Book Review: Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash by Edward Humes

I realize I read about a lot of niche subjects, but garbage might just be the nichiest (what? It’s a word if I want it to be a word). Reading about the trash we create, the mess we’ve made of the world, and the people devoting their lives to cleaning it all up serves as a reminder to me of the work I need to be doing in order to make things better. If you’re beginning to realize that ‘there’s no such thing as away,’ that things don’t just disappear when you toss them in the trash, that everything you buy has consequences for the planet, Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash by Edward Humes (Avery, 2012) might need to go from your TBR to your brain.

What happens when we throw things away? What exactly goes on in a landfill? (Sometimes it’s not much. People have unearthed 50-year-old hot dogs and heads of lettuce, looking pretty much fresh.) What exactly is all of this doing to the planet, and how much longer can this continue? Edward Humes has thrown the switch on the floodlights that illuminate the mess we’ve made, the dangerous situations we’ve created, and the people working to both take care of them and to make them better.

Because there are better ways, and Mr. Humes shows not only people who have chosen careers dedicated to improving how we deal with trash, but showcases people who have restructured their lives so that they create much, much less of it. While the book occasionally wanders into the technical, Garbology is a wake-up call and an inspirational manifesto for all.

This was a bit of a slow read for me, simply because I was trying to take it all in. We’ve really made a mess of things, when the ocean can be described as ‘plastic chowder’ by scientists who study this sort of thing. It’s all super depressing, but…it could be better. We could do better, and this book points that out over and over again. Garbology isn’t Pollyanna-ish in nature, but knowledge really is power, and it provides the reader with the important knowledge we need about the what, how, and why of our garbage, and how we can clean things up.

There’s a lot to think about here, and I guarantee that, if you read this, you’ll be thinking about and looking at your trash differently. I refused a plastic bag this week after finishing this book, and I’m going to try to keep that habit up (I got distracted in another line and didn’t think about saying I didn’t need bags until it was too late). I’m thinking more about how I can reuse other parts of my trash (recycling is good, but it really should be more of a last resort; there’s a reason why reduce and reuse come first!), and I’ve located some TerraCycle drop-off locations in my area so I can collect the harder-to-recycle items, like toothpaste tubes, for them.

Garbology might change you – and that’s a good thing. Our planet desperately needs that.

Visit Edward Humes’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.


Book Review: Attainable Sustainable: The Lost Art of Self-Reliant Living by Kris Bordessa

When you know better, you do better, and who doesn’t want to do better when it comes to the way we care for ourselves and the planet? I’m always trying to improve the way we live our lives, to lessen our carbon footprint and green things up, so that’s how Attainable Sustainable: The Lost Art of Self-Reliant Living by Kris Bordessa (National Geographic Society, 2020) ended up on my TBR. Kris Bordessa runs the popular website and blog Attainable Sustainable, so I was curious to see what her book offered.

Packed between these colorful covers is a primer on the why and how-to of homesteading-up your life. Whether it’s getting the chemicals out of your products, greening up your daily actions, farming up your yard, or simply moving towards a slower, more DIY-style of living, Kris Bordessa offers lessons on it all. Keeping chickens and goats, making soap, getting your macramé on, or baking bread: you can do it all with the help of this gorgeously-photographed book.

If you’re looking for the inspiration you need to make your life a little better, you really can’t go wrong with this book. First off, it’s absolutely beautiful! The photographs on every page are utterly stunning and will have you wanting to rearrange your life so it looks as though it comes straight out of this book. Second, the projects in here all feel doable (okay, maybe not keeping goats if you live in a high-rise Manhattan apartment; check with your landlord before bringing home farm animals, friends). There’s everything from the small, like sourdough, to the large, like tapping maple trees to make your own syrup. Choose the level that’s right for you, and fantasize about the rest (even if you know you’d make a horrifically anxious chicken farmer, you can still look at the pictures *waves*).

