memoir · nonfiction

The Survivors: A Story of War, Inheritance, and Healing- Adam P. Frankel

The New Books shelf strikes again! I’ve got a pile of reading challenge books waiting for me, but my library has a decorate-it-yourself felt snowman over by the New Books shelf, and so while I was waiting for my daughter to perfect her indoor Olaf, I foolishly turned around to examine the new books, and that’s when my eyes fell on The Survivors: A Story of War, Inheritance, and Healing by Adam P. Frankel (Harper, 2019). A quick scan of the inside flap let me know that the book was, as I had inspected, about a family’s grappling with trauma after the Holocaust, and that was all I needed for it to go into my pile.

I knew better than to keep looking at that shelf, though. That New Books shelf is dangerous to my reading load!

Every family has its own secrets, but Adam Frankel’s family always seemed to have more than most. His grandparents survived the Holocaust and came to live in America, but how much of their trauma did they pass on to their children? How much through genetics, how much through behavior patterns? And how much of that trauma has reached Adam in the third generation? Often raising more questions than answers, Adam, a former Obama speechwriter, goes searching for answers and finds more than he initially bargained for. Suddenly, Adam’s not only looking for answers about all those family secrets, he’s tasked with keeping them, too- big secrets, the kind that are difficult, maybe impossible, to forgive.

Despite its absolutely heavy and often tragic storyline, The Survivors is a fascinating read, one that delves deeply into the question of epigenetics and what the effects of trauma are for subsequent generations. Were his grandparents’ experiences in concentration camps responsible for his mother’s mental illness or her inability to cope with stress? What do genetics really mean, anyway? I didn’t read the inside flap in its entirety and so the narrative took a turn I wasn’t expecting, one that brought to mind shades of Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance. Adam’s entire identity is brought into question, and his grappling with his sense of self and family history is intense, and intensely painful. That he was contending with so many issues while still successfully performing his duties as part of President Obama’s speechwriting team is impressive.

Fans of family sagas, family secrets, family history, and memoirs that wrestle with identity and the author’s place in the family story will find much to appreciate here. Although the tone is often heavy, Mr. Frankel’s writing style moves the story forward at a pace that never lingers too long on tragedy. This is a story of pain and secrets, of shining a light on that which has been hidden, and of having the bravery to ask questions and deal with the answers. I can’t imagine the amount of courage it took to not only write this story, but to put it out for the world to read. That’s a level of self-examination and honesty that I aspire to.

Beautifully written and well-researched, The Survivors would make an excellent book club selection, as there are so many layers to this story that it would encourage a great discussion (it feels a little terrible to say that, as this is someone’s life, but this is a book and a story that deserves to be read and remembered). There are mentions of violence and death- there are very few happy Holocaust memoirs, after all- and some mentions of sexual situations, but nothing is graphic, so this would be an appropriate and intriguing group read.

Memoirs that include revelations about paternity seem to be prevalent lately (this is my third in three months, along with Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance, as previously mentioned, and Sarah Valentine’s When I Was White); I don’t think that that’s a publishing trend so much as a coincidence and a sign of the times, with genetic testing kits being so readily available and trendy. I’m sure there will be more memoirs along these lines, but Adam Frankel’s traumatic family history and his writing talent, honed from years in the blood-stained battleground of modern-day politics, absolutely make this book stand out.

Visit Adam P. Frankel’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

I Was Born For This- Alice Oseman

Fandoms. I’ve been part of them (nope, not saying which ones!), and I’ve also been an observer of them for something I was writing in the past. They’re complex, complicated, and far deeper than most outsiders are willing to assign credit, and when I learned about I Was Born for This by Alice Oseman (Harper Collins Children’s Books, 2018), which centers on a boy band (for lack of a better term) and one fan in particular, I knew I had to read it. And it just so happens that this book fits in well with one of PopSugar’s 2020 Reading Challenge prompts: an author in their 20’s! Voilร , two boxes ticked off right there.

Angel Rahimi has embarked on the biggest adventure of her life: traveling to London to stay with her internet friend Juliet (whom she’s never met in person) in order to attend a meet-and-greet with The Ark, their favorite band. Angel and Juliet know everything about the boys in the band, and Angel feels them on a soul-deep level. The Ark is her life, so much that she’s skipping her ‘finished with high school’ ceremony for this trip, and her family is worried. Angel’s not, but the trip almost immediately gets off to a rocky start when she learns she’s not the only internet friend at Juliet’s.

Jimmy Kaga-Ricci is one of three members of The Ark, not quite nineteen, and the fame- the crowds, the pressure, the lack of privacy and the inability to have anything even resembling a life- is starting to get to him. Panic attacks, sleepless nights, fear of fans and flying, they’re making him hate his life, and cracks are showing in his relationships with the two other band members, childhood friends of his. The Ark is up for a new contract, and Jimmy feels sick every time he even thinks about it.

When Angel’s and Jimmy’s paths collide, both of them will learn lessons they’ve needed to learn for a while now: the difference between fantasy and reality and how to face it, what authenticity looks like, who you can trust when the chips are down, and who should get to decide their futures.

Alice Oseman knows fandom. If you’ve ever been involved in a fandom, especially a music fandom, you’ll recognize how superbly researched I Was Born for This is. She taps deeply into Angel’s adoration of the band, going so far as to nearly make The Ark her sole identity and being unable, or possibly just unwilling, to connect to the people at her school and real life. Jimmy is slowly being suffocated by the fame; his bandmates have different ways of reacting, but no one is doing well with this, and Ms. Oseman paints a desolate picture of the price celebrities pay in order to put their art and music out into the world. While I’ve never been famous (I’m far too boring for that!), I’ve done a lot of reading on fame and its costs, and her portrayal of The Ark’s terrifying success is spot-on.

