nonfiction · memoir

Book Review: The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir by Dee Williams

I’ve been on a kick lately, reading about tiny homes. I’ve watched documentaries about them in the past and enjoyed them, but I think I’ve just reached that part of middle age and that stage of the pandemic that a small house all to myself seems like the ultimate fantasy. Combine that with all the environmentalism stuff my daughter and I have been reading for her schoolwork, and having a smaller carbon footprint in a house mostly run on solar and built out of used materials sounds amazing. I dug through my library’s catalog and one of the selections they had was a book called The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir by Dee Williams (Blue Rider Press, 2014). Yes, please! Into my bag it went on my next library trip.

Dee Williams lived a normal-to-hippyish life in the Pacific Northwest. She owned her own home (which was constantly breaking down in various ways) and had been building her DIY skill set since she was young (which came in really handy when her house needed repairs!). When a health problem surfaced that couldn’t be ignored, Dee began to take a hard look at her life and what mattered. What did she want? What would truly make her happy?

Almost overnight, she purchased a trailer and began to build an eighty-four square foot house on it. She had help; friends, neighbors, random passersby, the men giving free advice at the hardware store, they all pitched in to help her dream become a reality. And suddenly…it was built, and eighty-four square feet became home.

Dee Wiliams has written a charming memoir of the ups and downs of building your own home, of learning the skills you need to create a place you can live in, of figuring out what’s important and what can be discarded, and how to build not just a dwelling place, but a community. There are definite downs: her health scares are stressful, and she writes about an incident involving falling off a ladder that resulted in multiple unable-to-be-casted-or-splinted bones that made my whole body cringe (because I’ve also broken one of those bones, and it’s awful); pulling her house behind her down the highway is my actual nightmare (I’ll stick with my smaller vehicle and continue fantasizing about tiny homes that don’t need to be moved anywhere); not having a shower or washer in my tiny house is a no-go for me, but she manages just fine. But the ups outweigh it all. The community she builds around her, the friends who rally and cheer her on when she’s building and afterwards, the family she builds when the house is finished, it’s all so lovely and cozy-feeling.

You might not be ready to give all your possessions away and move into a house smaller than most bedrooms, but it’s still fascinating to read about someone who was, and did. I enjoyed the time I spent living vicariously through Dee Williams’s tiny house-building journey. What a fun and thoughtful book.

Visit Dee Williams’s website here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: The Girls in the Wild Fig Tree: How I Fought to Save Myself, My Sister, and Thousands of Girls Worldwide by Nice Leng’ete with Elizabeth Butler-Witter

Years ago, in my very early 20’s, I was introduced to the concept of female genital mutilation when my online book club read Do They Hear You When You Cry by Fauziwa Kassindja. Since then, I’ve read other books on the subject, and it never gets any less horrifying. Last summer, my library announced they would read The Girls in the Wild Fig Tree: How I Fought to Save Myself, My Sister, and Thousands of Girls Worldwide by Nice Leng’ete with Elizabeth Butler-Witter (Little, Brown and Company, 2021) as a book club selection. I’m still not going to in-person events, so I missed out on what I’m sure was an amazing discussion, but I definitely still wanted to read the book. That FGM hasn’t disappeared off this planet yet is a tragedy, but it’s a relief knowing there are still brave women (and men!) out there, fighting so hard against it.

Nice Leng’ete grew up in Kenya, a member of the Maasai tribe. Her parents were more progressive than most, and her father had a deep commitment to ensuring that his children were educated. Unfortunately, both of Nice’s parents died when Nice was still in early elementary school, and she and her sister were shipped off to an uncle who wasn’t much interested in raising his brother’s children. Education remained a priority for Nice, and she fought hard to be able to stay in school, but by the time she turned nine, her family began demanding that she undergo the ritual of female genital mutilation. Having seen these scenarios performed and knowing that its risks included infection and death – and especially knowing that having this done would mean early marriage, babies, and the end of her education – Nice refuses, even running away multiple times to escape the knife.

It’s not easy to avoid being mutilated; pressure is intense and Nice is nearly shunned by her family and her community for refusing (her sister is, unfortunately, not so lucky), but she holds fast and not only gets the education she deserves, she goes on to college and begins a career with a nonprofit, working to stop the practice of female genital mutilation around the world.

