nonfiction

Book Review: Men Who Hate Women – From Incels to Pickup Artists: The Truth About Extreme Misogyny and How It Affects Us All by Laura Bates

If you’re a woman, you know. You know there are men out there who hate you simply because you were born (or became) a woman. They make shitty misogynistic jokes that they think are hilarious, they roll their eyes when you talk about the statistics that one in three women experience domestic violence in her lifetime, they talk about how men are the real victims in all of this. They grope. They harass. They assault. They abuse. They rape. I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t come in contact with men like this; many of us are unfortunate enough to have them in our own families. And the problem is growing. The internet has made institutionalized misogyny widespread, and it’s cropping up in our schools, our workplaces, and our government policies. Laura Bates has chronicled this infuriating phenomenon in her outstanding book, Men Who Hate Women – From Incels to Pickup Artists: The Truth About Extreme Misogyny and How It Affects Us All (Simon & Schuster UK, 2020).

Chapter by chapter, Laura Bates introduces us to the different types of misogyny that have become prevalent throughout the culture: the incels (short for involuntary celibate, this is a group of whiny men who feel that women owe them sex simply for being male, and they refuse to take responsibility for having lame personalities and zero decent personal grooming habits. Because of course it’s our fault and not theirs that they’re alone), the pickup artists (slimy, manipulative conmen who will go to any lengths to get women to sleep with them, and who think that rape is no big deal), the MGTOWs (Men Going Their Own Way; basically, dudes who are so done with women, they want nothing to do with them, which pretty much sounds like a giant favor to the rest of us, but which can have major affects on women if, say, your boss belongs to this group), and others, including red pillers and men’s rights advocates. These men spend their time on a portion of the internet collectively known as the manosphere, where they share degrading memes, make pathetic jokes, and egg each other on towards violence. More than a few mass shooters have been known to participate in these misogynistic communities; almost all of them have had prior convictions or accusations of some sort of violence against women.

This well-documented book illustrates the violence, fear, and extreme black-and-white thinking that goes on in the minds of the men who identify as members of these groups, and the real-life consequences and outcomes of such groupthink.

Once again, this is not an easy read. It’s an extremely disturbing exposé that shows the gradual creep of misogyny into nearly every corner of our lives, and how it’s very much not taken seriously. How many times has it come out that yet another mass shooter had been arrested for domestic violence or assault against a woman? Almost every time, and yet it’s barely a blip on the radar of most authorities that this alone is a major risk factor. Ms. Bates, who has received thousands of death and rape threats throughout her career as a journalist for exposing these cretins for who they are, makes the case over and over again that this line of thinking is dangerous- dangerous for women, dangerous for society, and yes, dangerous for men.

It’s a line of thought that doesn’t get enough mainstream press coverage, she argues (correctly!) that toxic masculinity (not men-are-toxic; strictly-enforced-ideas-about-masculinity-are-toxic would be the better way to frame it) hurts men. Women can be anything from a dancer to an engineer; why shouldn’t the same be true and acceptable for men? Why does society want to shove all men into one round hole of ‘tough; unemotional; strong,’ when that’s obviously unhealthy? Men should be able to create beautiful art, and to explain what they were feeling when they painted it (and to be taught from an early age how to understand what it is they’re feeling and TALK about it!). They should be able to become whatever it is they want, from teachers to librarians to engineers to dance instructors and no one should give a shit, because that’s what makes for healthy people and a healthy society. And men should be able (and expected!) to be good, nurturing parents to the kids they create and the kids they take on as their own. Society hurts men (which in turn hurts women) when we expect so little from them.

Will this book help create change? I don’t know. It’s a deep, wide problem that spans the globe, and Ms. Bates is well aware of that. But we have to do better, and being aware that these communities exist and of the damage that they inflict- on women, on our society, on themselves- is a start. At the very least, every parent should be reading this to understand what’s out there and what’s trying to rope your kids in, since most of this radicalization is taking place online (YouTube is especially bad at recommending far-right content; meme farms on Instagram are also a major problem). Be aware; read this book, and make sure you’re paying close attention to the language your teen boys are using (and girls as well; there are some women out there looking to rope in like-thinking young girls. The trad wife movement is a big nasty part of this).

Visit Laura Bates’s website, Everyday Sexism, here.

