my stack of like six books and went, “Well, that’s gonna take a while to get through…” and I’m already going to have to go back today and pick out a few more. BUT…I have an idea for a new project. I’ll write up a post about that later!). I’m super fortunate that my library has *so* many of the books from my TBR!

It’s 1958, and Ruth Robb has moved to Atlanta with her mother and younger sister after her father suddenly passed away. The move is already tough, but it’s complicated even more by the fact that Ruth is Jewish (her father was born Jewish; her mother, an Atlanta native, converted, a fact that is important to this story), and the South isn’t exactly friendly to Jews. Neither is her grandmother, who doesn’t fully accept that her daughter converted and is raising the girls Jewish. Ruth immediately falls in with the debutante group of girls from her grandmother’s club, but she knows she has to hide who she really is- admitting she’s Jewish is a recipe for immediate ostracization.

But it’s so much fun to be popular, and Davis Jefferson, the gorgeous popular guy, is falling for her. When Ruth’s mother starts requiring her to attend synagogue, she meets college student Max, who’s as dedicated to fighting for integration and social justice as the rabbi. He’s deeply intelligent, proud of who he is, and never hides anything about himself. When the politics of the day blow up in a way Ruth can no longer ignore, she has to make serious choices about who she is, who she wants to be, and how she wants to live her life.

I lived in the South for five years and oof, so many parts of this book rang true and made me feel claustrophobic again. Ruth’s grandmother is antisemitic- not in a Nazi-style manner, but in a dismissive way, in a way that it’s obvious she finds Jewish people kind of icky and different, and she’s constantly trying to encourage her daughter to abandon the religion and her granddaughters to hide who they are. I imagined that Ruth’s mother needed to do a LOT of tongue-biting in order to not tell her mother exactly where to get off; as they were living in the grandparents’ guest house, she needed to maintain at least some level of civility. She handled it far better than I would have.

As a reader, it’s sometimes frustrating watching Ruth make the decisions she does, but they’re understandable. After being wrenched away from her home, from everything familiar, in a place where there are plenty of other people like her and now dealing with the grief from her father’s death, she just wants to fit in and find a bit of normalcy, but in a place that demands conformity and spits out anything or anyone different, that’s not so easy to find unless you’re willing to compromise major parts of yourself. Ruth makes some difficult choices; to her credit, she never seems fully comfortable with the ones that require her to hide being Jewish. Her romance with Davis made me deeply uneasy; I may be an adult reading YA, but it wouldn’t have felt good to me as a teen, either. There are certain things I’ve never been willing to compromise, not even for the cute popular boy, but I think this was a realistic choice Ms. Carlton made as an author. The teen years are hard and full of challenging decisions. Figuring out who we are, especially when who we are goes against cultural norms, isn’t easy, and strength of character takes time to develop. Oftentimes, it only comes through adversity, as it did for Ruth, and she’s a great example for younger readers on doing the right thing even when it’s difficult, even when it comes at a cost.

I do wish there would have been a bit more of a build-up to the climax; the end felt a tiny bit rushed, but man, does Ms. Carlton do a fabulous job of setting the scene. 1958 Atlanta is steamy and full of tension; you’ll practically be able to taste the sweet tea and the Coca-Cola and feel the sweat trailing down your back and the girdle squeezing your midsection. I have zero desire to move back to the south (a former colleague who moved to North Carolina just informed my husband of a job opening at his new workplace; I LOVE that area, but nope nope nope, not for me and not for us as a family, sadly), but wow, did Susan Kaplan Carlton absolutely made me feel like I was there again.

I deeply enjoyed this. History, religion, politics, YA, it’s a perfect storm of so many of the things I love about reading. I’m looking forward to seeing what else Ms. Carlton comes up with!

Visit Susan Kaplan Carlton’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Like No Other by Una LaMarche

A book list alerted me to the existence of Like No Other by Una LaMarche (Razorbill, 2014). Seriously, book lists: I love them so much, and they’re so hard on my TBR! But as I read the synopsis, I knew I had to read this one. It’s always such a joy discovering a book that’s right up your literary alley!

Devorah is a Hasidic Jewish teen from the Chabad-Lubavitch sect. Jaxon is a Black teen who lives just down the block, but their paths have never crossed- not until today, when Devorah’s sister is giving birth (prematurely!) in the hospital in the middle of a Category 3 hurricane. Her parents are upstate and unable to be there; her sister’s husband is unable to be with her due to religious rules, so Devorah’s the support person. When she goes to look for her brother-in-law but instead gets trapped in the powerless elevator, she meets Jaxon. Despite Devorah’s religious community’s strict rules on never being alone with someone of the opposite sex, Jaxon immediately puts her at ease, and after they’re freed, she can’t stop thinking about him, and he can’t stop thinking about her.

They’re not allowed to be together- Devorah’s not even supposed to be speaking to him, and dating is strictly forbidden- but Devorah and Jaxon forge an attempt at a relationship, while Devorah begins questioning why everything is so forbidden to her, why college isn’t allowed, why her parents are planning to arrange her marriage to a complete stranger in two years.  Two kids, both pillars of their community, suddenly realize the need for more, and they’re out to find it despite what the very different worlds around them are saying.