What a fascinating book! This is another easy read about a tough subject. It’s not as in-depth as, say, Do They Hear You When You Cry, but it’s definitely more accessible for younger readers and would make a fabulous read for the mature middle-to-high schooler looking to become better informed about issues that affect girls and women around the world. FGM is still happening, even in countries where it’s been banned, and Ms. Leng’ete makes an excellent case for why people like her – girls and women who know the community, who are intimately familiar with the communities – need to be at the forefront of demanding change. There are a lot of great lessons in this book about what amazing modern-day leadership looks like.

This is another book I read quickly, but it’ll stay with me. I’m in awe of Ms. Leng’ete’s bravery, and her commitment to becoming educated despite so many challenges. This is another book I’d love for my own daughter to read in the future.

Follow Nice Leng’ete on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Kissing Bug: A True Story of a Family, an Insect, and a Nation’s Neglect of a Deadly Disease by Daisy Hernández

“You don’t know what you don’t know” is something we say often at my house, and I wonder a lot about how many things are out there that I don’t know about (this is why I’m so drawn to nonfiction! I want to know ALL THE THINGS). And when I learned about a book about a contagious disease that affects millions but that most people have never heard of, my curiosity was immediately piqued. And that’s how The Kissing Bug: A True Story of a Family, an Insect, and a Nation’s Neglect of a Deadly Disease by Daisy Hernández (Tin House Books, 2021) ended up on my TBR. And Ms. Hernández was right: I’d never once in my life heard of Chagas.

Daisy Hernández grew up with a sick aunt. Tía Dora had become sick by eating an apple, Daisy believed, until she was older and learned that her aunt, with whom her relationship was often contentious due to, among many things, the aunt’s homophobia, had been infected with Chagas disease after having been bitten by a kissing bug. Tía Dora suffered terribly throughout her life, and Daisy later learned that yet another aunt had died as well of Chagas in South America. What was the insect that had so troubled her family? Despite the phobia Daisy had developed of it, she set out to learn more.

As it turns out, kissing bugs are all over in South America and the southern US. “Every adult with Chagas is a child that wasn’t treated,” one doctor says, and it seems to be true. Many adults who are found to be infected (usually discovered when their blood donation is tested) aren’t symptomatic, though it can take years until symptoms (like heart failure) make themselves known; others begin showing symptoms early on, and no one is sure why. Several years ago, Zika was all over the news, but Chagas, which affects more Americans than Zika, hasn’t gotten a fraction of that kind of attention. With bravery, determination, and a deep-seated curiosity, Daisy Hernández has penned a part-memoir, part-scientific narrative that clues readers in to the dangers of Chagas (with climate change, kissing bugs are heading north – this is everyone’s problem) and the devastation they cause.

When I picked this up, I was a little hesitant. I had just finished a fairly heavy book and wasn’t sure I could handle any intense scientific reading at this point, but Ms. Hernández deftly combines her research with her family’s story. Instead of being bogged down by this, I blew through it in a day. The effects of Chagas are difficult to read about; Tía Dora’s suffering is detailed throughout the book and it’s not pretty, but it’s less shocking than the fact that even with all the medical and science writing I’ve done throughout my life, Chagas had never once appeared in any of it. How does this affect so many people and yet no one talks about it?

The Kissing Bug combines the best of open, honest memoir writing with science writing that is simple enough for even the most science-phobic brain to grasp (I *really* wasn’t much of a science person growing up; it’s only being married to a molecular biologist and getting a daily lecture on All Things Science that has helped me appreciate it more). I appreciated Ms. Hernández’s admissions of how terrifying it was for her to research and write about the very thing that killed her aunts and devastated her family so deeply; knowing how tough it was for her to be out in the field with researchers, collecting kissing bugs in the dark, bending over microscopes to peer at T. cruzi, added another layer of humanity to her story. I’m honestly not sure I could’ve gone on this journey if I were her. Mad respect.

The Kissing Bug is an easy read about a tough subject, and one that desperately needs this kind of light shone upon it. Highly recommended.

