nonfiction

Book Review: Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era

I didn’t know that this would end up being such a timely read.

Civil rights are a cause that’s near and dear to my heart. Everyone deserves the full rights of citizenship in the country of their birth or the country they’ve adopted as their own, and the fact that America still hasn’t managed to get it together in this aspect and is actively trying to move backwards is a filthy stain on our collective soul. But there are people out there fighting to right these wrongs (Stacey Abrams, you are an absolute jewel!), and some of them write books about their experiences. When I heard about Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era by Jerry Mitchell (Simon & Schuster, 2020), I knew I had to read it. Bless my library for having a copy on their shelves.

During the 1960s, white supremacists decided that their right to feel special was more important than anyone’s civil rights or right to live, so instead of getting some therapy and examining why they felt that way, they decided that murder was the answer. Members of the Ku Klux Klan plotted, planned, and carried out the murders of white and black civil rights workers, along with everyday people- including children- who were just living their lives. And far, far too often, the perpetrators and the planners of these murders walked free, even when they bragged about what they’d done to everyone with functioning eardrums. Even when some of them were Christian clergy. Think about that.

Jerry Mitchell, an investigative journalist working for Mississippi’s Clarion-Ledger, knew that there were plenty of wrongs that needed to be righted, so he set about unlocking the clues to the past. Interviewing family members of the victims, former and current KKK members, and anyone who had anything to do with these cases where justice wasn’t served, he began to help the state piece together legal cases against the alleged killers. It wasn’t easy; so many witnesses had already died, more were suffering from diseases of old age, and the ones who were still full of life made Mr. Mitchell acutely aware that his life was as expendable as those of their earlier victims. But with his well-honed journalist skills and a deep-seated sense of justice and integrity, with well-timed articles that brought crucial and long-buried information to light, Jerry Mitchell aided in the prosecution of some of the dirtiest murderers of the Civil Rights era.

This is really an incredible book. Mr. Mitchell’s dedication is deeply admirable, and his bravery is oftentimes both commendable and shocking. I can’t ever imagine a situation in which I would feel even remotely safe traveling to and going inside Byron de la Beckwith’s house (he was the man who murdered Medgar Evers), but Mr. Mitchell did. He repeatedly made contact with various people whose pasts were infuriating and frightening, who said disgusting things in his presence. Some of them had since reformed and expressed regret over their actions. Many had not, and yet Jerry Mitchell still persevered in order to get the information necessary to pen the articles that would change everything.

He’s quick to point out that he failed more times than he won, that there are still plenty of cold cases where justice was not served and where the families of the victims never received any kind of closure. But the cases he was instrumental in helping bring to court- the murder of Medgar Evers, the murder of the three civil rights workers portrayed in the movie Mississippi Burning, the murder of the four little girls in the 16th Street church bombing, and the murder of civil rights worker Vernon Dahmer- were high-profile, and while individual cases don’t make up for the lack of justice overall, the conviction of these killers is deeply satisfying. Mr. Mitchell tells the story of his work in these cases in a fast-paced read that will keep you racing through the pages in order to learn the final verdicts of each case and how they were reached.

An excellent book, and so timely for today. May we all be Jerry Mitchells in our pursuit of justice, every single day.

Visit Jerry Mitchell’s organization, the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories, edited by Katherine Locke and Laura Silverman

“Read a book from a genre you never read,” ordered the reading challenge from my parenting group, and my heart sank. Not that I’m opposed to reading outside my norms, but usually, if I don’t read something there’s a good reason for it. I don’t read the space opera-type sci fi because space freaks me out, as do aliens and other creepy space creatures like that (exception: I do enjoy Star Wars movies…). I don’t like westerns because…westerns. I don’t like short stories because of the 327847329473892 year-long unit we did on short stories in seventh grade, where I learned that short stories are depressing and formless and just kind of end mid-story with no conclusion (Naomi Kritzer’s Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories is the perpetual exception to this. One of the best books I’ve read and every story was enjoyable. READ THIS BOOK). Without going in and wandering the library shelves, this was a tough category for me to fill in my challenge…and then I remembered a collection of short stories on my TBR, It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories, edited by Katherine Locke and Laura Silverman (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2019). Something I actually wanted to read AND it fit the bill for the challenge? Sign me up! Thanks, interlibrary loan!

