Mini reviews

A catch-up post of mini-reviews!

Phew.

It’s been a month!

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

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

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

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

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

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

nonfiction · true crime

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

Do you ever look back and wonder how you missed out on major news stories? I’m old enough to remember the Challenger explosion, but I have no memories of it. I’m not sure if that’s because my parents shielded me from the awfulness of it, or because it wasn’t much on their radar, but nope, I don’t remember it at all. The more recent story of the Turpin family is similar for me. I vaguely knew who they were- a mega-family who had at least some sort of Christian trappings who ended up abusing the kids terribly- but somehow the details of this story remained off my radar. But someone on a messageboard where I lurk suggested The Family Next Door: The Heartbreaking Imprisonment of the Thirteen Turpin Siblings and Their Extraordinary Rescue by John Glatt (St. Martin’s Press, 2019), and I knew I needed to read it in order to fill in the gaps (I think things were so crazy politically at the time that all my attention was going to other things, and that’s how this one slipped by me. We can’t pay attention to everything…)

In early 2018, a 17 year-old girl, whose physical appearance made her appear closer to ten years of age, secretly dialed 911 to report that her parents were abusing her and her twelve siblings, several of whom had been chained to their beds for months. When the police arrived at the house, what they found was nearly beyond belief. Children from the ages of two to their late twenties who hadn’t bathed or changed clothing in over a year, in various stages of starvation, cachexia, and psychosocial dwarfism.  None of them had ever visited a dentist; doctor visits had rarely happened. Most of them displayed severe signs of abuse. None of the neighbors realized there were that many kids living in the house, because most of the children never left. The oldest had been pulled out of third grade in public school; they had all been ‘homeschooled’ since, but most of them had less than a first-grade education, even the adults (the daughter who had called 911 had even misspelled her own last name).

The kids were taken and hospitalized; the parents were sent to jail to await trial. The children, even the adults, were badly stunted in physical and social development; educationally, they were all years behind (with the exception of the two-year-old, who was, while still not perfect, in better shape than anyone else). The younger children eventually went to (I believe) a foster home; the adult children went to a secret home to begin focusing on all the things they needed to learn to function as adults, since none of them were even remotely able to care for themselves. The parents were eventually convicted and sentenced to twenty-five years to life in prison; the children will be battling the effects of the torture their parents afflicted upon them forever (at least two of the girls are unlikely to be able to have children themselves, so extensive was the damage they’ve suffered).

If you followed the case as it unfolded, there probably isn’t anything new here, but if you’re like me and missed this, it’s a good primer as to what happened. I hadn’t really known any of the details, so it was a worthwhile (if horrifying) read. My heart broke over and over again for the damage these kids have suffered (I refer to them as kids, but the oldest is in her early 30’s by now; the youngest is maybe 5 or 6). Their parents stunted their entire lives; whatever they go on to do, it’ll be in spite of their parents, not because of them, and though they may heal, even in the best-case scenario, there will still be massive, massive scars. I’m so sad for all of them.

There are several fundamentalist mega-families on my radar (not the Duggars; we already know what a mess they’ve made…) that have exhibited strong Turpin-esque qualities. One has stated she’s not worried about her homeschooled kids obtaining ‘worldly knowledge;’ in a recent video the mom posted, her oldest kids (somewhere around 11 or 12) didn’t know what year it was or who the President was (both questions my seven-year-old answered immediately with no help). The other family’s kids are very obviously malnourished and the quality of their ‘homeschooling’ has looked pretty poor as well. (I’m a former homeschooling parent; even when I was actively homeschooling, I wished there were better oversight. If you’re doing what you need to be doing, a yearly check-in to make sure your kid is on track is no big deal, and I made my kiddo WORK. Better oversight would have prevented the Turpins from ruining their kids, and it would keep those other families I’m thinking of from inflicting potentially irreversible damage on their children. It’s incredibly difficult to become a functional adult when you were denied the skills it takes to be one throughout your entire childhood.)

The writing in this book isn’t anything special; it’s a really fast read, though a depressing one. You’ll be horrified and disgusted and heartbroken through the whole thing. I pray those kids are able to repair what their parents worked so hard to destroy, and to create beautiful, functional lives for themselves, and that this world makes a safe, patient space for all of them.