Visit Daisy Hernández’s website here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: The Matzah Ball by Jean Meltzer

Jewish romance? Yes, please.

Jewish romance where the heroine has chronic medical problems? WHAT?????? SIGN. ME. UP.

Diversity in fiction, which has grown the past decade, means many things, but it’s rare that I see so much of myself in fiction. I’m pretty sure that I learned about The Matzah Ball by Jean Meltzer (MIRA, 2021) from either a list on Twitter or a list on Alma (and of course slapped it directly onto my TBR), but when my friend Sharon mentioned reading it and enjoying it, I knew it had to switch statuses to ‘Currently reading’ soon. And it finally appeared at the library, and I let out a little yelp of joy as I spotted it and yanked it off the shelf. Because I am entirely normal and that is a completely normal way to behave in the library.

Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt is carrying a lot of things in her life. The daughter of the well-known Rabbi Goldblatt, her myalgic encephalomyelitis, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome, rules her whole life, from her daily activities to her career. Which…no one knows, but Rachel, Jewish daughter of a famous rabbi, is the woman behind Margot Cross, the bestselling author of a series of Christmas romance novels. Rachel loves Christmas…but no one can know, just as she refuses to let her agent and editors know about her ME/CFS. But there’s a problem: her last few books aren’t selling well. Christmas is out, and diversity is in. Rachel’s team wants her to write a Hanukkah romance. What’s a Jewish Christmas romance novelist with limited physical resources to do?

Enter Jacob Greenberg, Rachel’s camp nemesis and one-time tween boyfriend. He’s now a bigtime millionaire event planner, and he’s swinging back into town to throw the Hanukkah event of the millennium: the Matzah Ball Max. (It doesn’t hurt that he’s single and wayyyyyyyy easy on the eyes.) His attendance at her parents’ Shabbat dinner gives Rachel an in, and she manages to finagle a ticket to the Matzah Ball by – gulp – agreeing to volunteer (with her ME/CFS a constant presence? YIKES). What better way to get the Hanukkah novel inspiration she needs? But Jacob’s reappearance in her life strikes up some feelings – for both of them, and they’ll both have some deep Yom Kippur-style reflection to do if they want to move ahead in their lives…maybe even together.

LOVED THIS.

LOVED THIS SO MUCH!!!!!!!

While my medical issues are different from Rachel’s, I saw so much of myself in this book. The constantly having to tailor your entire life to what your body demands; other people not understanding what’s going on with me medically; love of Judaism; writing. It’s all there, and I felt so represented on almost every page of this! I love that chronic illness is showing up in more and more novels.

Rachel can be blunt and a little brash at times, but she knows what she needs and is a good advocate for herself (and who can blame anyone for dealing with constant pain and fatigue and/or other medical issues and being a little crabby? Well, lots of people, but I digress…). Jacob is a swoonworthy hero. He’s not without his flaws; he’s still grieving the loss of his mother and how his father walked out on the family, and despite his success in life, he still has some growing up and learning to do – about lots of things. He and Rachel make a good fit, and the constant slight pushing from their families to get together only adds to the fun of the story.

I am 100% here for Jean Meltzer’s next novel. Already on my TBR, and I’m poised and waiting. (No pressure. Just excited!) Her writing style is fun and light, serious when it needs to be, but still keeping the overall tone enjoyable and never too serious. It’s exactly what I’m looking for in fiction, and I can’t wait to see what she does next!

Visit Jean Meltzer’s website here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Chosen: A Memoir of Stolen Boyhood by Stephen Mills

Trigger warning: this review will contain mention of childhood sexual assault. If this is a subject that’s too painful for you to read about, be kind to yourself and skip this review. I wish you peace.

I received a notification of a new Twitter follower one day not long ago and was delighted to find an author named Stephen Mills had followed me. One of his recent tweets made it clear that he was also Jewish (WOOHOO!), so I followed him back and added his book to my TBR. And when Chosen: A Memoir of Stolen Boyhood (Metropolitan Books, 2022) showed up on NetGalley, I requested it. I know I read a lot of emotionally heavy books, but it’s because I believe so much that these are the stories that deserve to be heard the most; these are the topics that need to be at the forefront of our discussions; these are what everyone should understand a little more about. And Chosen is no exception to that rule.

