memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Since Sinai: A Convert’s Path to Judaism by Shannon Gonyou

Another Jewish book from NetGalley! I’m on a roll, baby!!!

I’ve followed Shannon Gonyou on Twitter for a while now. She converted to Judaism, like me, and I’m always interested in the perspectives of other converts: the whys, the similarities and differences to my own conversion. Shannon has always seemed insightful, with a good sense of humor, so I was thrilled to learn she’d written a conversion memoir. Lo and behold, there it was on NetGalley! I requested (of course!), and voilà, the acceptance email for Since Sinai: A Convert’s Path to Judaism by Shannon Gonyou (Msi Press, 2022) landed in my inbox a few days later. I may have gasped in excitement. Huge thank you to NetGalley, Msi Press, and Shannon Gonyou for the opportunity to read and review this book!

Shannon Gonyou grew up Catholic, the stipulation of her birth mother to the parents who adopted and raised her. They weren’t super into it, but they dutifully raised her in the faith, which didn’t particularly interest her as a young child, but in which Shannon took a greater interest as she grew older. She had a lot of questions, of course; maybe more questions than her religious educators cared for, and the answers often rang a little more hollow than she would’ve liked, but Shannon held on, trying to carve out a place for herself in Catholicism. The evangelical church she tried out next was much the same. Both churches’ white savior complexes felt faulty, along with their one-size-fits-all belief systems. What’s a spiritual-seeking girl to do?

Judaism was something Shannon just kept coming back to, over and over. She’d question friends, co-workers, classmates, anyone who she met and learned was Jewish. The tradition kept calling to her until finally, she blurted out to her husband one Christmas eve (what better time?) that she wanted to be Jewish. To his absolute credit, despite being caught somewhat off guard, her husband was remarkably understanding, and eventually he came to fall just as deeply in love with Judaism as Shannon did. This is the story of Shannon’s religious journey, from questioning Catholic to deeply committed Jew, and all that happened in between.

This is an absolutely lovely memoir. Shannon’s story is winding, full of questions and the struggle to find herself in traditions that weren’t quite meant for her. Conversion is a huge, intimidating leap (I sat in front of my first email to the rabbi I converted with for over a week, struggling to come up with the exact words that expressed how deeply I had fallen in love with Judaism); being able to travel her journey with her in all its stops and starts, in the moves she now considers uncomfortable at best (such as the mission trips she went on), was truly enjoyable. I saw a lot of my own story in hers and it was a true joy to not only read about Shannon’s path to the mikvah, but to also be able to compare and relive my own journey there.

This is no dry, dusty, stodgy memoir; Shannon Gonyou writes as though she’s having a warm, comfortable conversation with her oldest friend, and every sentence is infused with her love of Judaism and her absolute delight in having made her way home to where she belongs. If you don’t know much about Judaism and are curious as to why someone would choose to become a member of a traditionally persecuted group, Since Sinai will lead you to a greater understanding. If, like me, you’ve converted to Judaism, you’ll definitely see yourself in these pages. And if you’re in the process or are considering converting, this book will enlighten you as to what the process might look like for you – and you can pass it along to your family and friends when they have questions, too.

Since Sinai was an absolute delight to read. Pre-pandemic, I was staying off the internet on Shabbat, but fell away from that practice when the internet became my sole connection with family and friends who were similarly isolated. Reading this moved me back to the place where I felt ready to do that again, and I very much welcomed that haven of calm and peace the last few weeks.

Follow Shannon Gonyou on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Unmask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World’s Most Notorious Diaries by Rick Emerson

If you’re of a certain age like me, you likely read Go Ask Alice when you were a teenager. This book purported to be the real diary of a real teenager who fell victim to drugs and who ultimately died due to her addiction. This book used to be everywhere (and still is; I actually saw a copy of it at a used book sale this weekend!). I’m not sure I knew of many people who didn’t read it. I was probably around 12 when I first read it; I don’t remember too much of my reactions to it, but I’ve always been aware of its prevalence in American literary and pop culture. So when I saw Unmask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World’s Most Notorious Diaries by Rick Emerson (BenBella Books, 2022) up for offer on NetGalley, I. Was. IN. As someone who had looked into the story of the woman behind Alice before, I knew this book was going make some waves. And now, having read it, I’m even more certain that this book is going to be huge.