This is a book of YA short stories by a variety of different authors well-known in the YA world- Rachel Lynn Solomon, David Levithan, Dahlia Adler, Hannah Moskowitz, and more. Each story focuses on some aspect of Jewish identity a teenager is facing or struggling with, and the teens range from ‘I’m Modern Orthodox and literally everyone I know is Jewish’ to ‘Couldn’t properly recount the story of Hanukkah to save my life.’ There are kids who are serious about observance, kids who don’t find it especially important, and kids who are trying to decide what it all means to them (basically, they’re like every other group of teens out there who are trying on different cultural and religious identities for size). There are kids who are nervously venturing into the world of dating for the first time, and kids who are traveling the world alone. Each story is different, but each is perfectly crafted.

Hannah Moskowitz’s story is stunning and perfect and an absolute gut punch and worth picking the book up for all by itself. There are stories that are funny and that contain those absolutely mortifying moments of adolescence where you pray a sinkhole opens up under your feet and swallows you whole (I seriously do not miss being a teenager, like, at ALL), and there are stories that ask hard questions about what kind of person the main character wants to be. This book is basically everything good about the best YA writing, condensed into twelve short stories, and crammed into one amazing book. (Also? Excellent queer rep in this book. Fabulous.)

You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy these stories. Occasionally some background knowledge is helpful, but it’s not necessary. You only need to be a fan of YA, the search for identity, and great writing. I really enjoyed everything about this.

Visit Katherine Locke’s website here.

Follow them on Twitter here.

Mini reviews

A Collection of Mini-Reviews!

You ever get a little behind in things?

It’s been a month around here. Several months, in fact, and the past two weeks have been rough. Chronic pain can be unpredictable, except when it’s not- looking forward to something? INSTANT FLARE. And such was my daughter’s spring break, which I’d been looking forward to for months. Not that we were going anywhere, but it was an entire week where she didn’t have to log into virtual school, I didn’t have to supervise (“Sit up, you’re not in the camera.” “Are you even doing this?” “DID YOU HEAR WHAT YOUR TEACHER SAID? WRITE IT DOWN SO HELP ME GOD!!!”), and I would have a whole week long to actually get stuff done around the house instead of having to constantly threaten an almost-seven-year-old all day long. *tears hair out* Which of course means that my back, which was already not doing well, went full speed ahead into one of the worst flares I’ve had in my life (not *the* worst, but probably the second). It was so bad that not only was moving around incredibly difficult, I wasn’t even able to sit upright.

That’s right. That spring break, where I planned to get so much done? I spent all of it lying in bed, trying to keep my already cooped-up kiddo entertained that way.

Yeah. I don’t get paid enough for this.

After multiple doctor appointments and what basically amounted to a wheelbarrow of medication, the flare is finally mostly under control and I can do fun things like sit in a chair without feeling like my pelvic bone is electrocuting me to death. I also had another MRI and have yet another consult with the spine doc at the end of the month (not expecting him to be able to do anything for me; no one ever really seems like they can). But I’m a little behind in reviews, so I’m going to do a catch-up post of mini-reviews here to maintain my sanity, because it’s barely there as it is!

Mini-reviews, right ahead!

Boyfriend Material

by Alexis Hall

(Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2020)

Cute little M/M, opposites-attract, fake dating romance. Luc is a ne’er-do-well child of aging celebrities; his job depends on not screwing up at the non-profit’s major fundraiser for the year, and it would help if he had a respectable boyfriend. Enter Oliver, upper-class, buttoned-to-the-top barrister who could also stand to be seen dating someone for his parents’ anniversary party. It’s a perfect match, in more ways than one.

I didn’t find this super exciting, but it was a pleasant-enough read. Luc wasn’t really a hugely likeable character to start out with, so it was interesting to watch him grow throughout the course of the story and see how the author treated that. There was a family story arc here that felt deeply realistic, more so than other estranged-parent-returns storylines in other books, and I really enjoyed that aspect of the novel.