Follow Everyday Sexism on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

The United States may call itself a country of immigrants, but it’s not a country that’s known to be kind to immigrants. Not in the past, and not now; not by our government, nor by our citizens. Obviously there are major exceptions; there are a ton of organizations out there fighting really hard to make this country a safe and welcoming place for our newcomers (I’ve volunteered teaching English as a second or other language in the past with one of these great organizations!), and I don’t want to discount their hard work and amazing contributions. But as a whole, the crazies tend to shout incredibly loud and drown out the voices of the helpers; we make it as difficult as possible to come here legally (unless you’ve got plenty of money, and then the rules don’t count); and it’s difficult to start a new life here when you have nothing, because we offer so little in terms of help. One of the people speaking up about how difficult it is for immigrants is Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, an undocumented writer (she’s on DACA) of undocumented parents. Her book, The Undocumented Americans (One World, 2020), is an eye-opening gut-punch that examines the difficulties of living in the United States without legal status.

How much do you know about undocumented immigrants? You’ve probably read the stories of people smuggled in on trucks or making dangerous journeys across the desert with coyotes (people paid to smuggle others into the US), and seen the tragic photos of families drowned in the Rio Grande. What happens to the people who make it here? They pick your fruits and vegetables. They clean your office buildings. They build your houses. They package your food. They cook the food you eat in restaurants, they clean up after natural disasters, they rushed in after the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001 to sift through the debris that gave them cancer in order to get New York up and running again. They serve and give. They do all of this without health care, often at massive personal expense, with zero protection- if their boss doesn’t pay them that week, there’s nothing they can do. And so they suffer. And Karla Cornejo Villavicencio wants you to understand exactly how much, and what that does to not only them, but to their families. Their children. Their communities.

There are other books that will illuminate the reasons people come here illegally- desperate for safety after their lives have been threatened, searching for a way to make more than $50 per week at a full-time job, etc.- but Ms. Cornejo Villavicencio is more interested in explaining the emotional and physical damage her people have suffered. Are suffering. Will suffer. She’s angry- rightfully so, because for all that a large faction of our country likes to talk about respecting life, we certainly have no problem using the lives of these people- taking what we need when we want restaurant food, clean offices, help after natural disasters- and then throwing them away once they’ve served their purpose. Their pain is fresh and raw, and what they suffer is passed down the line to their children. The Undocumented Americans is heavy proof that we as a society are shirking our responsibilities to humanity.

This is a sad, heavy book about a group of people who have suffered a lot even before arriving here, and who continue to suffer after they arrive. Ms. Cornejo Villavicencio floods each page with raw emotion, anger, desperation. She’s a Harvard graduate and a current PhD candidate at Yale, but she makes the case that so often, when we hear of undocumented immigrants, we hear of stories like hers, the brilliant kid who climbed higher than anyone could have possibly imagined, and don’t they deserve citizenship for their brilliance? But what about the other people- the ones who came here out of desperation, seeking safety, the opportunity for their kids to simply go to school, who work two or three jobs (or more) at a time in order to make sure their children would have paper and pencils and whose services and lives and abilities we Americans take advantage of every day of our lives? Are people only worth it to us when they contribute massively to capitalism? Are human lives only worth as much as their financial potential?

We’re so willing to dismiss this group of people, and this book will show you exactly what we’re looking past every day. I can hear the arguments now- “Well, they came here illegally, so it’s their own fault that-” and I want to scream. They’re human beings. They’re people. Why are we so hell-bent on making people suffer for such stupid, arbitrary rules? Why can’t we take care of people in a way that makes them more able to participate in society? Why are we so willing to throw so many people away, simply because they had the audacity to be born somewhere else?

This is a book that will make you cry, if you’re at all a decent person. I’ll continue to vote for people who want to be part of a compassionate solution, and to do what I can so that the people Karla Cornejo Villavicencio writes about have better, safer, healthier lives and more opportunities than just breaking their bodies down piece by piece and dying young because of it. Because they’re people, and they deserve so much better than the cast-off scraps we deign enough for them. This book was truly amazing and heartfelt.

nonfiction

Book Review: Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II by Svetlana Alexievich

Piggybacking off my last book, I grabbed a copy of Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II by Svetlana Alexievich (Random House, 2019) from the library. I had read Ms. Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl in 2019, and while writing my review for that, I checked out her other books, and that’s how this one ended up on my list. Most books about World War II center around European nations: Germany, Poland, England, France. I hadn’t read anything before that focused on the Soviet Union, and definitely not anything from the perspective of the children who survived the horrors. I don’t know that the perspective of Soviet Children was a perspective I ever considered, and there was certainly a lot in this book I hadn’t known about.