But what really stands out here is The Ark’s fandom. There are so many different facets to fandom, and Ms. Oseman makes sure the reader is aware of that. The soul-deep fans like Angel, the fake fans like Mac, the casual fans, the over-the-top fans, the psycho fans (I know someone who pulled up to a celebrity’s mother’s house, got out, stole a leaf from her yard, then drove off. Plenty of us in this group were horrified by this), the “I’m so in love with you!!!” fans, the fanfiction writers, the ‘shippers, the fans who are seriously there for each other, it’s all here, and it’s so, so good. This is the book I needed back in my younger days, and the book that I would’ve loved to use as research back when I was writing something that involved a fandom.

There’s a huge amount of positive representation of so many groups in this book. Angel (real name Fereshteh) is a hijabi Muslimah; Jimmy Kaga-Ricci is transgender and gay and suffers from depression and panic attacks; Lister Bird (another member of The Ark) is bisexual; Rowan (the third Ark member) is Nigerian. And with the exception of Jimmy’s mental illnesses, none of these are presented as Issues To Be Dealt With; rather, Ms. Oseman paints each character fully and then sends them on their way. Being transgender or bisexual or religious is treated with respect, but nothing is ever made An Issue (my growing-up-and-reading-YA-in-the-80’s-and-90’s self still so appreciates this; back then, everything was A Very Serious Issue, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop being grateful for characters who are something other than straight, white, cishet, etc, just going about their days and not being made a massive fuss over because they’re in a subset of humanity). It’s just characters based on real people living their lives, and it’s the kind of book I’m here for.

I Was Born for This is fun, moving, thought-provoking, and bursting with the kind of YA energy that teenagers deserve. Every time I read YA like this, I’m so jealous of the quality of writing teens are offered these days. I wish books like these, full of honest stories that speak to real teenagers, who they are and what they want and need, had been available when I was younger, but I’m even more glad that they’re available now. This book is a joy, and a treasure.

Visit Alice Oseman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

I Love You So Mochi- Sarah Kuhn

I was just thinking this morning that 2020 is an Olympics year- super fun, because I love watching summer Olympics (winter, ehhhhhh- my apologies to my Norwegian heritage)- the swimming! The diving! The gymnastics! The fifty three million games of beach volleyball! It’s a whole lot of fun and I’m really looking forward to it. I had added I Love You So Mochi by Sarah Kuhn (Scholastic, 2019) to my reading list because I needed a book set in Japan as part of PopSugar’s 2020 Reading Challenge, but I’d forgotten that particular prompt was because the 2020 Olympics will be set in Japan! Pretty cool to get to travel there via book before I get to travel there via my television. ๐Ÿ™‚

Kimi Nakamura loves to create clothing. Her skills as a painter lend her ideas for bold designs with bright colors, and she’s easily able to translate what’s in her sketchbook to a fully wearable unique outfit. It’s something that brings her joy and makes her feel alive. After she realizes she no longer wants to go to art school and paint professionally the rest of her life, her relationship with her mother blows up, and a plane ticket and invitation to visit the Japanese grandparents she’s never met couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Kimi’s off to Japan on a journey of self-discovery, trying to figure out what her future should look like.

In addition to getting to know her grandparents, Kimi meets Akira, a cute boy who helps out at his uncle’s mochi stand, occasionally dressed as a large mochi. Together with Akira, Kimi visits the sights around Kyoto, taking inspiration from everything she sees- including her blossoming romance with Akira- and figures out where she fits in in the world.

It’s been a while since I read a book set in Japan (I tried one last year and DNF’ed it). Ms. Kuhn’s descriptions of the places Kimi visits with Akira and her grandparents are perfection, especially her descriptions of the fabric shop (I love fabric! I don’t sew as often as I would like, but I so enjoy checking out what’s on the shelves in fabric stores). Seeing Japan through the eyes of a teenager who had never been there before was incredibly charming, as Kimi is a very engaging character who feels things deeply.

I loved Kimi’s passion for sewing. One of my favorite books growing up, Baby Sister by Marilyn Sachs, featured a main character who loved to sew and who created outfits for herself. Combine that with the fact that sewing is just such a practical skill, and I automatically enjoy a character who sews. I’m trying to think of other teen characters I’ve read that sew, and none are coming to mind (although I’m certain I’ve read them before…). Because of that, Kimi’s a breath of fresh air, creative and bubbly and fun.

There was a lot that didn’t quite work for me, though. Everyone Kimi meets in Japan speaks fluent, near-perfect English. Their receptive language is also perfect, nothing is lost in translation, and everyone is able to understand even the most complicated idioms and teenagery slang, something I found entirely unrealistic. It’s explained about two-thirds of the way through the book that her grandparents have been taking English lessons for over twenty years (the exact number isn’t named, but they took them as a family when Kimi’s mom was young and she left Japan twenty years ago; I’m assuming they kept them up on their own afterwards for their skill levels to be this high), but unless they had some sort of practical application for their language skills outside of lessons (conversation group, maybe? Working with teenagers in order to learn their slang?), I can’t see how they could have maintained that kind of level of receptive and expressive language. Akira’s fluency is never explained, which I found equally as bothersome. It’s probably expected that the reader understands he studies English in school, but again, he’s a teenager, one who wants to be a doctor and who spends his time studying obscure medical textbooks, and because of this, I didn’t buy his extremely high level of skill with the English language. (And I say this as a former ESL tutor. The nuances of language can be tough and it takes a lot of time and opportunities to practice and learn. A brief explanation of Akira’s English acquisition- lots of work with tourists! Extra lessons! His best friend once lived in an English-speaking country and helps him practice!- really would have lent some credibility here, because Kimi goes full-on slang-talking teenager with him all the time, and I couldn’t buy that he never once misunderstood her.)

Akira as a character seemed a little bland to me. His romance with Kimi is adorable, but we never really learn all that much about him. He wants to be a doctor, he’s the youngest of six siblings (I think that was the number), he feels a strong obligation to his family, and…that’s about it. Does he have friends? He never once mentions them or does anything with them, and other than the times he’s helping his uncle out at his mochi stand, he’s with Kimi. Does he have no other commitments? No other hobbies or activities?