The world is a pretty scary place right now, and this book offers a little bit of control back in your life. Why not expand your DIY skills and feast your eyes on some much-needed beauty with Attainable Sustainable?

Visit Kris Bordessa’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang

On Rosh Hashanah this year, my synagogue held its services at a time when I wasn’t able to attend, so I took a virtual field trip to New York’s Central Synagogue (services there are amazing and thoughtful and insightful, and the music is absolutely incredible). Giving a Dvar Torah that day was Qian Julie Wang, whose words moved me. It was only after she spoke that a member of the clergy let the congregation know that Ms. Wang had a book coming out. I looked it up immediately and added Beautiful Country (Doubleday Books, 2021) to my TBR. My library had it, but up until my last trip, it was always checked out. It makes me happy to know that so many local people were reading it; it’s an incredibly moving memoir.

Qian Julie Wang’s family lived in China until coming to America, a country whose Chinese name translates to ‘beautiful country,’ when she is seven. But this country, as Qian Julie is quick to learn, is anything but beautiful to her and her parents. Their family is undocumented and lives in constant fear of being deported back to China. Her parents, educated professionals back in their home country, work low-wage jobs in terrible conditions in places that also occasionally employ young Qian Julie. Their living conditions are less than ideal, and hunger, followed by malnutrition, is Qian Julie’s constant companion. She goes without medical care, without proper clothing, in order to save money.

The stress takes its toll on the family, and each member reacts in different ways. Living in the shadows costs the family greatly, and while they survive, it comes at a cost. Beautiful Country will leave the reader wondering exactly what’s so beautiful about the American dream after all, marveling over the strength of immigrants, and weeping over what we put them through for no good reason.

This is a heartbreaking book. My daughter is the same age Ms. Wang was when she came to this country, and the images of a seven-year-old girl so hungry all the time broke me. There is ZERO reason for anyone in this country to go hungry, but so many of us keep voting for politicians who believe in punishing people for existing. Ms. Wang’s mother suffered greatly before finally getting medical care, due to fear of being deported, and, just…I don’t understand why the entire world is so insistent on maintaining this illusion of borders and rules instead of just caring for each other. Why are we so intent on hurting each other?

This isn’t the easiest book to read, emotionally, but it’s an incredibly important one in understanding the undocumented immigrant experience. To be so alone in a country that makes it clear every day how little they value you, despite not only the services you’re providing to help the country run but also your inherent worth as a human being is so incredibly painful and Ms. Wang paints a picture of desperation tinged, somehow, with wonder. That she isn’t filled with bitterness and rage toward the US is nothing short of a miracle; I’m not sure I would have that much grace in me.

Beautiful Country is an incredible story of a young girl’s struggle to survive in a country that refused to extend a hand to her and her family, that would rather punish her for existing than help her flourish and develop her many talents. And yet she persisted. Highly recommended.

Visit Qian Julie Wang’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.


Book Review: How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith

There has been an amazing crop of history books the past few years that reckon with a lot of the ugly parts of American history, and slavery and racism have been high on the list of subjects covered. I’ve read a bunch of them, with more on my list (I try to space them out; my brain tends to burn out if I read too much on one subject at any one time). How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith (Little, Brown and Company, 2021) is one of the best ones, and it left me not only wanting to learn more, but to read more from Clint Smith.

Author Clint Smith travels around the US and even beyond its borders, in search of the history that continues to bleed from the past and stain the present. Slavery has touched all of American history, no matter how much some groups want to pretend it barely existed or wasn’t a big deal, and Mr. Smith shines a light on much of the history those groups would rather we forget about: Thomas Jefferson’s fathering six children with Sally Heming, his teenage slave; the plantations that dotted the South and were veritable small cities of enslaved people living in hideous conditions while the owner lived in luxury; the plantation-turned-prison that highlights exactly how far we haven’t come (they give tours of Death Row?!?!!?!??).