Children are uniquely traumatized by war, and World War II was devastating for millions of children, for a million different reasons. The children of the Soviet Union suffered in a multitude of ways, most of them horrific and brutal. Each small chapter in this book is a transcript of an interview with a person who was a child during the war, who witnessed terrible things no human being should ever witness, but who have shared their stories, at great personal cost, so that the world will remember what it took from them.

There is deep, scarring pain on every page of this book. Most children lose their fathers; many of them watch their fathers being murdered, and many of them watch their mothers murdered as well. Some are forced to bury their parents. Others watch as their siblings die or are murdered in front of them. They starve. They’re beaten by soldiers. They witness their neighbors slaughtered by German soldiers. They eat grass and dogs and cats in order to survive. They dig graves and hide in the forests in winter. They flee their houses that the soldiers set on fire. They’re damaged for life from all that they’ve seen and suffered.

How did I make it to 41 years old without knowing all of this? My schooling barely touched on war on the Soviet front. All I remember learning is about how the German army went to the USSR and froze; I was never taught about the nightmare the Germans foisted upon the Soviet people, and definitely not the way they murdered their way through so many of the towns. I learned about how the Nazi soldiers occupied towns in France and Denmark; how they bombed England and how tough rationing was; never once was I taught about how they raped grandmothers and left parents hanging from ropes in trees in the USSR. Did other schools teach this? I had a really good education and I’m usually pretty pleased with all that I learned in the schools I attended, but this was absolutely never covered even once.

Needless to say, this is a dark, dark read from a horrible period of history that I’m actively embarrassed I knew so little about. If you have the mental and emotional space for it, I highly recommend it, because these are stories that need to be heard and understood, and Svetlana Alexievich has compiled an incredible collection of stories that illustrate the deep abyss of pain Nazi soldiers wrought upon Soviet children and their families.

fiction · historical fiction · YA

Book Review: They Went Left by Monica Hesse

When I was in my early 20s, I picked up a copy of After the War by Carol Matas, about a group of Jewish teenagers and children making their way to Palestine after surviving the Holocaust (this is an excellent book; I highly recommend it). Upon reading this, I realized that most books about the Holocaust focus on the horrors of the concentration/death camps; they mostly end when the camp is liberated, and few books talk about what happened next. What happened to those people who lost everything, who witnessed unspeakable nightmares every day for years? How did they move on with their lives? Could they even move on? This period of history, post-WWII for the survivors, has intrigued me ever since, and that was how They Went Left by Monica Hesse (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2021) ended up on my list. I was glad to learn of its existence.

18 year-old Zofia Lederman has survived- survived the war, survived the Gross-Rosen concentration camp, and survived most of her family. Separated upon arrival at the camp, she was sent to the right; the rest of her family went left. But Zofia is broken; her body has been ravaged by starvation and brutal workloads, and her mind has fractured as a result. She can no longer remember the last time she saw her younger brother Abek, and so she leaves the hospital early and begins to search for him, her only remaining family member.

Her search leads her across multiple countries, to orphanages and displaced persons camps, where people are struggling to rebuild shattered lives, some with more success than others. Zofia marvels at the ones who have picked up and moved on so easily; how is it that they are able to keep living, when she’s barely hanging on? After a while, it seems Zofia is one of the lucky ones…or is she? With the help of her new friends and the lessons she learns from them, Zofia is able to find a future in the unexpected, even if it does mean heartbreak and coming to terms with everything’s she- and everyone else- has lost.

This is a powerful book. Monica Hesse cuts no corners in painting pictures of the brutality suffered during this period of time. Mass graves, murdered babies, horrific medical experiments, survivors committing suicide after Liberation, sexual favors exchanged for survival or better work details, she leaves nothing out. This is not a light and easy novel; this is an in-your-face exposé of all the ways Jews were tortured and reaped of their dignity and their lives throughout the Holocaust. There is suffering and pain on every page, and it’s all thoroughly researched and well-woven into this story.

I appreciated that Zofia wasn’t just another strong character. She’s deeply broken at the beginning of the story, losing time and lapsing into what she’s not sure are memories or just wishful fantasies. The search for her brother is a nightmare in and of itself; we’re so spoiled today with the internet and cell phones, with such instant communication. All families had back then were unreliable phones, letters (likely with a slow, unreliable post at the time), and placing names on lists of organizations (none of whom communicated with one another). Imagine trying to find one person out of millions in that manner, when millions of your people had been slaughtered. The desperation of this method of searching is highlighted throughout this book, and the whole thing just broke my heart.

I’m not sure any book about the Holocaust can truly have a happy ending- even the few whole families who managed to survive still lost homes, friends, communities, their entire way of life. The best, most powerful books end with resolve, and that’s what They Went Left offers: the digging deep and reaching out to find what one needs to keep living. Monica Hesse has created a novel that offers exactly that.