Kimi’s journey of self-discovery is a great idea in theory, but it didn’t end up being much of a journey. In the beginning, her mother insists that fashion is just a hobby, a distraction from real art, and both she and Kimi seem entirely unaware of the many careers that exist in which a degree in fashion design, or even sewing skills, can be useful. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I point out that the end results in Kimi’s journey aren’t exactly all that surprising. Had her mother been totally against Kimi going into fashion design in the first place and Kimi worked to find the confidence to stand up to her mother and point out all the reasons why this would be in her best interest, that would’ve worked better for me.

So while a lot of this didn’t quite work for me, it was still a cute book, and Ms. Kuhn’s writing helped to create beautiful pictures of Japan in my mind, ones that I’m sure will stick with me. I’m going to have to poke around and see if I can’t hunt down some sort of sewing class (that doesn’t cost like nine bazillion dollars, looking at you, local community college…), because I really would like to be able to have skills more akin to Kimi’s…

Visit Sarah Kuhn’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

historical fiction

The Only Woman in the Room- Marie Benedict

It’s a new year, so that means new ambitions, and I’ve resolved to go back to the library book discussion group! I got away from it last year after schedule conflicts and being sick, but with my daughter being in school, I can always hit the Wednesday afternoon group if I have a schedule conflict with the Thursday night group. This month’s selection was The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2019), a fictionalized account of the life of Hedy Lamarr, the Austrian-American actress and inventor of a radio frequency-hopping system for torpedoes. And because of her inventions, which were eventually used by the Navy and which formed the basis of today’s wi-fi, I’m counting this as PopSugar’s 2020 Reading Challenge prompt for a book about or by a woman in STEM.

The novel covers Hedy’s life from about age nineteen, during the height of her Austrian stage career and just as she was beginning her courtship with Friedrich Mandl, an arms dealer and one of the richest and most powerful men in Austria, through the middle of the Second World War. Even before their marriage, red flags abound, and Mandl quickly turns out to be violent, abusive, and controlling, even going so far as to lock her in their ostentatious home. Hedy uses her intellect to gather intel from various visiting guests, occasionally earning Mandl’s favor, but it’s never enough to change him into the husband she’d hoped he would be. During her house arrest, she learns as much as she can about munitions and radio technology, feeding the insatiable curiosity she developed as a child listening to her father explain the world.

Her flight from the encroaching Germans and her marriage lead to her eventual move to the US, where her film career takes off. Desperate to help the Jews of Europe during this dark time, she works with a musician friend to invent a better torpedo system, but Hedy’s pretty face and the intense sexism of the time lead to nothing but rejection and dismissal.

Hedy Lamarr’s story is one of both triumph and tragedy, and both are shown in Ms. Benedict’s book, though her portrayal of Lamarr’s life ends during World War II. The chapters are fairly short, which makes this an easy read, but I really wish it had gone into more detail and shown more depth. There’s so much to fit in here that the story occasionally feels rushed and devoid of emotion, and there’s so much of Lamarr’s life that she didn’t cover. Her studies and thirst for knowledge are mentioned only incidentally and feel a bit glossed over. During her later life, a period not covered by the book, Lamarr had multiple marriages (only two are covered here; she had six total) and had an estranged relationship with her children (the parentage of one seems to be a controversy, which also isn’t mentioned here and which I was surprised to learn about in further research). A botched plastic surgery led to her becoming a recluse, and she never really gained the recognition for her intellect that she so badly craved.

What the book does cover, however, albeit it a little more blandly than I think deserves, was her shockingly abusive marriage to Friedrich Mandl (obvious content warnings exist for this, including several on-page rape scenes, though none of them are descriptive). Half the book is devoted to her imprisonment at his hands, and it’s a sad, depressing tale, though her resilience is admirable. Mandl is a whole sack of trash, however, switching loyalties based on who makes him the most money and being hideously controlling, jealous, and abusive to his wife. Her mother is no help either, averting her eyes and citing ‘wifely duties’ whenever Hedy shows up for a visit at home covered in bruises.

This book brought to mind a library book discussion group pick from last year, Circling the Sun by Paula Mcclain. Hedy Lamarr and Beryl Markham had a lot of similarities: multiple marriages, estrangement from their children, tense (or nonexistent) relationships with their parents, authorship controversies surrounding books each had written. I’m wondering if this selection was on purpose, in light of our group having read this last year, and I’m really looking forward to the discussion on this particular point.

While I enjoyed this book for giving me a glimpse into Hedy Lamarr’s life, I wish it had gone into greater detail and covered more of her life. What a fascinating, tragic woman.

Visit Marie Benedict’s website here.

fiction · YA

Catfishing on CatNet- Naomi Kritzer

The first read (that I’m blogging about; I finished reading The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis out loud to my daughter, but I usually don’t blog about those reads) of the new year, and one of the promts of the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge that I would be the most difficult to fulfill: a book with a robot, cyborg, or AI character. I’m not the world’s biggest sci-fi fan, and I wasn’t quite sure what I would read for this…and then I remembered Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer (Tor Teen, 2019), which I’d already requested that my library buy, both thanks to this article on NPR, and other reasons I’ll get to in a bit. It fits this prompt perfectly and kept me on the edge of my seat (and laughing!) until the very last page.

Steph has spent her whole life moving from town to town; she and her mother have been on the run from Steph’s arsonist father for as long as she can remember. Steph knows the rules: don’t get too close to anyone, don’t give out any important information, and never share your picture online. All of these rules have made making friends impossible, but Steph has found solace on CatNet, a social network where cat pictures are currency and where the people in her group (known appropriately as a ‘clowder,’ the term for a group of cats) totally get her, and she gets them. It’s the one place Steph feels like she belongs.