This isn’t the dry history textbook you read in school. Clint Smith’s voice absolutely shines through, giving this book and the subject the personal, more emotional touch that it deserves. He travels all over the US and even to Africa, where he traces the origins of the slave trade and the scars it left on that continent as well (something I hadn’t yet encountered in writing before, and which made me think). This is history writing at its finest.

The subject matter alone is enough to make anyone with more than one brain cell scream; it’s difficult to read about such horrific injustice, injustice that continues today in different (and not-so-different) forms, without being overcome with rage that people can be so disgusting to each other. But Clint Smith tempers that rage with his calm observances and insight; the people he interviews provide thoughtful commentary and sharp observations on the way the past still affects our present.

This is an amazing, intelligent, perfectly-written book on history that some of the loudest groups out there would like for you to forget exists. Read it for that, but read it more because it’s an incredible piece of writing that will stretch your worldview and make you better-informed about history that the US continues to grapple with every day.

Visit Clint Smith’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.


Book Review: The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in North America’s Wildlands by Jon Billman

I have a horror-based fascination with the entire concept of missing people (I fully blame Soul Asylum’s music video for Runaway Train in the early 90’s; that video, which played on repeat throughout my teenage years, is seared into my brain). So when I was going through my emails and came across a Book Riot email that contained a review for The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in North America’s Wildlands by Jon Billman (Grand Central Publishing, 2020), my eyes flew open and I added it to my list immediately. I’m not much of an outdoorsy person or adventurer, but I’m also kind of fascinated by stories of outdoor adventures gone wrong, so I knew this book would be right up my alley, and it was.

A brief warning, however: this book talks a lot about death, and about unresolved loss, meaning, missing people whose cases are never solved, who simply vanish and their families never get any answers about what happened to them. It’s heavy, and devastatingly sad. Wait until you’re ready to carry their stories until you pick this book up.

Writer Jon Billman follows the case of Jacob Gray, a young man who went missing in Olympic National Park, to delve deeply into the subject of the people who go missing in the wilds of American (and some Canadian) national parks. What happens when someone is reported missing? If you’re expecting a massive search complete with teams of park employees and helicopter patrols, one that doesn’t rest until the missing person is found, you’re only partly correct – a small part. It really depends on where the person goes missing.

Mr. Billman follows Randy, Jacob’s father, in his determined search for his son up and down the west coast. Along the way, he interviews the people he meets who spend their time searching for the missing: volunteers, bloodhound owners, professional trackers, Bigfoot aficionados (no, really). He and Randy even meet up with a cult (the Twelve Tribes; I’ve run into this group in Nashville) in the hopes that Jacob, who was religious, had joined up with them. Mr. Billman’s quiet, compassionate observations, always lacking judgment, paint a moving tribute to the many families devastated by the disappearance of a loved one into the vast wilderness of public lands.

This book was fascinating. It’s one that I couldn’t wait to return to every night, to see where Jon Billman would follow Randy Gray next, to learn who he would talk to and the stories he would learn about. Who would be found? Who would be found alive? What happened that these people disappeared, and how did the families who never got answers cope? Mr. Billman didn’t just interview these people over coffee, either; he strapped on a backpack, laced up his hiking books, and followed them over rocky terrain and down steep slopes; he camped with them overnight in bear country and slogged in squishy socks through rain-soaked forests. He lived the life of someone desperately searching for a loved one, and that adds such a depth to this book.

The Cold Vanish will go on my list of one of the best books I read this year. It’s that good. Highly recommended.

Follow Jon Billman on Twitter here.