Once Upon a Bad Boy (Sometimes in Love #3)

by Melonie Johnson

(St. Martin’s Press, 2019)

Cutesy romance about Sadie, an actress on the verge of hitting it big in her first leading lady role, and Bo, the stunt coordinator in charge of keeping Sadie safe. The two of them had been a couple as teenagers, deeply in love, but ten years have passed, and things are…complicated. Can the two figure things out and find their way back to each other?

A fun distraction. I loved that it was set in Chicago- seriously, not enough stories are set in this area; it’s a great place!- and that, while not a major feature of the story, so many of the characters were Jewish. An excellent combination. 😊

Lost Lives, Lost Art: Jewish Collectors, Nazi Art Theft, and the Quest for Justice

by Melissa Müller and Monika Tatzkow

(Vendome Press, 2009)

 So, during the nightmare hellscape that was Europe during the 1930’s and 40’s, Jewish people were forced to “sell” all their property, including artwork, or had it outright taken from them because Germany and its territories needed to be “Aryanized.” *insert barfing noises here* And, of course, after the war, most places were like, “Us? Do something wrong? *GASP* But it was LEGAL back then, so really, that stuff actually truly belongs to us now, kthnxbai.” Sometimes, through legal means, people- or their surviving family members- had their stolen artwork returned to them. Usually, they didn’t, and this book tells the stories of some of the families who lost art collections they’d spent their entire lives building.

This book makes me feel extremely suspicious of even the biggest, most well-known art museums. So many places exhibit stolen art- art that they know was stolen, that they know was sold by force or under duress, and their attitude to that is, “Eh, not our problem.” I like art. I like looking at it, I enjoy learning about it, I sometimes enjoy making it, but…I’ve lost a lot of respect for art museums as a whole because of this book. If I found out that something I’d bought that had previous owners had been stolen from someone who lost everything- maybe even their life- I couldn’t in good conscience keep that object, and I can’t respect anyone who would. Excellent book that tells a deeply disturbing story of the art world’s lack of ethics.

What They Saved: Memories of a Jewish Past

by Nancy K. Miller

(University of Nebraska Press, 2011)

Memoir of a woman doing research on her Jewish family, à la The Lost by Daniel Mendelsohn, though lacking that memoir’s direction and panache.

And that’s it for now! I’m really loving the book of short stories I’m reading now, so I’ll definitely get a single review up for that once I’m finished with it. I hate getting behind, but with that nasty pain flare, it was inevitable (it’s surprisingly difficult to operate a computer when you can’t sit up). It’s good to be back on track! 😊

fiction · YA

Book Review: Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

I was scrolling through an email from Jewish Women’s Archive about upcoming Book Talks and nearly fell out of my chair to see that Brandy Colbert would be making an appearance at an upcoming talk. I read her Pointe last year and enjoyed it, and it’s always so fantastic when an author you know and have previously enjoyed shows up anywhere you can get to, right???  She’ll be discussing her book, Little and Lion (Little, Brown, 2017), and, wanting to be as prepared as possible, I immediately put the book on my TBR and picked it up on my next library trip. Success! I’m ready! Bring on the book talk!

Suzette is a Black Jewish teen girl who has made her way back to her California home after spending a year at a New England boarding school, and all is not well on either coast. She’s running from a relationship with her female roommate that ended- or didn’t quite end- not exactly in the way that Suzette had wanted. She has a lot of complicated feelings about this. But things are complicated at home, too. The whole reason Suzette had been sent out east in the first place was because of trouble with her stepbrother, Lionel. Lionel had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder before she left, something that had turned everyone’s world upside down. Unsure of how to relate to her brother, who seems to want to push everyone away, and unsure of how to deal with her sexual identity- especially now that she’s home and hello, Emil, childhood friend who has suddenly become super hot, along with Rafaela, the plant shop girl who is on the periphery of Suzette’s friend group- Suzette has a lot on her plate.

Soon after she arrives back home, Lionel confides in Suzette a dangerous secret. Keeping it means maintaining Lionel’s trust, but it also means that things could go bad, quickly, for a lot of people. Love, sexuality, religion, trust, mental health, Ms. Colbert explores how all these intersect to form teenage identity, and how delicate the balancing act is for Suzette, who will have to make a series of difficult decisions in order to decide what kind of person she is, and who she wants to be.