In the 1970s, the war on drugs began to rage, and parents were terrified. What could they do? How could they even begin to talk to their children about the dangers of drugs and how easily their lives could be ruined? Suddenly, a book appeared on the scene that answered all their questions: a diary, written by a real-life teenager, whose life was destroyed and ultimately ended by drugs. Teenagers saw themselves in it. Adults saw their children in it. Go Ask Alice was impossible to keep on the shelves (whether due to selling out or due to panicked legislators banning it), but it opened pathways to communication between parents and children.

The only problem: it wasn’t true. None of it was. Go Ask Alice was the creation of a con artist, a Utah housewife named Beatrice Sparks who claimed to be a psychotherapist who worked with teenagers, but who, in reality, had been desperately trying to reinvent herself for years. And while her lies about young Alice may have lead to some positives, her next offering, Jay’s Journal, quite literally destroyed lives in a multitude of ways.

Rick Emerson has penned a well-researched eye-opener about a cultural icon whose effects are still being felt today, both the positives and the negatives. Beatrice Sparks was a scammer of the highest order, in multitudes of ways that would be much easier to verify these days, but back in the 70s, information wasn’t quite so easy to come by. Her religious housewife façade allowed her to ooze through the cracks and cause incredible harm to grieving families, along with setting the stage for what would eventually become the Satanic Panic of the 80s (and which would ultimately lead to people wrongfully convicted of various crimes and spending decades of their lives in prison). With humor, pathos, and empathy, Rick Emerson tells the story of a book that so many of us grew up with, but about which we never really knew the truth.

Whew. This is an absolute page-turner, and an incredible story. I absolutely flew through this book, because the story spreads so far and wide, and I was absolutely incredulous that one woman’s scamming had so many devastating consequences. I hadn’t known that Art Linkletter’s daughter’s suicide had set the stage for Alice to be published in the first place; I had no idea that Jay’s Journal (which I read in 2005 and immediately pinpointed as a whole entire load of horse dung) set the Satanic Panic into motion (the story behind this book is absolutely heartbreaking). It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Beatrice Sparks had some sort of diagnosable condition, such as narcissism or sociopathy; she had absolutely zero empathy and hurt people with wild abandon. Monsters come in all shapes and sizes.

I hope to see more from Rick Emerson in the future. Beatrice Sparks’s story is both horrifying and fascinating, and his voice absolutely added to my enjoyment of this book. And this is the third book I’ve read in the past few years from BenBella Books that I’ve really enjoyed. They’re definitely a publisher I’m going to have to keep my eye on!

Visit Rick Emerson’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Uncovering Secrets, Reuniting Relatives, and Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland

At-home DNA testing is all the rage these days. How much percentage British are you? Where did your ancestors come from? To whom are you related? So many of us want to spit in that tube and then peer at the pie chart that comes out of it, but the results can be far more complicated than that. I’m one of the millions of Americans who spit in the tube and clicked the link that wound up in my inbox several weeks later, informing me that I’m a good 30% Norwegian, but almost not at all Italian, despite my mother’s Italian maiden name. Fascinating! And that’s why The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Uncovering Secrets, Reuniting Relatives, and Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland (Abrams Press, 2020) appealed to me so much.

The Lost Family starts out following the family of Jim Collins, the Irish Catholic patriarch who had grown up in an orphanage, and who always struggled with his fractured family. Technology hadn’t advanced far enough at the point of his death, but afterwards, when home DNA testing was in its early days, his daughters began uncovering some shocking mysteries. Why weren’t they Irish at all? How on earth were the tests saying Jewish??? Why was Dad (Jim) so very short? What was going on?