Book Review: Period. End of Sentence: A New Chapter in the Fight for Menstrual Justice by Anita Diamant

I love Anita Diamant. How can you not? She’s the coolest person. She’s an author (likely best known for The Red Tent, but she’s written a zillion other books, including some amazing ones about Judaism; we used her Living a Jewish Life in my in-person, pre-pandemic class), she’s the founding president of a mikvah (Mayyim Hayyim in Massachusetts), she’s funny and smart and interesting (she follows me on Twitter!!!11!!!11111!1!!!), and now, she’s written a book about periods, Period. End of Sentence.: A New Chapter in the Fight for Menstrual Justice (Scribner, 2021). Can I adopt her as my other mom? Because she’s seriously the coolest.

Period. End of Sentence. the film won an Oscar in 2019. This documentary showcased a group of girls working to help fundraise in order to provide machines that would make sustainable menstrual pads for a town in India. Around the world, menstruation is still a challenge for so many girls and women; they’re banished from their communities during that time, not allowed to take part in community rituals, told that their mere presence will cause food to spoil. Girls are forced to stay home from school due to lack of menstrual supplies; some are considered ready for marriage upon the arrival of their first period, effectively bringing their formal education to a halt. Even in the US, period poverty among girls and women is pervasive, and humiliation, including only allowing prisoners five pads per month, permeates our culture.

Anita Diamant has written the film’s companion book, illustrating the (human-created) problems surrounding menstruation and the fight to correct the course. All around the world, women and even some men have joined the fight to normalize menstruation (like, it’s something that happens to half the world; how is this still cloaked in mystery and taboo???) and bring justice and equality to those who menstruate. No one should have their education curtailed because of their period; no one should be kicked out of their home every twenty-eight days; no one should lose their life because they get a period.

This is truly an incredible book that will get you thinking about periods, equality, and what it means to exist in the world as a woman. It’ll get you thinking about what you can do to help, how you can even things up a little. While this would make an excellent mother-daughter read-aloud or mother-daughter book club read, I encourage you to think about making it a family read, too. There’s no reason why periods should be something secretive or embarrassing, and boys should know as much about periods as girls. Our sons should be allies and as dedicated to bringing justice to menstruation as girls and women are, and all that starts with learning and open conversation.

Two thumbs up for this book, and a big high five to Anita Diamant! I really enjoyed this one and will read it again with my daughter in a few years.

Visit Anita Diamant’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.


Book Review: The Day the World Stops Shopping: How Ending Consumerism Saves the Environment and Ourselves by J.B. MacKinnon

I’m a non-consumerist at heart, to the point of, I can actually list the very few things I’ve bought so far this year that weren’t fully consumable (a pair of shoes to replace a falling-apart pair that were about 18 years old, and a pair of battery-operated candlesticks. Everything else has been either food or stuff like shampoo). I’m fully aware of the fact that our societal and worldwide consumption is killing the planet – well, one of the things that is killing the planet, anyway – and that’s how The Day the World Stops Shopping: How Ending Consumerism Saves the Environment and Ourselves by J. B. MacKinnon (Ecco, 2021) ended up on my TBR.

We all know the world has a problem with stuff. Just look around at what we own: closets bursting with clothes (some of which we barely wear), garages and basements exploding with stuff. We even rent out storage units to keep the stuff we can’t fit in our house. And all of this – the production, the transportation, the space used to sell it and the electricity that powers the stores – taxes the planet in massive ways. What would happen if we…just stopped buying things? Just completely stopped? Journalist J.B. MacKinnon methodically explores the impact that would have on the planet and on life itself.

It’s not a simple question to answer, and with the way the world runs, the impact would be on the economy just as much as it would be on the environment, maybe even more so. But it would affect everything and everyone around us (okay, maybe not everyone, and Mr. MacKinnon does get into that). If you’re especially curious about the economic impact of a world that decides that enough is enough, The Day the World Stops Shopping is likely something you’ll enjoy.

This was okay. I was expecting something a little different, maybe a more personalized look at the impact on communities and day-to-day life, of the return of bartering and a more Depression-era take on repairing and making possessions last. Instead, this book focuses heavily on the economic side of the end of consumerism (massive flashbacks to helping my son with his Economics homework, ugh). It was still interesting enough that it held my attention, but I definitely hadn’t added this to my list because of an overwhelming love for the principles of economics.