This book felt incredibly real. There are so many things going on at once, so many major problems that so many teenagers face- sexual identity (and the need, or not, to label what we are), relationships (romantic, family, friendships), mental health, trust between friends and family, planning for the future, religious identity…There’s a lot going on in this book, but Ms. Colbert manages to weave everything together so seamlessly that one issue melts right into the next, just as it happens in real life. Suzette is put in several terrible positions, the most jarring by her stepbrother, and while the answer to her dilemma is crystal-clear as an adult, it’s incredibly easy to see why it would be so difficult to keep Lionel’s secret as a teenager. I was deeply able to emphasize with her struggle over this.

This is a novel of the search and struggle for identity, but it also asks a lot of questions. Why do we insist on putting our identities into so many separate boxes? We shouldn’t have to be this but not that, when by now we should all realize that we can be this AND that, simultaneously, and that the overlap is beautiful and brings so much to the table. And why do we insist on concrete identities, when we’re all really works in progress? Why can’t we be this at one stage, until we grow and mature and realize that we’ve blossomed into that– maybe with a little of this coloring the edges? Little & Lion explores all of this; Suzette’s journey encourages brave exploration but also deep contemplation and full acceptance of the all things that make us who we are.

There are so many places where this book could have gone off the rails or gone too far, and it just never did. It’s a gorgeous tapestry of the search for self, of what it takes to forge a connection with someone who is struggling and how far we should let that go, of who we are and the kind of person we want to be. I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that I thought often of Marra B. Gad’s The Color of Love: The Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl multiple times, since her memoir dealt with identity and intersection of a similar-yet-different type (and was also an amazing book that is never far from my mind).

There are content warnings for descriptions of untreated mental illness and a forced outing of sexual orientation; if these are uncomfortable subjects for you at this time, be kind to yourself and wait until you’re ready.

I’m so excited for JWA’s Book Talk featuring Ms. Colbert, and I can’t wait to hear what she has to say about this book (and, well, about everything, honestly!). Suzette and Lionel had such a deep friendship, and I felt Suzette’s distress as Lionel pulled away from her, and her urgency to cling to what they once had. I’m so looking forward to hearing about her thought processes as she wrote this, and hearing what’s next for her. What a fabulous book.

Visit Brandy Colbert’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine by Eric Weiner

It was an episode of the podcast Judaism Unbound that clued me in to the existence of Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine by Eric Weiner (Twelve, 2011). You may be aware of Eric Weiner’s other books, including The Geography of Bliss (which I read and enjoyed years ago) and The Geography of Genius. I knew about those books and had heard of them in various places; I had never heard of this one before, and I leapt out of bed to tap the Want-to-Read button on Goodreads. I’m always interested in what a widespread spiritual search looks like, and Eric Weiner doesn’t disappoint here.

After a nurse asks him if he’s found his god yet during a hospital trip, Eric Weiner realizes…no, he hasn’t. He’s not even sure what God means. Surely someone out there has this all figured out, right? Plenty of people out there seem happy with where they’ve ended up, spiritually speaking. He makes out a list of places he finds acceptable to look, and off he trots in search of the Divine and what speaks deeply to him of it.

From Kabbalah to Buddhism, from Taoism to the group known as Raëlians, Eric Weiner travels the globe, looking for the sect to which he feels he can connect with the sacred, for a place that feels like home and an endpoint to his spiritual search. Along the way, he’s excited, weirded out, forced to examine what he thinks and feels and knows about what makes something holy. Maybe it’s more than what he previously believed, and maybe it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation, but along the way, he learns that everyone’s ‘god-shaped hole’ looks a little different…and that’s okay.

Combination travelogue and religious seeker’s journal, Man Seeks God is a fun look at some well-known and some more (or incredibly!) obscure religious groups spread far and wide throughout the world. From China to Vegas, from Israel to Nepal, you learn almost as much about the places Mr. Weiner travels to as you do about the religious sect he’s learning about in that place. And that, to me, wasn’t a bad thing. I enjoy travel memoirs, and since we can’t go anywhere these days, this was an interesting literary field trip to learn about things I hadn’t much touched on since the year I took a college Comparative Religions class (seriously the most fascinating class I’ve ever taken). The Raëlians were pretty far out, but not the most unique group I’ve ever learned about (I wish I could remember the name of the American group that wore these burqa-like coverings and wandered in a field for one of their rituals. I had never seen anything like this before and watched it over and over again!). Mr. Weiner goes into each sect with an open mind- probably far more open than I would have been able to; I’m not sure I could get down with the Raëlians, to be honest- but he writes about his experiences in a fun and funny way, all the while being as respectful as possible of the different paths and beliefs…even when most of them prove that they’re not for him.