Interwoven between the stories of the Collins family and other families whose DNA tests came up with surprises or mysteries are in-depth looks at how the ancestry and at-home DNA testing industry runs: how it began, what it means to the people who ran it (most of them genuinely seem like good people and are super enthusiastic about genealogy), and what the implications are, legally and morally, both for now and in the future. If you’ve ever taken one of these tests or you’re thinking about it, or you just want to put together a family tree, this is a book you need to pick up!

Phew. There is a LOT of information in this book. I was expecting it to be a little bit more about stories like the Collins’ family (and they’re definitely in there; their story and others like theirs are just scattered in between more broad information about companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe), but I walked away with far more knowledge about the genetic testing industry as a whole than I expected. A lot of it was beyond me; I couldn’t begin to explain to you how any of the genetic comparison works and how to distinguish a third cousin from a great-uncle, genetically speaking, but there are plenty of people who could, and they’re REALLY into it (I envy their ability to grasp that kind of stuff. My brain just doesn’t work that way). I did like learning about how the companies grew and how they’re dealing with the more ethical concerns (how to aid customers who are shocked by their results; how to deal when the FBI comes calling and wants to compare genetic data on file with what they have from a crime scene or two), but what I really enjoyed were the personal stories, the family searches and bewilderment, the joy in discovering new relatives, the pain at losing what they thought was family-by-blood, or being rejected by newly discovered blood relatives. Those were the stories I enjoyed most about this book.

This was a slow read for me, simply because the book was densely packed with info, but it’s great science writing with a personal touch. I enjoyed settling down to read this book.

Visit Libby Copeland’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Dude Making a Difference: Bamboo Bikes, Dumpster Dives and Other Extreme Adventures Across America by Rob Greenfield

Earlier this year, my daughter and I read a book for her homeschooling about making a difference for the planet. Recycling, refusing things that you don’t need, reusing the things you have in creative ways, being smart about how you use energy and water, biking and walking to get to places when you can, it was all pretty fun and inspirational. The author was a man named Rob Greenfield, and the book told a little bit of his story and about the wacky things he does to call attention to the need to live a sustainable life. I did a little research and found he’d written a book for adults as well, so I checked, and sure enough, it was living its best life on my library’s shelf! So on one of my next trips, I grabbed Dude Making a Difference: Bamboo Bikes, Dumpster Dives and Other Extreme Adventures Across America by Rob Greenfield (New Society Publishers, 2015) and brought it home.

Rob Greenfield, known for wearing all his trash in a suit on his body for a month at a time, decided to go bigger to get his message across. He was going to bike across the US, with a list of rules for guidance. He could only eat local (to where he was) organic food, nothing packaged, unless it was food that was going to go to waste otherwise. He couldn’t use any electricity that wasn’t generated by his solar panels (with a few exceptions), and this even included walking in electric doors (he would have to wait until someone else went in and go behind them). Water had to come from natural sources (he had a purifier), and at times, he could only drink water that would have gone to waste. These were the rules that would follow him biking over 4,000 miles across the country.

And he did it! There were a few foibles along the way – flat tires, outrunning tornados, no bank branches in an entire state – but the over-one-hundred-day-journey taught Rob a lot of things along the way, both while he was on the road and when he stopped at various organic farms along the way. This is a wild and crazy journey that will definitely get you considering what you use, and how you can do more to be earth-friendly.

Wow.  First off, I love these kinds of adventure/experiment books, where people live out certain ideals or go on long adventures that take large amounts of time. Although I felt like sometimes Rob took things to the extreme (in no way shape or form would I drink unpurified water from a stream, nor would I EVER drink a half-empty bottle of water I found at the side of the road *gag noises*), I deeply admire his commitment to living out his ideals. He’s young; I feel like he recognized a lot of room for growth in himself and how he treated the friend who accompanied him for most of the journey, so hopefully that’ll be something he works on in the future. I do really like that he’s calling attention to food waste by dumpster diving a large portion of the food he ate while biking cross-country; he’s even mentioned in his TED talks about this experiment that he gained ten pounds while biking 20-50+ miles per day for over a hundred days. That’s pretty wild!