Visit John Glatt’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Equal America by Carol Anderson

This review will look a little different than my usual reviews.

A few years ago, I read White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson. It’s American history with a spotlight on how deeply and violently racist this country has always been to Black people, and while I knew of many of the stories Ms. Anderson recounted, the details she included and the stories I hadn’t known about were shocking. I was appalled, and this has since become one of the books I recommend the most, because it’s history that everyone needs to know about and understand. Because of that well-written, beautifully researched, and eye-opening book, everything Carol Anderson has ever written is on my TBR- though I’m spacing them out; they’re a lot to handle, but they’re such important books- and next up was The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021).

The Second Amendment, which gives Americans the right to bear arms, has never been applied equally. We’ve seen that play out time and time again, when Black people (usually men, though not always) who are legally in possession of a weapon and are acting in a responsible manner with it are shot and killed (whereas white men who have murdered people as part of an active shooter situation are taken into custody alive and unharmed). Think of Philando Castile or Tamir Rice, both now dead- one had a legally registered gun, which he had informed the police about; the other had a toy gun. Both are now dead. Compare that with all the perpetrators of mass shootings we’ve seen in the US that have been taken into custody alive, even after murdering people. There is a history to all of this, unfair rules that were harshly applied to the Black community, who were never allowed to defend themselves against anything or anyone, and Ms. Anderson meticulously documents it all in the pages of this book.

The Second isn’t a long book (there are a lot of footnotes; her research is meticulous, and I ended up flipping to the back quite often out of curiosity as to what sources she was using, and also because I wrote down a few quotes and wanted the original sources), but there’s a lot to digest here, a lot to wrap your brain around, and I had to keep stopping and rereading passages to make sure I understood them. American history as we’re taught in school is usually about brave patriots who stood up to tyrants; they leave out how often we were the tyrants ourselves. We leave out how racist our founding fathers were; we leave out most of the laws and court rulings that told Black people in no uncertain terms that they weren’t human beings, that their lives were worthless, that they weren’t entitled to self-defense or the rights of citizenship. Carol Anderson doesn’t leave these things out; she’s the education you should have gotten before, but likely didn’t. I was actually lucky and had a few grade school teachers that didn’t hold back when it came to speaking truth about American history; even so, there have still been many things I missed, and I’m grateful to Ms. Anderson and other writers like her to help fill in the gaps and help me understand exactly how deep the injustice in this country runs.

This review is more to make readers aware that this book exists- I’m not a historian and can’t review it as such, but the history she relates is heartbreaking and infuriating- and that Ms. Anderson’s writings are important and deserve your attention and consideration. The US has a lot of work to do to clean up the messes it’s made. To be honest, I’m not sure we have the willpower to do it; there are a frightening number of people out there who seem to revel in being as cruel as possible to as many groups as possible. But the decent people among us know that it’s a fight worth fighting, no matter what the odds, and the first step is being aware of exactly how much work there is to be done. Books like The Second and White Rage are excellent places to start.

Visit Carol Anderson’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book Review: Majesty (American Royals #2) by Katharine McGee

When I finished American Royals by Katharine McGee, I immediately put its sequel, Majesty (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2020) on my TBR, because I enjoyed it so much. The entire premise- what the country would look like if George Washington had been made king instead of president, and his line carried on- is so creative, and the series centers on the young adult royals who are set to take over and run the country. I was actually surprised when Majesty was available the first time I checked- it’s a bit past its original publication date, so there’s probably not a massive stampede for it, but I still felt like I got really, really lucky!

This review will contain some spoilers, so don’t read on if you’re wanting to read American Royals but haven’t gotten to it yet.

Majesty picks up where American Royals left off. The king has passed away, leaving Beatrice as America’s first queen. She’s young, she’s untested, and she’s not sure she can do the job. She’s engaged to a man she’s not sure she truly wants to marry, and the man who assisted her father his whole life is doing everything he can to make sure she feels as incompetent and powerless as possible. Sam, now the heir instead of just being the spare, still isn’t over her sister getting engaged to the guy she liked and takes up with a guy just as wild as she is from the west coast. Nina, heartbroken over her relationship with Jeff ending, falls into the arms of Ethan, his best friend, little knowing that this plot was orchestrated by Daphne, Jeff’s scheming, status-seeking ex-girlfriend.