Like No Other has as much tension bursting off of every page as any thriller out there. Devorah and Jaxon have to sneak to be together, and the fear of being caught is real. Devorah could be ostracized from her entire community; even beyond that, her siblings might be denied marriages because of the stain Devorah’s behavior leaves on the whole family if she’s caught. The stakes for Jaxon aren’t quite as high, but he’s still risking all the hard work he’s put into school the past few years; if his grades tank enough, he might be saying farewell to the chance at a scholarship. Ms. LaMarche’s portrayal of two kids willing to risk it all to be together is full of tension and the flutters of first-time love.

At times, I did feel as though Devorah acted out of character; her reversal from being a goody two-shoes into someone willing to risk her family’s standing in the community felt just a tiny bit far-fetched. I would’ve liked to have seen her question a little bit more before suddenly turning into someone ready to throw everything away and assuming her parents would be willing to have a rational discussion when she returned home. But other than that, this felt real and true-to-character. Jaxon’s rash decisions felt a little more understandable, as he’d been living in that world his whole life, whereas Devorah’s life had been smaller, more constrained, and she had never once stepped off the path before. They’re both good kids in every sense of the word, but I would have liked to see Jaxon learn a little more about Devorah’s community on his own, instead of just assuming her parents would eventually come around, something that only Devorah knew was impossible.

Content warning for physical assault and the racism that is unfortunately pervasive in parts of the Hasidic community. There’s some history here that the book glosses over: the Crown Heights riots took place in the early 90’s, though I’m not sure how many teens who live outside of this area are aware of what happened.

Like No Other is a tension-filled story of the highs and lows of first love, with the added fear of losing everything if that love is discovered. It’s a wonderful, edge-of-your-seat story, and I enjoyed every page.

Follow Una LaMarche on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder

I had Nomandland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder (W.W. Norton Company, 2018) on my Goodreads TBR, but when I requested it from the library as an ebook, it was for a reading challenge. I ended up reading something different for that prompt, because this took about four months to come in, but my goodness, was it worth the wait. If you haven’t read this book and you’re American, put it on your TBR right this very second, because this is required reading for every single American. (And if you’re not American, well, it may be eye-opening about what we’re driving our elderly population towards.)

Jessica Bruder follows a group of Americans, mostly at or nearing retirement age, who no longer reside in homes or apartments. They live in cars, vans, campers, refurbished buses, because they can no longer afford a stable life. They live off of disability, Social Security, jobs that pay minimum wage or barely above it, working through illness, pain, chronic medical conditions with little-to-no treatment. They sleep in sleeping bags, covered in multiple blankets, in temperatures that dip down into the teens at night or remain in the 90’s, while snow and ice pile up around their tires, or the occupants in each vehicle swelter. They eat whatever they can cook in their mobile housing, over campfires, sourced from food pantries, given to them by friends. They do their best to survive and keep an optimistic attitude, but their lives are nothing to envy.

These seniors (or close to it) work managing park campsites and harvesting sugar beets and fulfilling orders at Amazon in punishing twelve-to-fifteen hour shifts and sometimes more, in jobs that hand out painkillers for free because their workforce isn’t able to keep up without them. They travel from job to job around the country, sleeping in store parking lots, moving on from campsites after their time has expired, doing whatever they can to stay alive. It’s not always enough.

God. This book is depressing, but it’s important. Take a good look around you the next time you see an RV or a large van or a car that seems a little overly full of stuff. There’s a good chance that there’s someone living in there full-time. (We’ve got one of these at our local library. It breaks my heart every time I see their vehicle parked there. It gets *cold* here in the winter…) And while some families hit the road full-time by choice, these people are forced into it. It seems like one of the main causes is divorce, which turn many people’s stable financial situation into something untenable, but job loss and medical bills are also a major culprit into forcing people into these nomadic situations. If you think you’re immune, you’re wrong. Plenty of the people in this book had worked at the same job for decades, only to be downsized and then discover that it’s impossible to get a new job that pays a livable wage at 59 years old.

Jessica Bruder shines a light on a community that lives in the shadows in the US. Its members don’t like to think of themselves as homeless- they prefer to think of themselves as free from the trappings of life that tie them down- but homeless is absolutely what they are, and at a time in their lives when they should be able to relax, spend time with their family and friends and gradchildren, and take care of their health problems. Instead, they’re shivering through cold nights, trading tips about how to cook on hotplates in a van, and working with broken limbs that they can’t afford to get treated. What on earth are we doing as a country? How is it that we’re so quick to dispose of people???

Nomadland is a shocking, eye-opening, terrifying exposé. It’s one that shows that no matter how safe we think we are, we’re one illness, one spouse’s affair, one job loss away from living in our car. Ms. Bruder must have some serious strength of character to follow the people she profiled in the story for so long; I’m not sure I could have held up emotionally through the end. This book is a page-turner; it’s one of the scariest books I’ve read in a very, very long time, and despite that, I can’t recommend it highly enough. We all need to be aware of what life is like for those who fall through the cracks, because it could be just about any one of us. (If you’re white, that is, and Ms. Bruder does go into explanations for the reasons why there aren’t that many people of color living like this. That doesn’t mean that life for people of color of these ages are necessarily any better or easier, just that living full-time vehicles hasn’t shown to be a solution for these groups in any large number.)

If you’ve read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts; if you haven’t yet read Nomadland, put it on your TBR and come back after you’ve read it, because your thoughts matter to me as well. Everyone should read this book.

Visit Jessica Bruder’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.