Visit Monica Hesse’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Love at First by Kate Clayborn

I’m trying to think back to where I learned about Love at First by Kate Clayborn (Kensington, 2021). Most likely it was mentioned on an episode of the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books podcast (which I really need to catch up on!). Most of my romance novels come from there, whether they mention the book directly, or just the author, and I decide she sounds like someone I want to read (and then prance off to my library website to see what’s available. I have a Sarina Bowen on my list coming up soon that ended up there for exactly this reason!). Anyhow, I’d been checking the library on a few past trips, but this was always checked out. Last time, it was in!

Will and Nora first meet as teenagers in a way that Will remembers for the rest of his life, for both good and tragic reasons, but they don’t meet again until they’re adults, Nora grieving the death of her grandmother, and Will, now a doctor, struggling to figure out what to do with the apartment he inherited from an uncle he only met once. Their connection is instant and nearly palpable, but things are tense: Nora’s apartment building is her family, the people in it standing in for the close-knit relatives she didn’t have beyond her deceased grandmother, and Will wants to fix up and rent out his unit as temporary lodgings. Nora and the other residents are aghast; Will can’t understand why this is such a big deal.

But as they get to know each other, each begins to soften to the other’s point of view, and the distance between them softens and the pain of the past comes to light. Nora and Will need to learn to compromise and trust- easier said than done, but they’ve got a whole building of family rooting for them.

Sweet little romance novel without a ton of drama. Nora is having a hard time moving on from her Nonna’s death, stuck in her grief and needing to keep everything in the apartment (and apartment building) just as it was, no matter how inconvenient, in order to hang on to the last vestiges of Nonna. Will, who lost both parents by 18, has nothing to hang on to, and he’s been living his life based on a sharp remark about himself that he overheard his distant uncle make the one time he met him years ago. It’s served him well in some ways, but in others, it’s made it impossible to truly live…and that’s a problem when he starts falling for Nora.

There aren’t a ton of ups and downs here; it’s not exactly the most exciting and dramatic romance novel I’ve ever read, but it’s sweet, and it made for a relaxing read in the midst of all the depressing nonfiction I’ve been plowing through lately. I did enjoy the quirky apartment residents. Ms. Clayborn really created a building full of people with distinctive personalities, without venturing into caricature territory- it reminded me a bit of all the Maeve Binchy novels I loved as a teenager. Her supporting characters are always a little off-the-wall and well-defined, and this gave me the same feeling. Despite its bizarre velvet hallway wallpaper, this is a building I would love to live in. (And can I just say, I LOVED that this was set in Chicago! It’s such a great city and there aren’t enough books set here.)

Cute read. I really liked Will as a hero. As someone who really takes other people’s criticism hard, I understood his motivation for shaping his life the way he did.

Visit Kate Clayborn’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Monthly roundup

Monthly Roundup: September 2021

I legit do not understand where September went.

I suppose that after March 2020, any month seems fast, but this one blazed by like lightning. The month just started, and now it’s October? What??? The temperatures took a drop here, then popped back up; we’re in that yo-yo season, where it could be either 50 or in the high 80’s, and most days it starts off chilly enough to need a light jacket but ends up toasty by mid-afternoon. There’s really no telling around here. We’ve trick-or-treated in shorts, and we’ve trick-or-treated during snow storms, so who knows where we’ll be by the end of the month! (Or even what we’ll be doing. As it stands, I *think* we’re going to attempt trick-or-treating- masked, of course- but with the pandemic still changing so rapidly, who knows. I will say, our county- which boasts the highest vaccination rate in the state- is faring pretty decently in terms of numbers, and- KNOCK ON WOOD- there have been zero cases in my daughter’s entire school district this week.)

It’s been a pretty good month for reading in terms of both quantity and quality, though so much of what I’ve been reading has been super heavy in terms of content and emotional toll. I’m down to 45 books on my TBR being available at my local library, and a lot of those are ones I’ve kind of put off because of their intensity, so here we are! My goal is to try to finish this list up, then read off my own shelves in between waiting for interlibrary loan books. We’ll see how quickly I get there!