So this wasn’t *quite* what I wanted, but I’m not unhappy I spent my time with it. I can’t say I care any more about economics than I did, but I learned a few things along the way, and that’s never bad.

Visit J.B. MacKinnon’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

Monthly roundup

Monthly Roundup: February 2022

Sometimes life winds up and pitches a twister of a curveball at you and the only thing you can do is be flexible and roll with it. Like, really, really roll. That’s what I’ve been doing this month. Rolling.

Not reading. Not much, anyway.

It’s been a month, reader friends. Lots of unexpected changes, with my reading time drained down to so very little. That’s not to say it’s been a bad month (though I wouldn’t mind more reading time- you hear that, Life?!?!??), just different, and I’ve had to do a lot of adjusting. But that’s okay. That’s what life is: things happen and we roll with the changes the best we can. And hopefully we read a few good books along the way.

I’ll get more into this in the last section, but for now, let’s get this recap *ahem* rolling, shall we?

Books I Read in February 2022

1. When It’s Real by Erin Watt

2. Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford

3. After Long Silence by Helen Fremont (no review, because my brain derped out and I completely forgot)

4. Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech (no review; read out loud to my daughter)

5. Anne Frank Beyond the Diary: A Photographic Remembrance by Ruud van der Rol and Rian Verhoeven (no review; read out loud to my daughter)

6. American Literary Almanac, edited by Karen L. Rood (no review; read as part of my personal Read Harder Project)

7. Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival, and Hope in an American City by Andrea Elliott

8. The Day the World Stops Shopping: How Ending Consumerism Saves the Environment and Ourselves by J.B. MacKinnon (review to come)

9. Period. End of Sentence.: A New Chapter in the Fight for Menstrual Justice by Anita Diamant (review to come)

10. A Room with a View by E.M. Forster (no review; read for my personal Read Harder challenge)

WORST. MONTH. EVER. That’s what happens when all your reading time gets sucked into the void. I did read an enormous stack of various children’s books, mostly nonfiction (do you see where all this is going???), most of which I enjoyed immensely, however. Children’s nonfiction is totally my jam and my library has a fabulous section, so this is absolutely a plus in my book. I just don’t count most of those in my Goodreads totals.

Six of these books came from my TBR; four came from my own shelves.

Reading Challenge Updates

Reeeeeeeeeeeally glad I made the decision to not participate in any reading challenges at this point. I would’ve felt very frustrated right now if I had.

State of the Goodreads TBR

Arright, so last month, we ended with 158 books snuggled up together on my Goodreads TBR. This month, we’ve got…156! Even two less is a triumph this month!

Books I Acquired in February 2022

So, I didn’t buy any books, wasn’t given any, and none showed up out of the blue on my doorstep, but I did receive an email that informed me that I had won a Goodreads giveaway! My copy of Aviva vs the Dybbuk by Mari Lowe will arrive sometime in the near future, and I’m excited! I don’t read that much middle grade fantasy, but it’s Jewish fantasy, so you know I’m all in. Looking forward to adding this to my shelves!

Bookish Things I Did in February 2022

I did attend a virtual ‘how to fight book banning in your community’ presentation put on by Red Wine & Blue. Super informative and helpful, and I hope to attend more programs by them in the future!