The book is written in journal format, so there are times it gets a little repetitive and navel-gazey, and his youth and immaturity show through, along with his lack of knowledge on certain subjects (there was a bit in there about race that made me cringe), but overall, this is an enjoyable read about something I’d love to be able to do but can’t. I do wish he would have spoken to the privilege that allows him to make fantastic journeys like this. He’s young, physically fit, and healthy (my garbage back alone disqualifies me from a trip like this); he’s male (the dangers a woman would face making a trip like this? Not something I’d want to risk) and straight (ditto) and white (he had a few interactions with the cops where he was very much given the benefit of the doubt in a way most Black and brown men would not have been offered). I’d definitely like to hear him speak on these topics a little more in the future (and maybe he has and I haven’t read it or listened to it yet; I have enjoyed several of his TED talks, however!).

Overall, this was a fun read, and definitely inspiring.

Visit Rob Greenfield’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction

Book Review: The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan

World War II! Rationing! Making do in trying circumstances! From the moment I learned about The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan (Ballantine Books, 2021), I knew I would enjoy it. I’m fascinated by all things rationing (check out a review I did of a book about the subject, Make Do and Mend: Keeping Family and Home Afloat on War Rations, forward by Jill Norman) and have been ever since I was introduced to the subject as a young girl in one of my favorite books in the world, Back Home by Michelle Magorian. The Kitchen Front didn’t disappoint; it was as charming as I suspected it would be.

It’s wartime Britain, and the BBC has introduced a new contest on its show dedicated to helping housewives learn to deal with wartime rationing. The Kitchen Front’s contest is looking for the best rationing chef, and four women are desperate to win. Audrey is a widowed mom to three boys, struggling to stay afloat ever since her husband was killed in the war. Gwen, Audrey’s image-obsessed social climber sister, is hiding her unhappy reality behind an icy-old façade. Nell, an orphan-turned-maid, is scared of her own shadow, but cooking brings out the best in her. And Zelda, a professionally trained Cordon Bleu chef, will do just about anything to win – but will the secret she’s carrying ruin everything for her?

A ruthless beginning eases into something with softer edges as the women are forced together and begin to understand each other’s stories. Rifts will be mended, new bridges forged, and brand-new paths forward will appear amidst the strain and struggle of wartime. The Kitchen Front is full of charm, friendship, and the can-do attitude that gave British women the reputation for strength and fortitude of character that pulled them through the long years of rationing.

What a lovely book. The characters are all with their own personal struggles, but each is so determined to triumph despite them, that you can’t help but root for every single one, even when some of them sink to some truly low levels to win. The research put into this story is evident, with characters foraging for wild-grown ingredients, substituting local ingredients for little-known ones, and utilizing cooking techniques and recipes known to the era. (A few of the lines mentioned in the book, particularly about manner of dress for women at the time, I had learned just days before while watching episodes of Horrible Histories with my daughter!) This was very obviously a labor of love for the author, and it shows in her respectful treatment of all of the characters and how they came together in the end.

If you’ve read other books by Jennifer Ryan, I’d love to hear if you enjoyed them! I don’t read as much fiction as I’d like, and I tend to be kind of picky about the fiction I do read, so if you’ve got recommendations here, I’d love to hear them! Her The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle looks particularly interesting!

Visit Jennifer Ryan’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir

Book Review: A Beginner’s Guide to Paradise by Alex Sheshunoff

It was while searching my library’s catalog for books on tiny houses that I stumbled across A Beginner’s Guide to Paradise by Alex Sheshunoff (NAL, 2015). (There’s an entire long subtitle that I’m not going to write out here, but feel free to click on the Goodreads link so you can see it in all its unwieldy glory!) I love a good travel memoir, and I also love a good ‘picked up and moved halfway around the world memoir,’ so this called out to me for those reasons, but what really intrigued me was that the author moved, at first, to the outer islands of Yap.

Yap? What’s Yap?