I enjoyed this. I enjoy Mr. Weiner’s humorous-and-slightly-self-deprecating-but-still-somewhat-serious style and the look into religions that definitely aren’t for me but are still enjoyable to read about. Even when they were something he outright rejected, it was still pretty fascinating to read about the people these practices did work for. My brain doesn’t quite work in a way where Buddhism or Taoism fits me well, but reading about the teachers that Mr. Weiner learned from helped me understand these paths better. And I can’t say I knew too much about the Raëlians before this (just enough to wonder, “They’re into aliens, right?” when I saw whom the chapter covered), but now at least I’m better informed (won’t be signing up, though. Still not my thing. If it’s your thing? Party on!).

Fun fact: as I was writing up this review, I noticed Eric Weiner’s latest book on Goodreads, The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers. I’d never heard of this book before, but thought it sounded interesting, as philosophy is a subject I’ve always thought I should read more about. About twenty minutes after that, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed while eating dinner (I’m the only person in the house who wants to eat dinner at the table; alas, I have been outvoted) and found someone from a podcast group had posted a picture of books in a library display. In that display? The Socrates Express. I love when this stuff happens.

Visit Eric Weiner’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Life’s Too Short (The Friend Zone #3) by Abby Jimenez

My wish was granted, my wish was granted! I’ve never actually wished for a book on Netgalley before, but I adore Abby Jimenez so very much that I decided to take a chance on her Life’s Too Short (Forever, 2021), the latest installment in her The Friend Zone series. I loved the first two books so very much that I wanted to sink my claws into this book as soon as possible, and to my massive surprise, the publisher granted my wish. Thanks, Forever and Netgalley. If you’ve loved Abby Jimenez’s other books in the series, get ready to fall even harder…or, if you’re looking for a new author to swoon over, Abby Jimenez is one you cannot miss. Life’s Too Short is amazing.

Vanessa Price, well-known YouTube travel vlogger, has been sidelined by the unexpected. Her addict sister has abandoned her newborn with her, and Vanessa is struggling (hey, newborns are tough!). Her bedroom wall apartment neighbor, hot workaholic Adrian, steps in to help her out one morning at 4 am, and the rest is history. The two start up a symbiotic friendship: Vanessa gets some help with the baby, Adrian finally gets to experience a life outside of work, and, despite vowing to remain just friends, the two of them inch closer to a five-alarm blaze of a relationship.

But things are complicated. Vanessa might be dying. The women in her family are cursed with a familial gene that triggers early-onset ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Both her mother and her sister died with/from it, and Vanessa’s chances are about 50% of having it, too. It’s why she became a travel vlogger, determined to see as much of the world and squeeze as much out of life as possible before dying young. Adrian doesn’t quite understand how dire things are for her, and when he does learn the truth, it’s nearly too much for him to handle. Can Adrian find a way to live life- however much is left of it- on Vanessa’s terms?

This. Was. Adorable. Despite the heavy subject matter- death and dying are always looming in the background, whether it’s the memories of Vanessa’s mother and sister, or Vanessa’s potential demise- Abby Jimenez manages to keep this a light, optimistic read. Her characters are vibrant, brimming with life and energy, bursting off the page in a manner that puts her writing on my list of insta-buy authors. Vanessa is determined, buoyant despite her circumstances, and yet not so optimistic that she seems unbelievable. Her odds of dying from ALS have forced her to define in exact terms what she wants out of life and the direct route to getting it. She doesn’t have time to beat around the bush; her directness and persistence, rather than making her brash, portray her as confident and courageous. She’s someone the reader immediately wants to spend time with- whatever time she has.