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

Books I Read in September 2021

1. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb

2. Fixation: How to Have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet by Sandra Goldmark

3. A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

4. Someday Angeline by Louis Sachar (no review; read out loud to my daughter)

5. Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Worst Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham

6. My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past by Jennifer Teege and Nikola Sellmair; translated by Carolin Sommer

7. Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession by Sarah Weinman

8. Bunnicula by Deborah and James Howe (no review; read out loud to my daughter)

9. The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control by Steve Hassan

10. People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present by Dara Horn

11. Paddington Goes to Town by Michael Bond (no review; read out loud to my daughter)

12. Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation by Eboo Patel

13. Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy by Talia Lavin

14. The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt

15. Flying Couch: A Graphic Memoir by Amy Kurzweil

16. Love at First by Kate Clayborn (review to come)

17. They Went Left by Monica Hesse (review to come)

18. Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II by Svetlana Alexievich (review to come)

19. I, Houdini by Lynne Reid Banks (no review, read out loud to my daughter)

Phew, that’s a LOT of heavy reading this month. We have: therapy, the potential destruction of the planet, politics, nuclear disaster, Nazis, murder, more politics, more Nazis, religion, white supremacy, infrastructure, post-Holocaust family trauma, a romance novel, a post-Holocaust novel, and Russian children during World War II.

I need to add some fluff to my TBR more regularly, don’t I??? Cripes.

My daughter and I had some fun reading this month. She’s loved everything we’ve read together, especially Bunnicula. We’re missing the next book in the series, but we own the two after that, so once I grab a copy of the second book from the library, we’ll start in on that. I brought up a huge stack of books from the basement shelves the other day and have been letting her choose which one we start each time we finish, so that’s been nice. We just finished I, Houdini by Lynne Reid Banks, about an escape artist hamster, which is cute but dated in a few spots (and I had to gently censor a few bits about hamster mating that she’s not quite ready to hear about, and one completely WTF line about forced mating that I truly hope has been edited out in current versions). Not sure what she’ll pick next, but it’s always fun to read out loud to her. 🙂

A good month for reading from my TBR! Fifteen of these came from my TBR list of books available at my local library. All the books I read to my daughter came from our own shelves.

Reading Challenge Updates

Not currently participating in any reading challenges.

State of the Goodreads TBR

Last month, we left off at 164 books; this month, we’re clocking in at…156! The elevator is going down. Slowly, but still going down!

Books I Acquired in September 2021

I stopped at the thrift store to check for a water bottle for my daughter (we had a great metal one with a flip-straw top, which she needs for school, so she can put the straw under her mask to drink. “This one will last forever!” I thought. She dropped it on its head and shattered the plastic flip-straw, because of course she did), and along with getting her some clothing, I also picked up a three-books-in-one book: A Room with a View; Howards End; and Maurice, all by E.M. Forster. I’d read parts of A Room with a View years ago, but didn’t get around to finishing it, and I always wished I had. Now I can. 🙂

Bookish Things I Did in September 2021

I was able to virtually attend presentations by both Wes Moore (author of The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates) and Lori Gottlieb, whose Maybe You Should Talk to Someone I read this month. Both were inspiring, insightful speakers who gave me a lot to think about. I’m deeply grateful to what I refer to as our local parent education group (but students are always present at these presentations as well and are often assigned these books as in-class reading) for continuing to host such dynamic authors and educators.

Current Podcast Love

I listened to a lot of the Leaving Eden podcast at the beginning of the month when I was cleaning and organizing, but I felt like I needed something new to listen to at night while I’m falling asleep. I have a lot of rules for my nighttime podcast: it can’t be too loud, it can’t be too linear (I need each episode to have different content, not building on the last episode, so that when I wake up in the middle of the night, there aren’t any spoilers), no music, or not much, and it can’t be too scary (I’ve discovered that a lot of true crime podcasts give me nightmares). I searched around a bit and then came across a podcast I remember my friend Sandy recommending at one point: the Ologies podcast! In each episode, host Alie Ward interviews some sort of -ologist: a paleontologist, a cosmetologist, a hematologist, a mythologist. It’s FASCINATING. Alie is delightful and fun, and her guests are all so interesting. Even if the subject isn’t necessarily something I’d explore on my own, Alie asks great questions and makes everything so interesting. It’s completely stress-free learning, and I love it so much. 🙂

Stephanie’s Read Harder Challenge

I’m still trying to get into the flow of this. My current goal is to read through The Joy of Sects: A Spirited Guide to the World’s Religious Traditions by Peter Occhiogrosso by reading a small amount each day. I take my daughter out of school for lunch each day (to cut down on her need to be maskless in school, and thus cut down my anxiety), which breaks my day in half. The morning is full of cooking and often cleaning (although I’ve kind of slacked off on this lately; I’m tired of cleaning for people who very much don’t care if they live like pigs in a hovel and who immediately trash any effort I make); my husband is home at 2 pm most days, and it’s hard to focus on any harder reading when he’s home and talking. Plus I’m also doing some of my volunteer work during this time, so everything’s still a little up in the air in terms of schedule. Pre-pandemic, I would do my cooking and cleaning, then settle down to read my Read Harder challenge book, but the lunch break usually means I have to stop my reading short, which breaks my focus. Still trying to figure this one out.