Yap, my friends, is an island group in the federated states of Micronesia, and it’s where I had a penpal for a brief period of time when I was about 11. Every once in a while Yap comes up in conversation and it feels pretty cool that I’ve been familiar with this place that most people haven’t heard of since I was a kid.

Anyway.

Alex Sheshunoff wasn’t satisfied with his life. The website he’d started up wasn’t doing well and was no longer providing him that feeling of contentment. Living in a big city and working for the weekend wasn’t doing it for him, and his relationship, it was becoming clear, wasn’t made to last. He needed to make some changes and figure out what he wanted out of life, and what better place to do that than a tropical paradise? So Alex sells everything, packs up, and heads off to Yap in order to find himself and discover that which is meaningful to him.

It’s not exactly the lazy island utopia he pictured before the plane touched down. Cultural differences are massive, and making friends – or even getting to know people at all – is challenging. Moving between islands is far more complex than Alex had anticipated, and he finds himself in a lot of wacky situations. It’s a move to a different island that changes everything, where Alex meets the woman he falls in love with. Together, with friends brought over from back home, they build a home (kind of…) and Alex doesn’t necessarily end up with all the answers, but he at least finds some of the things he wasn’t necessarily looking for.

This was…okay. Alex’s journey to Yap and the surrounding islands felt a bit rushed and lacked research, but I suppose if you have the kind of money that I’m reading he did, you can afford to do wacky things like picking up and moving halfway around the world on a whim. His recounting of his interactions with the locals felt awkward and like he wasn’t sure how to fit in (which very well may have been the case; cultural exchanges can be really tough!), and I did feel bad for him in that aspect.

I don’t know, there was something about this book that made it hard for me to connect with. Part of it might be how different our lives our to begin with; it’s hard to find something to connect with in a story of a man who’s able to drop everything and leave the country to find himself, when I don’t have the money to find myself here in town. While I don’t necessarily need to see myself in every book I read, I couldn’t find much at all to connect with here. Still an interesting story, but…it was lacking, for me. But that’s okay. Not every book is meant for every reader. : )

Visit Alex Sheshunoff’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

Monthly roundup

Monthly Roundup: May 2022

Here we are! Welcome to JUNE!!!!!!!!!!

It feels like a slightly better month for reading than last month. Maybe it just feels that way because it’s nicer outside, because I can read outside on my swing (most days, anyway!), or maybe it just feels that way because we’re taking some time off of school to get things ready for the fall. Either way, it feels as though I’ve gotten some good quality reading done. Don’t worry, I’m still a few books behind in terms of reviews. I don’t know that THAT will ever change.

I’m hoping to make some decent progress on my TBR this summer. So far, it’s going pretty well. I’m still foolishly yearning for the days where I had that beast beaten down into the 70’s, and while I don’t think I’m in any danger of getting anywhere near that, what with the 237482374932 hours of homeschooling I do per day of homeschooling during the school year, it’s nice to have a goal, right?

Anyway, let’s get this recap started, shall we???

Books I Read in May 2022

1. One People, Two Worlds: A Reform Rabbi and an Orthodox Rabbi Explore the Issues that Divide Them by Ammiel Hirsch and Yaakov Yosef Reinmen (no review)

2. Chosen: A Memoir of Stolen Boyhood by Stephen Mills

3. The Matzah Ball by Jean Meltzer

4. The Girls in the Wild Fig Tree: How I Fought to Save Myself, My Sister, and Thousands of Girls Worldwide by Nice Leng’ete

5. The Kissing Bug by Daisy Hernàndez

6. Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African American Jew by Michael W. Twitty (review to come)

7. Why’d They Wear That?: Fashion as a Mirror of History by Sarah Albee (no review; read out loud to my daughter)

8. Tiny House: Live Small, Dream Big by Brent Heavener (no review)

9. Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter by Lloyd Kahn (no review)