This new school, despite its lack of rigorous academics and its lame sex ed-teaching robot, shows signs of promise. Rachel, an artist, seems like someone Steph could be friends with. But Steph’s past- along with a few mysterious truths- comes calling, and after a member of her clowder steps in to help, she learns this friend isn’t the human being she’d been picturing, but a sentient AI (who goes by the screen name CheshireCat). With Rachel, CheshireCat, and the other members of her clowder, Steph goes on a cross-country dash in order to save herself and her friends, but there’s so much more at stake than just that.

Again: I’m not really a fan of sci-fi, most thrillers that involve people being on the run, robots and AI, etc, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but Catfishing on CatNet has been on my list since before its release. I read Naomi’s Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories in 2017 and absolutely loved every single story- a rarity for me, as I usually don’t care for short stories (thanks for ruining those for me, seventh grade English teacher…). Cat Pictures Please is one of those books I recommend to everyone; my friend Sharon describes it as “great science fiction short stories that (usually ) start out as normal domestic scenes and then get turned a little sideways,” and this description is spot-on. They’re a little like Stephen King’s less creepy and more fantastical short stories, which I always loved. The other reason Catfishing and Cat Pictures Please ended up on my TBR lists…

I’ve known Naomi since 2002, when we were both part of the same small-ish online parenting group. She’s always been one of my favorite posters and I’ve been delighted to watch her success as a writer grow. (And another huge delight is being able to hear Naomi’s voice in her writing. Sometimes- and it was way more obvious in Cat Pictures Please, though she came through loud and clear in Catfishing– a line or a paragraph would pop up that sounded so much like her that I would actually laugh out loud to be able to ‘hear’ my friend’s voice in such a format.) If Catfishing weren’t up to snuff, I’d have no problems saying so; our parenting site taught us well to take seriously harsh criticism (it was that kind of site, the gloves came off at the door!), but Naomi being a friend is just incidental to this (and I wanted that out there as full disclosure). Catfishing is fabulous (and I’ve been joking in our private groups that Naomi totally named her main character after me).

CheshireCat, the sentient AI, is a joy to read. While they’re able to parse information at lightning-fast speeds, they’re still figuring out emotions and how to interact with humans, and they don’t always get it right, leading to scenes that had me laughing out loud multiple times in public. During one scene, Steph and crew conspire to get ChesireCat to take over her sex ed class’s robot (which only provides information on abstinence; all other questions receive a curt, “You’ll have to ask your parents about that”) in order to teach them actual, factual information. No spoilers, but the results are amazing.

Steph is sympathetic, a friendless teenager who’s been on the run her entire life, desperate for a place to fit in and to call home. Her clowder fills in the gaps for her lack of social life (total #goals, by the way; they’re placed together by CatNet, which- no spoilers!- has done a fabulous job of grouping together kids who need and understand each other, and I loved this so much), but real-life Rachel, and to a lesser extent Bryony, are the real-life connection Steph has been dreaming of.

This ends on a cliffhanger, and there will be a sequel. I’ll be pestering my library to purchase that one as well, because frankly, I want more of Steph, her ‘meatspace’ friends, her clowder, and definitely more of CheshireCat. Catfishing on CatNet really made me want to live in a world where AIs can become sentient (at least, in a benevolent CheshireCat-like manner), because I could really use someone like CheshireCat in my life, someone to have my back and save the day by zipping through the internet at a moment’s notice. Couldn’t we all use that?

So, to sum it up, if you like fast-paced YA, or you’re looking for something to fill the robot/cyborg/AI prompt in this year’s PopSugar challenge, Catfishing on CatNet is one you won’t want to miss! (And do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories, because it’s AMAZING.)

Visit Naomi Kritzer’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love- Dani Shapiro

The Unorthodox podcast strikes again! I was merrily listening along when the hosts began their interview with Dani Shapiro about her new book, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love (Knopf Publishing Group, 2019) (link to this episode here; because of this episode, I also have a library copy of Adeena Sussman’s Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors From My Israeli Kitchen cookbook on my couch right this very moment and it’s FABULOUS. Usually I find like two or three recipes TOPS I want to make in each cookbook I check out from the library, but this one, I found myself wanting to copy down so many recipes that it’s going to be worth it to buy the entire book. Highly recommended! Can you see why I enjoy this podcast so much????). I’d heard of the book before and kind of filed it away as another one in that growing genre of people who received surprising DNA test results. This interview, however, had me scrambling to hit the ‘want to read’ button on Goodreads, and I’m glad I did.

Dani Shapiro never felt like she fit in in her Orthodox Jewish family. Her blond hair and blue eyes made her stand out and had people constantly telling her, “You don’t look Jewish…” Beyond that, there was a feeling, a feeling that had her staring at her image in the mirror her entire life, searching for something she couldn’t name, couldn’t put words to despite being a writer. A DNA test done on a whim in her fifties revealed something she never expected: her father, the parent she’d been closest to, wasn’t her biological father.

Despite still being Jewish according to Jewish law (a fact that she didn’t seem quite able to summon in those first hazy days of shock), Dani’s entire sense of self is upended, her entire childhood come into question. Her mother had made allusions to a fertility clinic years ago, and along with a comment from the woman who she once thought of as her half-sister (but with whom she’d never been close), she realizes that she was conceived using donor sperm. With her journalist husband’s help (and the help of one of his colleagues), she’s able to narrow down the family of her donor, and then the donor himself, all within a number of days after the initial discovery, something close to miraculous in terms of how searching for donors usually goes). Emails are exchanged, tentative at first, one step forward, two steps back, and then a meeting is planned. Dani must come to terms with who she is and how her identity has been altered, and what it all means.

This is a doozy of a story, and according to Dani’s Unorthodox interview, it’s not hugely uncommon (I think she mentioned that the statistics are something like one in every two hundred-and-something cases reveals unexpected parentage). The popularity of DNA testing for ancestral origins has blown the door wide open on family secrets previously thought to be un-sleuthable, and while her parents had both passed on by the time her story came to light, I imagine that every day there are difficult conversations being had about this very topic. Dani’s education and connections to people able to aid in her search gave her a major advantage in being able to advance in the mystery of her paternity, and to begin putting the pieces of her life back together after having it all upended. She’s aware of this and doesn’t take it for granted.