Current Podcast Love

Still listening to Ologies with Alie Ward (which was SUPER helpful when we visited the Field Museum this past month! I’ve learned SO much from this podcast and it really informed so much of what I saw when we made our way through the exhibits) at night (when I’m not listening to BBC World Service, that is), and I listen to Crime Junkie when I nap. I don’t think I want to know what it says about my brain that I nap well when listening to shows about murder…

Stephanie’s Read Harder Challenge

I finished American Literary Almanac, edited by Karen L. Rood! This had been sitting on my shelf for an embarrassing number of years, so it was high time to get it out of there. It was okay; mostly just lists of trivia about various authors from American history. Not my favorite read of all time, and not likely something I would’ve enjoyed sitting down and reading in anything but thirty-minute chunks, but I’m glad to have put it and all its various knowledge into my literary arsenal. I moved on to A Room with a View by E.M. Forster and finished it on the final day of February. It’s part of a three-books-in-one book; I’m currently trying to decide if I’m going to plow through the book and read three Forster books in a row, or read another author in between these books. Not quite sure yet…

Real Life Stuff


What a month.

So, all of a sudden, a few weeks ago, a judge in my state decided that protecting schoolchildren from COVID-19 was illegal and forced the schools to go mask-optional. I believe this happened on a Friday; the stress of this gave me a migraine that pretty much blinded me the rest of the day, my ocular disturbances were so bad. It was a really, really stressful weekend trying to figure out what to do. At first, we thought we would send our daughter and see, and the more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable I became. My dad has Type I diabetes; the number of kids developing Type I diabetes after COVID infections has really bothered me, and the idea of subjecting my daughter (who is double vaccinated, but still) to that when it wasn’t necessary scared the absolute hell out of me. And so that Sunday, I said, “I can’t do it. I can’t send her,” and my husband replied, “So don’t. I completely support keeping her home.”

So we did.

And though we started working that Monday morning, it took about two weeks before we were registered as official homeschoolers with the state.

I’m sad about this, and angry, and disappointed. The numbers aren’t horrible in our area, but I’m not feeling confident enough that this is the end to drop all protections just yet, especially among a group of kids that has a lowish vaccination rate, who have young siblings that aren’t able to be vaccinated, and who are, as kids are wont to be, up in each other’s faces in small, cramped classrooms all day long. I’m sad because I love my daughter’s school (and this isn’t their fault), and she loves her friends and her teacher. I’m disgusted at the judge who thinks that asking kids to protect each other and their families is just too much to ask of them (but it’s not too much to ask them to handle potentially infecting and killing their family members or classmates! THAT’S apparently just fine!). I’m exhausted and frustrated by all of this.

I’m not sad about homeschooling my daughter. She’s made the transition pretty flawlessly and doesn’t want to go back at the moment. You can see our stack of library books above; we got this pile a week ago and have already blown through about a third of them. She’s learning SO much, and we’re having a ton of fun together. We’ve developed a pretty good routine, and though I’m a bit bummed about my lack of free time and my inability to get pretty much anything else done, I’m enjoying spending all this extra time with my kiddo and with being able to use my brain so much during the day (although my jaw sometimes hurts by 3pm from reading and talking so much! I know a lot of homeschoolers are able to get their work done within a few hours, but I’ve always taken a really literary approach to homeschooling- I taught my son at home until he was 9, so this isn’t anything new- so we do a lot of reading and discussing).

So that’s what I’ve been up to lately and why I’ve barely gotten any reading of my own done. I’ve read a buttload of books about things like plants and American history and Native American myths, though, and that’s been pretty awesome. : )

Homeschooling has pretty much taken over my life! This isn’t meant to be permanent, though it’ll likely last throughout the remainder of this school year. We’ll reassess mid-summer and see where things are at that point. Hopefully she’ll be able to go back, but if not, Mama’s got her.

I’ve got three doctor appointments in March- nothing serious, two yearly checkups and an appointment with a neurologist thanks to all the migraines I’ve had lately- and Purim begins at sundown on the 16th, so I’ll be making some yummy Hamantaschen then, but besides trying to sneak in all the reading I can, that’s all I have planned (and oof, that may be all I can handle at this point!). Hopefully your months have more exciting events planned!

Be well, friends. Warmer weather is coming, for those of us in the Northern hemisphere! (I mean, not in March, haha, but we’re one month closer!)