Adrian is a fabulous hero. He’s capable and confident, a little gun-shy from having been burned by his recent ex, but not so damaged that his heart isn’t open to Vanessa. But- and this is HUGE- he doesn’t pursue her, because early on, she tells him she doesn’t date, and he respects that. SWOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON. As if a hot lawyer who takes charge and figures out why your baby is screaming and takes over so you can go shower for the first time in days isn’t already amazing enough! Hello, I’d like to order one of those, please! He’s not without his flaws, big ones that will eventually put him and Vanessa at what initially appears to be insurmountable odds, but…love finds a way. Or at least it does in romance novels like this, and that’s more than enough for me.

I loved this. I love this series, I love this author. Abby Jimenez has a way of creating characters who, for the most part, don’t need to worry about money (because that can bog a story down, so giving characters financially lucrative careers is definitely a nice tactic for an author to get that out of the way) but who don’t seem unrealistic, and who don’t let their financial status define them. Even though her stories often deal with tough subjects (infertility, grief, death), she approaches each topic in a way that breaks it down enough to seem manageable, greeting every theme with a can-do attitude and a supportive cast of characters that make even the unfathomable seem not so bad. If I could have any author pen my life story, I’d want Abby Jimenez on the job.

Huge thanks to Forever and NetGalley for providing me with an early copy of this book. Life’s Too Short is available on April 6, 2021, and I highly suggest you check it out. While it’s part of a series, it would read just as well as a stand-alone, but really, you want to read the other books in the series as well. They’re just as fabulous.

Visit Abby Jimenez’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Monthly roundup

Monthly Roundup: March 2021

And now it’s April! Last year’s March dragged on for approximately 4389294230432 years, but this year, it seemed more normal. Bit of a tough month for us, and I didn’t get nearly the amount of reading done that I wish I could have, but such is life (I feel like I say this a lot these days…). The month at least ended with my daughter’s spring break, so we got a little bit of relaxation in there (don’t get me wrong, I very much appreciate the tiny bit of normalcy that her school schedule, even though it’s virtual, gives us- routine is good!- but a break is good now and then, especially after this month). Warmer-ish temperatures are here (though we still have chances for snow! A few years ago, it snowed for ten hours straight the day before my daughter’s outdoor April birthday party. And then the next day it was 65. Oh, Midwest…), and with them comes the promise of several months’ worth of outdoor reading. I’m so very much looking forward to that!

Let’s get this recap started, shall we?

What I Read in March 2021

1. Marriageology: The Art and Science of Staying Together by Belinda Luscombe (no review)

2. Paddington Takes to TV by Michael Bond (no review; read out loud to my daughter)

3. The Organ Thieves: The Shocking of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South by Chip Jones

4. Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz

5. My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George (no review; read out loud to my daughter)

6. The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes (no review; read out loud to my daughter)

7. The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket by Benjamin Lorr

8. Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage & Preservation by Sharon Astyk

9. Jew[ish] by Matt Greene (no review)

10. Miriam’s Kitchen by Elizabeth Ehrlich

11. On the Far Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George (no review; read out loud to my daughter)

12. Man Seeks God: My Flirtations With the Divine by Eric Weiner (review to come)

13. Pippi Goes on Board by Astrid Lindgren (no review; read out loud to my daughter)

In terms of numbers, this wasn’t a great month, but I’ll get to the why of that in a bit. But in terms of quality, I’m happy. Eight of these books came off my TBR, including five of them from my interlibrary loan list (so happy I’m able to get books through there again!). I didn’t get to any off of my own shelves, but that’s just how it goes sometimes and I’ll try again in April. One of these books counted towards my parenting group reading challenge.

I’m enjoying reading the My Side of the Mountain series with my daughter. I never read past the first one as a kid (which I reread a TON of times; what kid doesn’t want to run off to the woods and live in a hollowed-out tree???), and the first one is still the best by far, but the others are still fun reads. She’s wanting to take a break between books #2 and 3 to return to the Pippi Longstocking books, though, which is fine!