Dani must also reckon with what her parents knew, if anything, as well as the religious community she grew up in: was this a secret both parents hid from her? Did one parent know and not the other? Did everyone know but her? As nearly everyone connected to this story is either dead or in their 90’s, it’s nearly a race against time to fill in the blanks this explosion has made in her story. She does seem to make peace with it in the end, and for that, I’m glad. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and the stories others tell us about where we came from and how we came to be are so important in shaping our images of ourselves, and having your entire story erased in one swoop has the potential to be emotionally devastating.

In the end, Dani Shapiro is able to find comfort in the abiding love of the father who raised her. I do wish she had spoken more to the fact that family isn’t necessarily only blood ties, that there are many ways to make a family and that biology is just one of them, that biological paternity (and maternity, for that matter) doesn’t make or break a parent’s relationship with their child. That wasn’t necessarily the focus of this book, as it centered more around the secrets her parents might or might not have kept, but leaving it out disappointed me a little, as so many families are built and flourish on ties that have nothing to do with biology (including mine!). Oversight? It’s possible, and it’s also possible that this just wasn’t her focus, so I’m willing to let that go.

I can’t help but compare this to When I Was White by Sarah Valentine; there are definite similarities, though the writing styles are very different. Both women are highly educated, both always felt out of place and had people make constant comments on their appearance when they were young. Both had strained relationships with their mothers. Both had their sense of self and self-image rocked when they received the news that their heritage wasn’t exactly what they thought it was. I’m sure the two women would have a lot to talk about and find a lot of common ground if they ever found themselves in the same location. If you’ve read both books, I’d love to hear what you think!

And of course, I can’t bump one book off my TBR list without adding another; after logging Inheritance on Goodreads, I combed through Dani Shapiro’s other published works and added Devotion to my list. There’s no such thing as a TBR down to zero. I’ll just keep repeating that to myself.

Have you done DNA ancestry testing? I have, and it’s pretty fascinating. I’m going to have to haul my laptop to the library one day (or many days) and make use of their Ancestry.com subscription. My mom’s family likes to talk about how Italian they are (and they have an Italian last name, an apparently uncommon one at that), but I’m not at all Italian (and just a tiny bit Sardinian, along with a smattering of Spanish and Portuguese; my mom and her older sister are nearly identical, my dyshidrotic eczema comes from that grandfather, and I look exactly like my dad’s side of the family, so everything’s kosher there, pun intended), so I’d like to be able to track down how that side got to the US, since no one seems to know. (The other side, I know; my great-great grandparents emigrated from Norway, and I still have family over there, including a third cousin!). This kind of testing has opened up a world of fascinating, and sometimes surprising, information for people, and Inheritance is a great example of this.

Visit Dani Shapiro’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

All-American Muslim Girl- Nadine Jolie Courtney

I usually remember the process by which a book ends up on my TBR. I may not remember which friend recommended a book to me, but I’ll remember it was recommended by a friend. I may not remember which blog I saw that book on, but I know a fellow book blogger raved about it. But for the life of me, I can’t remember where I first learned about All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), only that it went immediately onto my TBR. And that was absolutely the right action to take, because this book was ah-maaaaaaaaaa-zing.

Allie Abraham is Muslim, nominally. Her family- Dad was born Muslim, Mom converted- doesn’t pray, doesn’t attend mosque, doesn’t fast for Ramadan. Dad, a native speaker, never taught Allie Arabic or the Circassian language, and has always tried to downplay his religion and heritage. Allie’s pale skin and lighter hair don’t necessarily clue people in to her heritage either, and thus, not only does she feel out of place amongst her more devout extended family, she’s also the dumping ground for anti-Muslim bigotry that non-Muslims dump on her when they think they’re in good company. As a result, Allie has spent her life hiding who she really is, never truly comfortable with her background, becoming a different person each time her family moves for her father’s work.

This new town in Georgia, however, feels different. It’s meant to be permanent, and Allie almost immediately catches the eye of Wells, a supercute guy in her grade. Their attraction is mutual, but there’s one major catch: Wells’s father, a majorly conservative TV host who spreads Islamophobia, amongst other horrors, on his TV show. Allie could go on hiding who she is, just as she’s always done, but she’s increasingly drawn to Islam, its practice and its meaning, in a way she’s never been before. Via study and her new involvement with her school’s Muslim Student Association, Allie’s discovering things that speak to her soul and help her define who she truly is…but how will her father, who has always subtly encouraged her to pass as non-Muslim, react?

Ohhhhhh, how I loved this book. In Allie, Ms. Courtney has given us an Every Girl, a teenager used to changing her image to fit in like so many teenagers do, unsure of who she really is and who she wants to be. YA novels with strong teen characters who know exactly who they are are so necessary (and there are so many great examples of those out there!), but characters who are searching for identity and a sense of self reflect the experience of the majority of adolescents, and Allie’s character arc throughout the novel is a beautiful one of growth, in tentative baby steps, trying out what works for her and working up the courage to present that part of herself to the world (a world that isn’t always friendly and is often downright hostile to those parts). While her religious journey may not be something every reader can identify with, her search for identity is, and Ms. Courtney has created a sympathetic and sharply intelligent character who will have readers cheering through her bravery and triumphs, and rooting for her in her pursuit of identity.

A very basic understanding of Islam would be helpful in reading this book, but as Allie is learning as she goes (even buying and hiding a Qu’ran from her parents! The irony of a teenager sneaking religion, of all things, along with Arabic language lessons, was…I don’t want to say humorous, but given all the things she could have been hiding in her bedside table, well…), the reader should be able to learn right along with her. Allie’s entire extended family is warm, inviting, and deeply supportive, and should have any reader wistful for such a welcoming group. I also enjoyed the trajectory of her friendship with the girls from her Qu’ran study group. While they often disagree with each other on different issues (dating and relationships, how to best practice Islam, etc), there’s room for disagreement within their friendships while still remaining close and having each others’ backs.