There are a lot of suppressed emotions, social climbing, scheming, hard looks at the racism that still persist in the US (especially as an outcome of the poor decisions this country made throughout its past), and a lot of really fun and creative imaginings of what American royalty would look like. Beatrice’s grief over losing her father (and being promoted immediately into the role of America’s first queen) is palpable and may be tough to read if you’re also deep in grief, so take care with that. Her confidence grows as the novel goes on, which was lovely to see, although I really wished she had booted her father’s advisor immediately, as it was obvious what a trashbag that dude was.

I had a little bit of a tough time getting into this at the beginning; I don’t know if that’s because it started off slower (or because of me; that’s always a possibility!), or because it’s been a while since I read the first book in the series. I’m an impatient reader and don’t read a lot of series books solely because I don’t like waiting, especially since I don’t remember fiction as well and tend to forget the details while I wait for the next book to come out. I did feel like Nina got a little shortchanged in this book; I really liked her storyline in American Royals, but it felt like her storyline was less developed here. I did like her relationship with Ethan, however! Beatrice was as lovely as ever; Sam, her impulsive younger sister, began to come into her own in this book, which was nice to see.

Daphne, the scheming social climber determined to get her claws into Jeff, really shines. She’s an absolute villain, and I usually hate characters like her, but she’s fantastic in this book; Katharine McGee really has a knack for writing the perfect bad girl. From time to time, we see a flicker of morality float to the surface, and then Daphne stomps it back down and sharpens her claws again. The ending to her storyline is cold and depressing in many different ways, but it’s fitting with her character and her ruthless ambition. She was my favorite part of this book, which surprised me.

Majesty is a fun follow-up, and this series really made me appreciate all the work that goes into creating alternate histories. This book is the conclusion and it doesn’t look like there will be any more in the series, so I’m sorry to say goodbye to such fun, well-written characters.

Visit Katharine McGee’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Live as TV’s Most Influential Guru Advises by Robyn Okrant

I love yearlong experiment books (AJ Jacobs, anyone?). There’s something that seriously fascinates me about committing to a project for a full calendar year, for taking on a project around which you wrap your entire life. That’s how I stumbled across Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Live as TV’s Most Influential Guru Advises by Robyn Okrant (Center Street, 2008). For so long, Oprah reigned as the queen of daytime talk. She was so universal that even my good friend- a guy!- watched her in high school and would come into work and school discussing what he had seen on the show. My mom subscribed to O! magazine- maybe she still does, I don’t actually know. And as readers, we all know about Oprah’s book club. So this book immediately sounded fascinating to me. I missed out on Ms. Okrant’s project when it was ongoing, but I wasn’t going to miss out on her write-up of it!

An artist, actress, writer, and Chicagoan, Robyn Okrant knew about how far-reaching Oprah Winfrey’s influence stretched. But what would following all of her advice do to a person’s life? Not just some of it; ALL of it- if Oprah said to do it or buy it, watch it or consider it, Robyn would comply. And that’s how her Living Oprah project came to life. For one full calendar year, Robyn would take all of Oprah’s suggestions to heart, buying the products and clothing that Oprah claimed everyone neeeeeeeeeeeded, regardless of how Robyn felt about them, participating in the activities Oprah pushed, including exercise, reading assignments and webinars, watching movies, and of course watching The Oprah Winfrey Show and reading O! magazine cover to cover- taking notes the whole time, of course.

Some things worked well. Some things didn’t. And some things got really, really awkward. But along the way, Robyn learned a lot- about herself, about the way society markets certain things to women by first ensuring that they feel unsatisfied with their lives, and about the power of one person’s influence.