Real Life Stuff

To be completely honest, I’m struggling a lot right now. We’re, what, nineteen months into this pandemic now? With my daughter at school, I spend most of the day alone…which would normally be great, but I’m emotionally empty and starved at this point, and I’m struggling with feeling anything other than burned out and depressed. I have so many things I would like to do, but I’m overwhelmed at the idea of actually doing any of them, and it feels impossible to get started on anything. I’ve struggled keeping up with my blog posts at times and even struggled getting them posted after I’ve written them (though this has gotten better this past week!). I don’t necessarily want to take a break from blogging, because this is one of the few things keeping me on track, and writing about what I read helps to cement the books in my brain, which I love. I’m just…tired. I feel like an empty shell.

I don’t want to complain too much, because I know so many of us are struggling. These restrictions are tough, and living through history really sucks when we’re called to do difficult things in order to stay safe. Rationing sucked during World War II. Doing without pretty much everything stank during the Great Depression. Traversing the US in a covered wagon was likely not a great time, nor was it a great time when settlers showed up to steal the Native Americans’ land. This pandemic is just another tough part of history; comparatively, we have it pretty good, but mentally, it’s exhausting. I’ve been coping by reading a whole, whole lot. Soon, my swing will have to be put away in the garage for the winter and I’m pretty sad about that. My son is still living with his best friend, so I may use his room as my winter reading nook if he stays there, a quiet place I can go to escape the noise of my husband and daughter running around and shrieking like banshees (I wish I were exaggerating; they quite literally chase each other back and forth in front of my reading chair, shrieking and screaming. My sister-in-law was over once while this was happening and shot me a stricken look and said, “Is it like this all the time here? I would go nuts…” to which I just nodded).

I don’t mean to be such a Debbie Downer here, but I guess every update can’t be sunshine and rainbows; sometimes it’s just rain, but there wouldn’t be any flowers without that rain, so let’s hope for better next month, eh? I hope this is a month we can all be glad that we live in a world where there are Octobers (thanks, Anne Shirley!).

Keep your chin up, friends. We’ll get through this, and there are always books on the crummy days. 🙂

nonfiction

Book Review: The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt

Finally! It’s Infrastructure Week!

Or at least it was Infrastructure Weekend, since this past weekend was spent reading The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt (Mariner Books, 2020). I have zero flair for any kind of design myself: not the stylish, not the practical, not the functional. But I’ve long been fascinated by all the secrets of functional city design, so when I learned of the existence of this book around its publication date, I knew I had to read it. Apparently so did everyone else at my library, but there it was on the shelf during my last visit, and into my bag it went. It’s a surprisingly heavy book!

If you’ve ever been out and about and wondered, “What is that thing on that building? Why did they build the light poles on those weird bases? Do all manhole covers look like that? Is that really a house, or is a front for something else? What’s the deal with all those wires, and how did my city get all these squirrels in the first place?”, you’ve got exactly the right curiosity to dive into a copy of Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt’s book on the design secrets of city infrastructure (and a little more!).

Stemming from the podcast, 99% Invisible, the book takes a deeper look at the elements that make up our cities, from the streets to the buildings, the sewers to the skyline, how those designs came to be, and why. Complete with charming illustrations depicting the design concepts covered in the text, this is a book that will have you looking up, down, and all around to discover the hidden magic that makes your town or city home.

What a truly fun book! It starts off with a bang, discussing the colors of the spray paint that workers use to mark the ground and what each color means (FASCINATING!!! I actually copied the list down in my reading binder, because who doesn’t like being privy to what these markings mean? I feel a little like I know a secret code now!), and then keeps going with light poles and- something of personal interest to me- electrical substations that look like houses. I had never heard of this before, hadn’t known it was a thing, but there’s a house in town on our main drag that looks…just a little suspicious. Not *quite* like a normal, everyday house that someone lives in. The doors don’t look right. No one is ever there. The driveway is weird. And, as this book informs me, the likelihood is high that the building is (or was once used as) a hidden electrical substation. Building these to look like houses was apparently a thing for quite some time throughout the US. Some are still in use; others are empty, or have been cleared out and renovated to be actual houses. Always nice to have my suspicions confirmed.