Allie’s relationship with Wells is very sweet and mature without seeming forced. Wells is nothing like his father, and their relationship seems strained at best, as does his parents’ marriage. He’s an easy character to feel sympathy for, even when his and Allie’s relationship isn’t quite going the way they had hoped (that’s not a spoiler; teenage relationships have their ups and downs, as we all know!). He’s kind and supportive and a great match for Allie.

Content warnings exist for Islamophobia and religious bigotry and hatred, microaggressions, on-page panic attacks, on-page death of a family member, and strained parent-child relationships. Nothing is graphic.

There’s so much good in this novel. I’d never heard of the Circassian people before and Ms. Courtney has helped to begin filling in that gap in my knowledge. Her voice is so natural and so readable, even during the more tense scenes (such as between Allie and Wells’s father, or Allie and her own father during their confrontations over religion), that her novel of growth and identity is an absolute page turner. If you’re looking for a lovely novel on the intersection of family, faith, and identity, All-American Muslim Girl needs a place on your TBR list.

Visit Nadine Jolie Courtney’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Monthly roundup

Monthly (year end!) roundup: December 2019

Happy New Year! Welcome to 2020! That number sounds straight out of a science fiction novel or movie from when I was young, but here we are.

And if you’re reading this, congratulations on making it through another year. It’s been a tough one for so many reasons and I don’t know that it’s going to get easier, but you’re here and I’m glad. The book blogging community is pretty amazing at taking care of each other and being supportive, and I’m happy to be a part of it. Thanks for always being here, whether it’s to talk books, reading slumps, fandoms, or the absolute garbage that real life can be. Y’all rock. ๐Ÿ™‚

December was ridiculously busy, but it’s that way every year. There are always a millionty things scheduled and still only 24 hours a day, some of which must be devoted to sleep, so I feel like so much of my time went to running errands and getting nothing else done! The kids go back to school in a week and I still feel like we’ve gotten so little downtime, but I think I just need to accept that’s how life is these days. At least there are always books for comfort, right?

Let’s get to recapping!

What I Read in December 2019

  1. The Chai Factor by Farah Heron

2. Before They Pass Away by Jimmy Nelson

3. Becoming Eve: My Journey From Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman by Abba Chava Stein

4. What the Wind Knows by Amy Harmon

5. Les Misรฉrables by Victor Hugo (no review, read as part of my own personal Read Harder program)

6. Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS by Azadeh Moaveni

7. Dating by the Book by Mary Ann Marlowe

8. The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia: From Abraham to Zabar’s and Everything in Between by Stephanie Butnick, Liel Leibovitz, and Mark Oppenheimer

9. Made From Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life by Jenna Woginrich

10. This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto by Suketu Mehta

11. All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney (review to come)

12. Inheritence: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro (review to come)

The first set of books has no links because, remember, I was playing catch-up and did a post full of mini-reviews. If you’re interested in seeing my quick takes of those books, go here and here.

Not the longest list I’ve ever had at the end of the month, if we’re going by numbers, but in terms of quality, I’m happy with it. There were a lot of great reads in there.

Reading Challenge Updates

The 2020 reading challenges are out! I spent a lovely Sunday poring over a bunch of them and making out lists of books that fit in with the challenge prompts (cross-referenced with what’s available from local libraries, of course, as well as what’s on my TBR lists). I’m definitely going to do Book Riot’s Read Harder 2020 Challenge, since I loved last year’s so much, and I’m also taking on PopSugar’s 2020 Reading Challenge! The PopSugar is significantly longer, but I’m not worried about that. I’ll be doing the two challenges concurrently, reading from what’s available at the library and crossing things off as I go along. And when I finish those two, I’ll probably do the Modern Mrs. Darcy 2020 Reading Challenge, just for funsies. I’m feeling ambitious this year!

If none of these tickle your fancy (where that’s located…), here’s a fabulous master list of all the 2020 reading challenges! Check them out and find something that stretches your brain.

State of the Goodreads TBR

And we’re back up to 81 books on the TBR, but the five books I have checked out of the library are all on that list, so January may see that number decrease, but only if you people stop posting about such interesting books! *sobs*

Books I Acquired in December 2019

Christmas day was weirdly warm, so while my husband and daughter played at the park, my son and I went for a four mile walk, which included stopping by a Little Free Library. I dropped off two books and picked up two more: a copy of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub (chosen solely because the heroine hails from Door County, Wisconsin, where we vacationed with my mother two summers ago), and Looking Back: A Book of Memories by Lois Lowry, who was one of my favorite childhood writers. My bookish friend in Michigan, with whom I trade books back and forth by mail, has that on her TBR list, so that’ll probably be off to her place once I read it. ๐Ÿ™‚

Bookish Things I Did in December

The only thing I did this past month was help tear down my daughter’s school’s book fair. I was supposed to help set up as well, but that was during my three day migraine (actually less fun than it sounds; I ended up having to go to the doctor for stronger meds, and I came back from throwing up in the kitchen sink to find that my insurance company didn’t think I actually needed the anti-nausea drugs my doctor had prescribed, which was fun, because I was kind of scarily dehydrated at the time). My husband stayed home to take care of me and also went in my place to help set up the book fair, for which I’m extremely grateful. ๐Ÿ™‚ Otherwise, it was a quiet month with no other bookish events.

Current Podcast Love

Still very much loving Tablet Magazine’s Unorthodox, which adds to my reading list exponentially, and which I also mentioned in my review for The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia. It’s fun, it’s interesting, it’s informative, at times it’s sad and contemplative, and other times it’s joyful and life-affirming. I’ll be so sad once I’m through with all the back episodes, but I absolutely plan on keeping up with all the new ones as they come out.

Stephanie’s Read Harder Challenge

1463 pages, DONE. WHEW!