This is a really fun, thoughtful book. Ms. Okrant’s project lives right at the intersection of one-year experiments, pop culture, psychology, self-help, celebrity worship, and feminism, and her lighthearted, occasionally self-deprecating tone keeps the narrative moving without ever getting too bogged down by what was occasionally a slog of activities. This wasn’t at all a simple project; so much of what Oprah directed her audience to do involves a lot of exhaustive self-reflection and inner examination that might not always be comfortable, nor is the constant focus on weight and improving or making changes to your body something that’s health for everyone (a topic that Ms. Okrant, a yoga instructor who suffers from scoliosis, returns to several times throughout the book). She’s not afraid to criticize Oprah- she doesn’t *love* doing it either, but her criticism is fair and even-handed, and she brings up a lot of good points that made me think about the little bits of Oprah I do remember seeing.

Much like AJ Jacobs’s long-suffering wife, Ms. Okrant’s husband is a decent sport- mostly-about the way Robyn’s Living Oprah project takes over their entire life, which added an interesting perspective to the narrative and makes you wonder about how this works in marriages where one of the partners really does get obsessive about following the advice of another celebrity guru. This project took over Ms. Okrant’s entire life and sucked up so much of her time (and even wormed its way into her diet, clothing choices, workout routines, and sex life!), and it’s always interesting to see how it affects the partners (and children, if applicable) of the people who take on such all-consuming routines.

I was never a huge Oprah-watcher, solely because I was either at school or asleep when she was on (I believe she used to be on at 9 am here in Central Time Zone, but in my defense, I also lived in the Eastern Time Zone for five of my adult years and my sleep schedule was REALLY messed up, so I was often awake most of the night and sleeping in the morning), but I did enjoy the shows I was able to watch. At least I did until she got into her Eckhart Tolle, self-help-your-way-to-a-more-perfect-you spiel. I have no particular issue with that sort of thing; it’s just not my thing. But Robyn Okrant’s account of living through a full year of diving deep into the Tao of Oprah completely and utterly fascinated me. She did the work that I wasn’t interested in doing- but reading her account of it all was a lot of fun, and I truly, truly enjoyed every last bit of this book.

Visit Robyn Okrant’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Monthly roundup

Monthly Roundup: July 2021

August is here! My birthday month!

Whew, July was a hot one. Way too many days over 90 for my taste, but I still spent plenty of time on my backyard porch swing, sweating and frantically gulping cups of sugar-free lemonade in order to stay hydrated as I flicked through the pages of my kindle. Icy cold days will be here before we know it, so I’m soaking up all the gross, sweaty outdoor warmth that I can before I no longer have the option.

It’s been a great month for reading! After reorganizing my paper TBR, I decided to start tackling some of the ebooks that have been lingering on there forever, and I’ve been happily downloading library book after library book. A huge portion of my library’s budget has gone to updating their ebook collection since the pandemic started, and I’m grateful for it and for all the many ways they serve our community (new library building coming in a little over a year! I’m so excited! Be prepared to hear a lot more about this from me in the future).

Okay, let’s get this monthly recap going, shall we?

Books I Read in July 2021

1. Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong- and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini

2. Antisemitism: Here and Now by Deborah E. Lipstadt

3. Choosing Judaism: 36 Stories by Bradley Caro Cook and Diana Phillips

4. The Guest Book by Sarah Blake

5. Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

6. Sick Kids in Love by Hannah Moskowitz

7. We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria by Wendy Pearlman

8. My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq by Ariel Sabar

9. This Side of Home by Renée Watson

10. Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books by Aaron Lansky

11. The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks (no review)

12. You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria

13. Head Over Heels by Hannah Orenstein

14. Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Live as TV’s Most Influential Guru Advises by Robyn Okrant (review to come)

I didn’t review The Secret Chord because I’m still thinking about it. The style is different from Geraldine Brooks’s other books; I still enjoyed it, and it’s incredible, but I’m not actually sure how to sum it up. My daughter and I are STILL plowing through Little Women; it’s a long book and the chapters are long, so it’s a slow read for us (we’re just at the part where Jo is coming back from her time as a governess, where she meets Professor Bhaer), so that’s why I haven’t logged any read-alouds with her.

Thirteen of these books came from my TBR! None from my own shelves this month, which I need to work on. Since I’m starting to read down what’s available at my library, I may continue to do that and then read my own shelves as I wait for interlibrary loan holds. We’ll see. 😉

Reading Challenge Updates

No current challenges going on.