I also really enjoyed the section on city animals, how to live with them, and how they got there in the first place. Apparently squirrels weren’t always such a huge presence in cities; at one point, Philadelphia (I believe it was) only had three in the entire city! But with nature comes problems, and Mars and Kohlstedt are quick to point out that one out of five power outages are caused by squirrels. As someone whose high school was once dismissed early because a squirrel chewed through the power lines and left us in the cold and dark, I’m not really surprised to learn that this statistic is so high!

The 99% Invisible City is a really fun book that will keep you interested in where you live and have you asking plenty of questions. I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, but you can be sure I have it bookmarked for the future!

Follow Roman Mars on Twitter here.

Follow Kurt Kohlstedt on Twitter here.

Check out 99% Invisible: The Podcast’s website here.

graphic memoir

Book Review: Flying Couch: A Graphic Memoir by Amy Kurzweil

I need to read more graphic novels. I always, always forget how fun the format is, how relaxing it is take in the art as I page through the story- even when the story isn’t necessarily an easy one. Currently, our teen graphic novels are squished in with the manga, which makes them kind of difficult to find amidst all the brightly colored series books, and the adult graphic novels are tucked away in a far corner of the library that I’m never by, so I don’t always remember to go looking for them. I’m really hoping that they have a more prominent place when our new library building opens up late next year (I get so excited driving past the building site on Main Street and seeing the progress they’re making. It’s slow- they started tearing down the old abandoned grocery store that formerly sat in that site late this past spring, and it’s now just an empty lot with heaps of broken concrete, and the start of a small basement, but it’s definitely progress!) All that to say, I had a bit of a hard time locating Flying Couch: A Graphic Memoir by Amy Kurzweil (Black Balloon Publishing, 2016) during my last trip, but I’m glad I finally found it squished in there on the bottom shelf.

Growing up the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor isn’t easy for Amy. Her mother, a psychologist, overanalyzes everything; her grandmother has never really shared what she went through, but Amy, a budding artist, wants to learn her family’s stories. What happened to Bubbe? What does it all mean for their family, for Amy, for their future? Sliding around in time and incorporating the stories of all three women- grandmother, mother, daughter- Amy writes and illustrates the story of her grandmother’s survival in Poland, all that she lost, and all that she carries with her to this day. By doing so, Amy explores the trauma all three generations have suffered because of it.

Graphic memoir is such an interesting format for such a heavy topic. It’s still an intense subject, and Bubbe’s experiences fleeing, hiding, and losing almost her entire family absolutely reach in and rip out the reader’s soul. But the format tempers it slightly in a way that plain print doesn’t- it doesn’t lessen the emotional impact at all, but the illustrations wrap a fuzzy blanket of comfort around your shoulders as you digest the tragedy. Ms. Kurzweil represents her grandmother’s pain well, but her drawings, frame by frame, help soothe the ache and make the long-term effects of the tragedy easier to understand.

While this is definitely an emotional subject, Flying Couch is still a fast read (just take the time to appreciate all Ms. Kurzweil’s fabulous artwork!). I flew through it Sunday morning and it’s given me an even deeper understanding of the toll of generational trauma, and the importance of sharing our stories.

Visit Amy Kurzweil’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy by Talia Lavin

I wanted to read Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy by Talia Lavin (Legacy Lit, 2020) from the moment I first heard about it. Homegrown terrorism, nationalism, and white supremacy has been a huge and growing problem in recent years, as witnessed by constant news reports of attacks, bomb threats, shootings, mass shootings, synagogue and mosque threats and attacks, and plots against various political organizations. It’s been terrible watching all of this, and I knew I needed to learn more about who these people are.

Talia Lavin is an outspoken feminist Jewish journalist. All that would have made her a target online as it is, but she began investigating the far right and its online activities, and that made her even more of a target (to the point where she’s had to hire security to protect her family, because these people are so disgusting). Her investigations led her to visit some incredibly dark places on the web, where alt-right reading materials are passed around, groups develop new slurs for the people they hate (if you’re not straight, white, Christian, male, and deeply conservative in your political beliefs, they hate you and would rather see you dead), and plots to murder are planned out. These aren’t just people living in tin-can shacks far out in the woods. These are your neighbors, the people you pass by in the city every day. Biotech employees, working professionals, educated people. People who appear to be normal, but who are hellbent on the destruction of everyone not like them.