I can’t say that this made me love Victor Hugo any more than I did before (which was bordering on not at all, if I’m being honest. The Hunchback of Notre Dame wasn’t exactly a favorite here either). His fifty page asides and ranting tangents are headache-inducing and meandering at best (dude either really liked the sound of his own voice or the clicky sound the typewriter made. I’m feeling generous, so maybe it was both…). Cosette has the personality of a dollar store mop, Marius is irritating in his ‘Woe is me, I’m soooooooo in love with this girl I saw like twice and if I can’t have her I’ll DIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEEEEE’ (seriously, there’s nothing romantic about that, it’s just obsessive and weird, and it’s a testament to Cosette’s complete lack of personality that she didn’t run screaming), and while I did like Jean Valjean for the most part, by the end, his incessant need for self-sacrifice became tiresome. And what is with everyone giving speeches that last five or more pages as they lay dying??? Holy unrealistic, Batman! And, of course, let’s not forget Hugo’s weird overuse of the word ‘cloaca.’ Yeah. Ew.

But Gavroche. Gavroche was good. I loved him. Scrappy little dude. He was the best part of the novel. And the musical is, of course, stunning. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. I saw a gorgeous production of it let’s-not-discuss-how-many-years-ago with my high school French club and adored it. There are stark differences between the novel and musical, though, but I have no problem with that and find that both can be enjoyed for what they are.

What’s next in my own personal Read Harder Challenge? Last year, I got a copy of Opera For Dummies by David Pogue and Scott Speck. I’ve always enjoyed classical music (we listen to a lot of a local classical station in the car these days and I actually recognized a piece my son’s school’s orchestra played at their last concert as something I’d heard on the radio, which made me feel pretty cool, as it wasn’t a super well-known piece), and I’ve loved the bits and pieces of operas that I’ve heard, but it’s not really a subject I know much about and I’ve always wanted to learn. The book, which I bought cheaply at a yard sale, came with the CD, so I think I’m going to go through it, maybe a chapter per day, and listen to the tracks on the CD as I go along. Let’s get some culture up in this place!

Real Life Stuff

Whew, what a month! Total whirlwind of activity. My daughter has now lost her two bottom front teeth and looks like a tiny late-season jack-o’-lantern. My son had multiple choir concerts this month, both for Concert Choir and Madrigals (yes, he wore the costume and looked fabulous, and is glad he doesn’t have to wear it again but is sad the Madrigal season is over. Crossing my fingers that he makes the spring a capella group!). We traveled four times to spend Christmas with family, and I was fortunate to spend time with my son when we went to see the movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood with Tom Hanks, about Mister Rogers (I have ALL the Mister Rogers love, as evidenced by my writing about him in the past). Super sweet movie, and it was great to do something relaxing and fun with my son, as he’s usually out and about with friends. ๐Ÿ™‚

January will be busy as usual. The kids go back to school on the 7th; my daughter’s Daisy Scout troop is visiting an animal shelter (if you hear squealing, it’ll be me, because ANIMALS!!!!). I’m going back to my local library’s reading group- SUPER excited about that! I got away from it last year due to a combination of illness and schedule conflicts, but I’m really looking forward to returning. And, something I’m even more excited about, I signed up for an Introduction to Judaism course at a local-ish congregation. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and this wasn’t too expensive and is within driving distance, plus it’s at a time when I can attend with little disruption to the family routine. All the right criteria, and I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t. That starts at the end of January, and I could not possibly be more excited (it also includes a crash course in Hebrew, so I’m out-of-my-mind jazzed about that!!!). The course runs through May and I can’t wait!

2019 was an excellent year for reading for me. I’ve finished the year at 203 books, which is a pretty big number (my highest number of yearly reads was the year I reached, I believe, 254, but that was the year my son and I spent a LOT of time at the park, so I had a crapload of time to just sit and read), but more than that, it was a year of quality reads. I’ve really learned that it’s okay to put a book down, to walk away if it’s not doing it for me, even if it’s a book from my TBR list. I used to grit my teeth and force my way through it, but I’ve learned that that’s not necessary. Life’s too short to read books that aren’t right for you, and not every book is going to be right for you. I’ve read books this year that made me cry, that made me think, that made me laugh out loud and that added joy and changed the way I go about my life. I’ve deepened my understanding of certain subjects, deepened my empathy, grew as a person, read inside and outside my usual genres, and learned about myself. No matter how much I ask from books, they always give me more than I ever expected. It’s been a good year for reading.

May your 2020 be filled with love, light, laughter, peace, and the joy of reading excellent books. Happy New Year, friends. ๐Ÿ™‚

nonfiction

This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant's Manifesto- Suketu Mehta

Immigration has been a hot topic the past few years, and I think we’ve all seen how ugly that conversation can get. I’ve mentioned many times on this blog (I think…) that I’m married to an immigrant (who is also a citizen, and a veteran, thankyouverymuch); his family moved to this country when he was three, and I spend a lot of time thinking about how difficult a move this must have been on my mother-in-law. Three children, one of whom was a baby, a new language (that she’d studied in school, but the difference between learning in school and actual spoken language is pretty major), a husband who traveled more often than he was home, I’m not sure I could have managed all of that, but she did, and I’m in awe of her. I do my best to include marginalized voices in my reading, and that very much includes immigrant voices, so I knew I had to read This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto by Suketu Mehta (Vintage Digital, 2019) when I learned about it.

Bursting with pages upon pages of footnotes and sources to back up the argument that immigration is necessary and beneficial, This Land Is Our Land covers all facets of immigration: the who and the why (they’re here because we- our country- were most likely there, in their country, exploiting it until a living could no longer be made and its citizens were forced to leave in order to provide for their families), the many wheres and the how (and the dangers of that how). This is world history- England’s brutality in India, Belgian’s brutal, bloody rule over the Congo, the United States overthrowing the government in Guatemala and funding death squads in El Salvador (and, once again, they’re here because we were there. Mr. Mehta describes this as, “You break it, you buy it,” and I think that sums it up perfectly). There are stories that escaped my previous learning, such as Chiquita Brand’s (yes, the banana company) involvement in supporting paramilitary and drug trafficking groups in order to protect their workers, and stories that I’d learned about years ago (if you’ve never read anything about Belgium’s involvement in the Congo, I highly, highly recommend King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild). There’s a lot of heartbreaking, infuriating information in this book that will have you stopping to take a deep breath and wondering why and how we can continue to perpetuate such atrocities against our fellow man.