Thank you so much to NetGalley, Stephen Mills, and Metropolitan Books for offering me a copy of Chosen in exchange for an honest review.

Stephen Mills was thirteen, the son of a father who had passed away when he was very young, growing up in an emotionally unhealthy blended family, when the director of his summer camp began spending more time with him. Longing for positive attention and approval (and aren’t we all?), Stephen falls into his trap, and soon Dan is molesting him regularly. Not only is Stephen deeply confused about what’s happening to him, his trauma is furthered by Dan’s weaseling his way into every aspect of his life. His family loves him and has no qualms about sending the young teen on solo trips and foreign vacations with Dan, and without the words to describe what’s going on, Stephen is powerless to stop the abuse.

It’s not until college when the trauma begins destroying his life. Still unable to speak about the abuse, Stephen turns to drugs, to religion, to foreign travel, in order to ease his pain, but nothing helps, and the darkness begins to pull him in. As society begins to wake up to the pervasiveness of childhood sexual abuse, Stephen is finally able to understand the root of his anguish…only to discover that those with the power to change things still don’t give anywhere near enough of a damn.

Chosen is a painful, heartfelt memoir that doesn’t hold back on raw emotion. Mr. Mills doesn’t shy away from the physical acts perpetrated against him, nor does he sugarcoat the depth of his suffering that the abuse caused. ‘Soul murder,’ Oprah Winfrey has called childhood sexual abuse, and it’s clear from this memoir, from how much Stephen suffered as an adult from the trauma foisted upon him as a child, how accurate this phrase is.

As difficult as the subject is, Stephen Mills’s writing flows like the most enjoyable novel. His honest prose is open, accessible, inviting the reader to share his pain for a while, to walk in his shoes and gain just a hint of understanding about what he’s been through. It’s a story of pain, but also one of courage, and ultimately, a demand for change. We have got to do better. More listening to kids, better treatment for survivors, and a never-ending commitment to keeping the monsters who hurt them away from any children whatsoever for all time. We can do better, and we should have started doing better a long time ago. Chosen is proof of that. Stephen Mills was failed over and over again by so many adults in his life, and while he’s written an amazing book that shares his pain and trauma in the most eloquent of ways, I truly wish he hadn’t had to.

If you love someone who has suffered childhood sexual abuse, Chosen by Stephen Mills should be on your reading list in order to better understand that loved one, what they’ve faced in trying to heal, and what they’re up against in seeking justice. And if you don’t know anyone who’s been traumatized this way, Chosen should also be on your list – because yes, you do; they just haven’t told you.

May Stephen Mills experience continued healing throughout his life, and may justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream for all survivors.  

Chosen is available now at all major retailers.

Visit Stephen Mills’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

Monthly roundup

Monthly Roundup: April 2022

What a whirlwind of a month. Between life and homeschooling, my poor reading time has definitely shrunk. Combine that with my getting to a chunk of my TBR that I don’t feel hugely compelled to write reviews for here, and I’ve been more absent than usual this month. My apologies! We’re definitely in a transition period and I’m still trying to figure things out. I’m working on it, I promise!

Not a bad month at all, just busy. Passover came and went (life without leavened grains is just sad, y’all. But I’m always grateful for how much avoiding chametz for eight days helps me appreciate the struggles of those with conditions like celiac and food allergies), and we had a few really awesome weather days – including several days where I was able to read outside! My swing isn’t out yet, but possibly at the end of this month. Bring on those long, hot summer days!

Let’s get this way-too-short recap started, shall we?