State of the Goodreads TBR

I’m finally starting to make headway on this thing! Last month, my want-to-read list clocked in at 171 books; this month, I’m down to 164 books! That actually feels pretty amazing to me. I haven’t been below the 170s in AGES, so I’m really happy with this!

Books I Acquired in July 2021

WOOHOO, I WENT TO A BOOK SALE!!!

A women’s group that funds scholarships for other women is back to having their massive book sales. Thursday through Saturday, the books are sold individually, but on Sunday, the books go for $10 per paper grocery bag, so you know I’m in. My son and I masked up and came away with two bags of books. Mine are pictured below.

Books to read aloud to my daughter:

Books to learn from:

Books to kick back and dive into:

And Jewish books!!!

And more Jewish books from when I stopped by the used bookstore:

So hooooooooooooo boy, are my shelves groaning this month! This was the first book sale they’ve held since the pandemic started, and I was very glad to see it (though not super thrilled with most of the people being unmasked- LOOKING ESPECIALLY HARD AT YOU, GROSS LADY COUGHING ALL OVER THE PLACE. ARE WE SERIOUSLY GOING BACK TO THAT????????????).

Bookish Things I Did in July 2021

Just the book sale and the stop by the used bookstore, pretty much. That was awesome. 😊

Current Podcast Love

Listening to Gotta Grow Up Sometime! while I bike (indoors; outside is too gross, and I can only do 20 minutes at a time right now, since more flares up my SI joints), and catching up on episodes of Unorthodox at night.

Stephanie’s Read Harder Challenge

On hold until things go back to normal (whenever THAT is…). I am trying to read a little bit of several Jewish books per day, though.

Real Life Stuff

Emotionally, this has been a really tough month. My son was struggling with our pandemic isolation and ended up moving out to stay with his best friend until vaccines are available for kids my daughter’s age. It was the best option out of a trashbag of awful options. He’s doing better and still being careful, but I miss him like crazy. Not having him here really sucks.

School is creeping closer. The plan has been for my daughter to return to in-person learning this year, but the Delta variant is making me very, very nervous, and now I’m not so sure. Couple that with the fact that we have school districts near us- ELEMENTARY SCHOOL DISTRICTS, WHERE KIDS CAN’T GET VACCINATED- making masks optional, and I’m mired in anxiety. Obviously, breakthrough cases can happen, and if a teacher has young kids in a masks-optional environment, even she or he may pose a risk to my kiddo, despite being vaccinated (and that’s if they’re vaccinated! Unvaccinated, they’re an even bigger risk). I’m extremely unhappy about all of this and really unsure about sending my daughter into a school building. While our district has mandated masks for everyone, I’m still extremely apprehensive, and I cannot believe there are parents fighting so hard for schools to take zero precautions. I’m so furious that this is even a debate and that there are parents out there so willing to chance their kids getting long Covid, and so heinously heartless that they don’t care if their kid gets mine sick with a virus that could have lifelong consequences (and that could result in massive medical bills that could ruin our family). What has this society become??? I’m so fucking appalled. I can’t imagine you’re any happier with all of this. I’m predicting that, despite their best efforts, a lot of schools are going to end up going virtual again. It’s not going to be a great year.

Despite all of this, there are good things on the horizon for me. My birthday is coming up and we’ll be able to go kayaking on a local lake, as is our tradition (cancelled last year, since the kayak rentals were closed). My synagogue has a new rabbi; she contacted me to meet up with me, and she graciously agreed to meet with me outside at a local park, since my family isn’t doing anything indoors yet, so that’ll happen soon as well and I’m really looking forward to that. I see a new physiatrist in a few weeks for my garbage back- things have settled down a lot, but I’m still fluctuating right on the edge between MOSTLY OKAY and the danger zone leading into REALLY BAD. I’m having a lot of trouble with my right SI joint and right hip feeling like they’re electrocuting me at random times, which…is about as pleasant as you might think. Fun times. Hopefully the new doc will help; she gets great reviews and patients say she’s a really good listener, so I’m crossing my fingers.

Stay safe out there, friends. Things are getting bad again and I’m worried.