But this is also contains great beauty, offering statistics and anecdotes (more statistics than anecdotes) of how societies flourish when we open our doors and welcome the stranger. In almost every case and in every way, society is made stronger and more economically powerful when immigrants join us. The benefits are not always immediate, and there are instances where it’s a long-term investment, but the research is overwhelmingly clear: immigrants are beneficial to societies and we need more immigration, not less.

Despite the heavy subject and often painful examples of the horrific maltreatment of immigrants, this is a quick read that will present any native born citizen of any country with a more nuanced take on their immigrant neighbor than they may have had before. It would be nice to see this book appear as required reading in high schools, college classes, book clubs, and community reads, because frankly, we as a society and as a world have a lot to learn in the way of compassion for those who have left their homelands behind.

Visit Suketu Mehta’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Made From Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life- Jenna Woginrich

I have hobbies other than reading. (I hear you all gasping. I know. It’s scandalous.) I knit- nothing fancy, but hats and mittens and scarves and baby blankets and whatnot are all in my arsenal. I do a little crocheting- I’m still slowly plugging away at that giant blue blanket. I’m working on a cross-stitched table runner that my grandma had started before she passed away. I do a little sewing, we’re planning on expanding our garden this year, I cook almost everything we eat from scratch, I bake, I play a few different musical instruments (I mean, not professionally or anything, but I do okay). Basically, I enjoy a lot of the same things my great-grandparents did, aided by lightning-fast internet videos to grow my skills, and it’s because of this that Made From Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life by Jenna Woginrich (Storey Publishing, 2008) ended up on my TBR. One of the greatest pleasures of my life is reading books by or about people who are different than me in some way, but sometimes it’s nice to read books by or about people with whom I share something in common.

Mostly memoir but partly how-to, Jenna Woginrich moved to northern Idaho for a job, but also in search of a more handmade life, one where her food, her clothing, and her entertainment were more of her own creation and not store-bought or piped directly into her house via internet or cable. Gardening, baking, chickens, rabbits, bees, musical instruments, all of these and more became part of her daily routine. Leaning on neighbors and new acquaintances for help, Jenna learned new skills and the hard lessons that come along with living closer to the land (look away for a few minutes during the chapter on rabbits, animal lovers; all-natural lives aren’t always pretty. Though never delving in to gory details, Jenna has to put a rabbit down and it’s obviously not easy for her).

I’m not allowed to keep chickens where I live (and I’m not totally sure I’d personally want to- I have enough living creatures in my house to stress out about already, thank you) and I have no desire to keep rabbits or sled dogs, but I enjoyed this book, both the chapters that resembled my life and the ones that weren’t necessarily pertinent to my interests. Ms. Woginrich is very thoughtful and deliberate about her journey towards a more authentic life, never foolishly jumping in too deep, always venturing step by step down every new path, seeking the advice and tutelage of others who have gone before her. If you’re just starting out, wanting to learn what a more simple life might look like, this is a lovely introduction. I’ve been engaged in a lot of what’s included in this book for years, so while I didn’t necessarily learn anything new, it’s always nice to take a peek into what someone else’s life looks like, and to remember that all these things I’m doing have value. It can be hard to remember that when I’m stressing about what to make for dinner or putting off that pile of mending in order to get more reading done, but those are worthy projects as well, so I’m grateful that these books exist to help me remember that.

Some of the links in her section on research are now outdated and non-existent, but I’m sure anyone looking for more information can spend a few minutes on Google, sorting through links on whatever topic it is you need.

One important note: Ms. Woginrich began her journey to a more simplified life as a single woman with no kids (but employed full-time). Her free time and ability to learn, for example, to play fiddle and garden, is going to look very different than someone who has a spouse and a toddler and older child and all the errands and responsibilities that come along with that. I’m assuming she could do whatever housecleaning she needed and then her house would stay clean and not look like a Category 5 hurricane blew threw every time she turned her back for more than three seconds (LOOKING AT YOU, FAM), and thus had more time to spend enjoying her chickens and playing the dulcimer in the backyard. I’m on a pretty tight schedule around here and spend more time yelling at my daughter to PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY FOR THE LAST TIME PUT YOUR SHOES ON OR YOU CAN GO TO SCHOOL BAREFOOT EVEN THOUGH IT’S NINETEEN DEGREES OUT (actual conversation we had last week), which seriously eats up any free time I could be spending to spin yarn, so my life looks a little different than hers. Don’t feel bad or like you’re not doing enough if you read this and wonder how you’re going to shoehorn in *more* things to do. Do what you can, when you can, and realize that you and the author may be at different places in your lives right now, and there’s nothing wrong with that. (I mention this because there was a time in my life where I would have needed to hear this message. My mom and I went on a tour of local houses once when my son was about two and I was super busy all the time. One of the houses had on display the wife’s collection of quilts that she had sewn, and it was a large, large collection. She wasn’t that much older than I was, and I was feeling horrible about myself, wondering how on earth she had time to DO all of that, and when I said as much to one of the people running the tour, that person happened to mention that the homeowners didn’t have children, and I nearly sobbed with relief, because THAT’S why they had that kind of free time. I felt like I’d totally been mismanaging everything up to that point because I didn’t have stacks upon stacks of homemade quilts!)

This is a lovely little book, a quick read about what a slower life might look like. If you need a little inspiration, you might find some in between these pages. ๐Ÿ™‚

Visit Jenna Woginrich’s farm’s website, Cold Antler Farm

Follow her on Twitter