This disturbing exposé is tempered by Ms. Lavin’s self-deprecating humor and bolstered by her strong writing skills and quick-witted intellect. Oftentimes, I reread a particularly well-crafted sentence twice, just to admire it. But the content is difficult to consume; she’s reporting on the true dregs of society here, dregs that span the globe and show up in multiple countries and on multiple continents. The hatred of the people she writes about runs deep: Muslims and Jews feature heavily (being Jewish herself, Ms. Lavin brings personal history and expertise to the narrative), but women are also a major target, especially when she delves into the incel movement (short for involuntary celibate, this is an internet movement of men that has turned their inability to develop a decent and attractive personality into a rage-filled hatefest of women, because of course they’re owed women’s time and attention simply because they exist. *eyeroll* Men affiliated with this movement have engaged in assault, murder, and mass shootings).

Culture Warlords is an emotionally taxing book to read, but it’s an important one. If you’ve never heard of any of the content Ms. Lavin covers here, you’ve likely been in a coma for a very long time, or you’re not one of the groups targeted by the people she infiltrated (and in that case, you very much need to read this book and understand what life is like when you become a target). White supremacist groups are a major problem; I truly hope that this book shines some light on the danger they present and help us as a society take the necessary steps to stamp out such disgusting hatred.

Jewish Women’s Archive hosted a great talk with Talia Lavin about this book in February of 2020; you can view that video here. It’s worth the watch.

Follow Talia Lavin on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation by Eboo Patel

One good book leads to another.

If that’s not already something people say, it should be! I was fortunate enough to attend a virtual presentation by Wes Moore, author of The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates (amazing book; highly recommended), and at the end of that presentation, the woman who heads the program hosting him reminded us of another author event happening in the spring: our local parent education program will be hosting Eboo Patel, author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Beacon Press, 2007). I already had this event in my calendar- it’s not until the spring- but I was reminded that I needed to read the book, so I immediately put it on hold via interlibrary loan. It didn’t take too long to arrive at my local library branch.

Eboo Patel is an American of Indian heritage and an Ismaili Muslim. He grew up the next town over from me (making his upcoming visit extra exciting!) and graduated from the same high school system (though not the same school) that my son did. A slacker at first, his competitive nature came out during middle school and he began to take full advantage of his intellect. His diverse friend group, however, was a little harder to manage when it came to heavier issues such as religion, something he didn’t quite realize until he was older. College came close to radicalizing him, until he veered in a completely different direction, winding up a Rhodes scholar focusing on the sociology of religion.

Dr. Patel realized how often, in discussions of diversity, religion is left out of the conversation. He wasn’t serious about more formal religious practice until later on in life, but being Muslim was nevertheless an important part of his identity, and the way he connected to his faith was through service. Realizing that putting faith into action often highlighted the values all religions share, he set off down a path that eventually led him to form the Interfaith Youth Core, a service organization that brings together young people of all faiths to participate in service projects and connect via their shared values (and to learn about and from each other!). In example after example, he illustrates the tragedy of religious extremism and how the extremists don’t neglect the young people, but pull them in early and radicalize them in order to have them carry out the groups’ nefarious deeds. Why shouldn’t the good guys pull their youth in early as well and fill their hearts with the pressing need to not only serve their fellow humans, but to connect with each other and recognize that we’ve all got so much more in common than what separates us?

What a fascinating man. Dr. Patel seemed to grow up in such a normal way, slacking off in school to the point where a middle school science teacher was irritated to find he had him in class (a turning point for young Eboo, who realized he didn’t want to be *that* student). His college years were really interesting to read about, where he fell in with a group of friends who were just this side of radical. He could very well have veered off the path here, but other influences pulled him back in, and he seemed almost shocked to find himself at Oxford, where he finally discovered his passion and set about building an organization that would lead him to serve on President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships, as well as change countless lives.

Dr. Patel brings up so many good points in this book: so many faith communities tend to ignore their young people (and then are shocked, shocked! when those same young people don’t stick around as adults. There are some who do a great job at keeping their youth involved, though- the LDS Church is fantastic at this!). The extremists know that young people are the ones with the energy, who will turn their religious feelings into action, and Dr. Patel questions why we aren’t using their energy and enthusiasm for good. Why not put their desire to change the world into action, all the while forging stronger connections with each other and learning how to navigate and appreciate their differences? As Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her amazing book Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, understanding and appreciating other religions can very much lead to a deepening of our own faith practices, and a deeper understanding of the world. Why not teach our kids early on about how beautiful and beneficial this can be?

What an inspirational, hardworking man Dr. Patel is. I’m very much looking forward to hearing his talk this spring. He’s given me a lot of things to think about.

Learn more about Eboo Patel at the Interfaith Youth Core website.

Follow him on Twitter here.