Reading Challenge Updates

I have three books left for my parenting group reading challenge- and really, one of them, I could fill in with a few of the books I’ve already read (it’s a prompt to read something you’re passionate about, and I read a lot on topics I’m passionate about!), but we’ll see. The only one I’m not sure what I’ll read is to read from a genre you never read. I’m thinking maybe short stories? I think I’ve read two books of short stories as an adult (one I loved, one I didn’t; it’s not a genre I normally care for), so I’m very much open to suggestions here!

State of the Goodreads TBR

Last month, I clocked in at 179; this month, it’s…175! I may just hover in this general area until the pandemic is over and the house gets quieter.

Books I Acquired in March 2021

Two this month. I stopped by the dollar store to pick up a set of nail clippers for my husband, and they had hardcover copies of Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. I loved that book, and though I don’t keep a lot of fiction books, I decided that for a dollar, I would absolutely love to have my own copy of it. I also grabbed a copy of Little Women from a Little Free Library to eventually read out loud to my daughter.

Bookish Things I Did in March 2021

Uh…nothing? Which is probably a good thing, as stressful as this month was. In April, I may have the chance to virtually attend a talk by Qasim Rashid, who is awesome, so I’m looking forward to that.

Current Podcast Love

I’m taking a bit of a break from Judaism Unbound and listening to Crime Junkie. I don’t normally listen to true crime stuff, but I switched one night when I had a wretched migraine and needed something that I didn’t much have to think about. I’ll probably switch back in a bit, but Crime Junkie definitely features some interesting and tragic stories. It also highlights exactly how much society doesn’t care about people from lower classes, and women in particular. If you’re female and you’ve ever suffered from addiction, that absolutely lessens the chances that law enforcement will want to search for you if you ever go missing. It’s utterly horrifying.

Stephanie’s Read Harder Challenge

On hold until life goes back to normal!

Real Life Stuff

So.

I usually start this section off with a picture, but I’m not going to this month, because it’s still too hard for me to look through my pictures.

I mentioned last month that Reba, my girl cat, wasn’t doing well, and, as expected, she left us this month to go wherever the best cats end up. She’d been showing signs of feline dementia for quite a long time, and over the past six weeks, she declined rapidly. Making the decision to let her go was awful, but it was the right one, though I miss her terribly. It was a hard, hard month in that aspect. We still have Piglet, my tuxedo boy, but he’s not all that young, either, though he seems to be in okay health. I’ve been snuggling him a lot the past week.

All the stress of watching her decline and worrying about her led me to have several migraines and some lesser-but-still-nasty-and-debilitating headaches, which was awful. A few nights, I was in bed by 9 pm, feeling like someone shot me in the head. My body really doesn’t handle stress well! I’m currently experiencing a nasty flare of nerve pain due to my back issues; it’s next to impossible to get anything done because the only comfortable position is lying down. I got new meds for this yesterday, so I’m crossing everything that they help. If not, back to the doctor with me on Monday.

Stressing over the cat took up a lot of time and energy this month; I feel like that was the majority of what went on around here. I had my last Zoom Judaism class; now it’s on to writing an essay about my spiritual journey. “It can be any length,” the rabbi said, and I wondered, though I refrained from asking, if there was a length that would be too long. I get kind of wordy sometimes. *nervous laughter* That said, Chag Pesach Sameach to everyone celebrating! 😊

What’s next in April? My daughter’s #2 pandemic birthday; she’ll be 7, and we’ll do our best to make the day special for her when she still can’t have friends or family help her celebrate- though we may try to see family for an outdoor, distanced, masked walk and/or picnic, depending on what the weather dictates. I have my first mammogram on the 15th– FUN TIMES!!! Three days before that, vaccines for all becomes a thing in my state; I’ll wait until after my mammogram to start trying for shots for my son and me (husband got his first dose yesterday!!!), because the shots can cause lymph node swelling that may interfere with proper imaging, so I’m begrudgingly waiting those extra days! My parents, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law are all fully vaccinated, so that’s at least a relief.

Two more months of virtual school left for my daughter before summer break (and then I’m sure I’ll miss the routine of virtual school!). We can do this!!! We’ve started some plants for our garden already; not sure when we’ll be able to put those out, but we’ll at least be able to start clearing the garden out a bit this month.