Books I Read in April 2022

1. Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women, and Queer Christians Are Reclaiming Evangelicalism by Deborah Jian Lee (no review; read for my volunteer job)

2. Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage With Life by Stuart Shanker (no review)

3. What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge (no review; read out loud to my daughter)

4. Everything You Need to Know About Asian-American History by Lan Cao, Himilce Novas, and Rosemary Silva (no review; read for my personal Read Harder project)

5. This Close to Okay by Leesa Cross-Smith

6. Golem Girl: A Memoir by Riva Lehrer

7. The Lost Arts of Hearth and Home: The Happy Luddite’s Guide to Domestic Self-Sufficiency by Ken Albala and Rosanna Nafziger Henderson (no review)

8. How Good Do We Have to Be?: A New Understanding of Guilt and Forgiveness by Harold Kushner (no review)

9. Lovesong: Becoming a Jew by Julius Lester (no review)

10. Follow My Leader by James B. Garfield (read out loud to my daughter; no review)

Slow month overall for reading, but that’s just the homeschooling life sometimes. I usually don’t review a lot of the more spiritual Jewish books, nor do I review the things I read out loud to my daughter, and that kind of makes up the bulk of what I read this month! I also read through parts, though not all, of two books on foraging, which took up a good portion of my reading time in the beginning of the month. That also explains my low numbers.

Five of these books came from my TBR.

State of the Goodreads TBR

Last month, we ended up at 154; this month, we’re actually down to…151! This is definitely a good thing. I think it’s more that I’ve had less time on the computer to find new books than it is that I’ve been reading enough to get the number to go down on its own, but hey, less is less!

Books I Acquired in April 2022

None!

Bookish Things I Did in April 2022

I was lucky enough to be able to virtually attend a talk given by Dr. Eboo Patel, author of Acts of Faith. He’s an incredible speaker, and I could’ve listened to him for hours. If you’re at all interested in how religious diversity works in the US, or in religious literacy in general, try to catch one of his talks if you can.

Current Podcast Love

Bleh. Still mostly just listening to BBC World Service. I halfheartedly tried to find something new to listen to a few times this month, but nothing stuck. Such is life. I did listen to the first one-and-a-half episodes of Stark Raving Dad, by a homeschooling dad from New Zealand who writes some interesting things about homeschooling, while I was biking one day, and I’m enjoying that so far.

Stephanie’s Read Harder Challenge

Woohoo, I finished Everything You Need to Know About Asian-American History, which I ended up really enjoying. It covered most groups of Asians that have made their way to the US, and gave accounts of their history here in the US, including the very, very racist ways they’ve been treated throughout their time here. Eye-opening and informative. I’ve moved on to The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music History by Michael Miller, which I borrowed from my son’s shelves (and which I found when I was doing various workouts in his room. He’s currently living with his best friend, so I use his room for some privacy in my workouts). Enjoying this one so far!

Real Life Stuff

It feels like it’s been a busier-than-normal month. My daughter turned eight, I have her seeing a counselor now so we can work on her need to argue with me about everything, and the whole house could use a giant clean-up, but I can barely keep up with the day-to-day cleaning (my husband and daughter make messes faster than I can get to them, and I’m the only one doing any kind of housework). There are days when we homeschool from 8:30 am until lunch, I gulp down my lunch and get started on dinner prep and cleaning the kitchen, then it’s back to homeschooling until 3-ish, sometimes later, and then it’s more work on dinner and what chores I need to do for the day (and two days a week, I put in a few hours for my volunteer job). Add in some exercise and a shower after dinner, and it’s pretty much bedtime after that. I’m seriously struggling to get anything done beyond the very basics right now.

We’ll relax our schedule a bit over the summer; we won’t start nearly as early, and I’m only making my daughter do math two days a week, just enough to keep her brain on track and ready to start again in mid-August. That’ll at least give me time to do a more thorough daily cleaning, and I’ll 100% have more time to read in the afternoons- on my swing! It’s still in the garage now, since it’s still mostly just in the 50’s on our warmer days (oh, Midwest…), but hopefully it’ll be out and ready for swinging by the end of the month.

And now it’s May! We can sign up for summer reading tomorrow, which we will! On Thursday, I’m attending a virtual book talk with Riva Lehrer, author of Golem Girl which I just reviewed in April. And that’s really all I have on the schedule for this month, which is good. I have enough to do already!

Stay safe out there, folks. The wastewater data (and Walgreens testing numbers) say that COVID cases are going up again. I miss the days when we believed this could be eradicated completely. Five cases at my daughter’s former school this week…that we know of. Sigh.

Wishing you a warm, lovely, safe May, full of lots of time to read!