10. The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir by Dee Williams

11. Time Cat by Lloyd Alexander (no review; read out loud to my daughter)

12. A Beginner’s Guide to Paradise by Alex Sheshunoff (review to come)

13. Lennon by David Foenkinos (no review)

14. And Now I Spill the Family Secrets: An Illustrated Memoir by Margaret Kimball (no review)

15. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast (no review)

16. The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan (review to come)

17. Dude Making a Difference: Bamboo Bikes, Dumpster Dives, and Other Extreme Adventures Across America by Rob Greenfield (review to come)

18. Frindle by Andrew Clements (no review; read out loud to my daughter)

Not a terrible month. I squeezed a few graphic novels in there, which got my numbers up, but I was visiting the library with my son and he was over in that section, so I grabbed a few (since I’m almost never in that part of the library and I always forget about the GN’s!). They were a nice break between other things from my TBR. We’ll see what things look like after next month…

Nine of these books came from my TBR.

State of the Goodreads TBR

Last month, we left off at 150; this month, we’re tap-dancing in at 146! I read a whole bunch, ditched a few from the TBR, and here we are, comfortably in the 140’s. Now how long will it take me to move to the 130’s? : D

Books I Acquired in May 2022

I actually got a few new books this month!

We stopped by the used book store one day when we were out and about, and I wound up with A Day Apart: Shabbat at Home by Noam Sachs Zion and Shawn Fields-Meyer, and God Was In This Place and I, I Did Not Know: Finding Self, Spirituality and Ultimate Meaning by Lawrence Kushner.

Then, I checked in on a Little Free Library a few blocks down from our house (the owner also has a really sweet German Shepherd) and found Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery by Karen Armstrong, so I’m also looking forward to reading that!

But there’s a book sale coming up midway through June…

Bookish Things I Did in May 2022

In the very beginning of the month, I attended a virtual book talk with Riva Lehrer, author of Golem Girl, and she’s fabulous. And even beyond the talk about the book, which was great, it was nice to be in a space full of and made for Jewish women. I actually kind of gave a little sigh of relief when our collective voices rose up in the chat box. It felt like home.

Current Podcast Love

It’s been a bit of a back and forth month. First, I listened to a lot of Crimes of the Centuries, which details historical true crime cases. This was super interesting and really well-narrated. Then my brain wanted something different, so I’ve been listening to Tedx Shorts, short little chunks of Ted talks. Interesting and varied enough to keep my interest while I’m awake, but not super music or loud. I’m digging this!

Stephanie’s Read Harder Challenge

Taking a little bit of a break from this for a bit, but I’m still working my way through The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music History by Michael Miller.

Real Life Stuff

Phew. What a month.

My son moved back in! He’s going to be going back to school in the fall, so this is the best place for him to be for that! It’s nice having him home; he’s been walking with me a lot and helping me cook, so I appreciate that.

We finished our year homeschooling! We’re taking a MUCH-needed break for a bit while I regroup and start to plan out school in the fall. We’re still going to be keeping our daughter at home for a while; I’ve got to figure out what we’re doing with Language Arts, and I know I’m going to structure our weeks a little differently, in order to give us time for music and art.

MIGRAINES.

UGH. All of Memorial Day weekend was spent with migraines – Saturday, Sunday, AND Monday. Which landed me in the neurologist’s office Tuesday morning, which in turn will land me in an MRI tube next week. Yayyyyy… They’re not expecting to find anything, just ruling it out so we know. But for the first time in my life, and probably the fifth or sixth doctor that’s prescribed it, my insurance has finally covered Zofran (an anti-nausea drug, as in, “Here, Stephanie, please take this Zofran so that you stop throwing up your migraine medication!” Don’t let your doctor try asking for these meds to keep you from vomiting yourself into the hospital when you’re pregnant, though. THAT would just be ridiculous and a frivolous waste of time and resources!).

But that’s about all that’s new around here. This month is going to be spent reading and planning for this fall’s homeschool. I have a stack of books to page through and figure out what we’re going to do. Other than that, I’ve got stacks of books that are just begging to be read, and long, empty days. My backyard swing is calling my name!

Wishing you all a wonderful June! Stay safe and healthy!!!