Hang in there, friends. Enjoy some good books, hug your pets, and keep looking forward and working for brighter days. Do your part to end the pandemic and fight for justice for all, so that we all end up together, whole, on the other side of this. May your April be warm, peaceful, and full of the promise of better things to come.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Miriam’s Kitchen by Elizabeth Ehrlich

Reading lists are both the best thing ever and the bane of my TBR. I don’t know that I’ve been able to look at many lists titled things like, “100 Books Coming Out This Year That You Can’t Miss!” or “You Will Literally Die If You Don’t Read These Books!” without my TBR growing exponentially. It’s really the best problem to have, isn’t it? It was a reading list that introduced me to Miriam’s Kitchen by Elizabeth Ehrlich (Penguin Group, 1997). The premise had me hitting that want-to-read button immediately, and interlibrary loan delivered the book into my hands- in a stack of other interlibrary loan books, of course, because, as we know, everything always comes in at once!

It’s not until she’s an adult and has children of her own that Elizabeth Ehrlich begins deeply pondering what her Jewish identity means. Never fully identifying with the religious aspects, she turns to the kitchen of her mother-in-law Miriam, a Holocaust survivor who still maintains a kosher kitchen and cooks nearly everything from scratch. Homemade noodles, chopped liver, all the dishes that Elizabeth remembers her grandmothers laboring over appear on Miriam’s table, and Elizabeth wants to know more. Something in these old ways calls out to her, and at Miriam’s side, she begins to learn and ponder the traditions that have been passed down for millennia through her family. Little by little, she moves toward a kosher kitchen, toward trying out the religious aspects of Judaism, seeing what fits, seeing where she belongs, all the while recounting the stories of her family members- mostly women, but some of the men as well. These people lived through some of the worst violence humanity has ever perpetrated on their fellow men; the miracle of their survival pushes Elizabeth to look deeper, work harder, to create something to pass down to her children. Even if they ultimately reject it, giving them something from which to turn away- and maybe return to one day- feels right.

This is an absolutely lovely memoir. Miriam and Ms. Ehrlich’s bubbes and her mother are women of valor, women who experienced horrors, who weren’t given many options in their lives, but who persevered anyway, doing the best they could with what they had. They exemplified hard work and honor, working both in and outside the home, without many of the tools we take for granted. Seeing all they did without many of the luxuries I own really made me think while I was reading this.

I deeply identified with Ms. Ehrlich’s draw toward certain aspects of Judaism, that pull without fully understanding the why of it. Sometimes you just feel moved toward something that doesn’t necessarily make logical sense- it’s a bit like falling in love, I think. There’s not always a rhyme or reason to it. When she was faced with the daunting task of kashering her kitchen and living a kosher life, she was somewhat dismayed by all the extra work it will take, all the time and emotional labor necessary to remember which sponge is used for wiping up meat spills and which for dairy, all the strength it takes to tell her children no, that we don’t eat that, and then cooking after a long day at work. But still she felt drawn to do it, even knowing the difficulties, and that is something I understood and felt on a visceral level. (Not for the exact same reasons- I’m vegetarian, so that cuts out like 99% of the problem right there, and I live in a house with three non-religious, occasional meat-eaters, so unless I wanted to maintain my own set of pots and pans and dishes, keeping a kosher kitchen wouldn’t really be possible for me. I *could*, but I don’t know that anyone else in the house would remember which dishes were just mine, and I’d end up having to re-kasher them like twelve times a day…)

She’s hard on herself, seeing all the ways she falls short of Miriam’s ideal, but still forging ahead and jumping in with both feet, which I found deeply admirable. So often, we shy away from what intimidates us- I know I’m guilty of this- especially when we know that perfection is unattainable. But she begins anyway, taking the steps to live the life she feels drawn to, and that’s a message to live by.

I wonder if Miriam ever felt intimidated by the older women in her life, if she ever felt that her cooking, her kitchen, wouldn’t measure up. Will Ms. Ehrlich’s grandchildren feel the same as they observe her preparing Miriam’s recipes? Do we all feel like this to some degree, that we’ll never be the strong, capable women our foremothers were? This book raised a lot of questions about how we connect to our pasts and what we carry with us into our futures, what we pass down, and I’m glad this ended up on my TBR. I don’t know that I’ll try any of the recipes in it- some of them sound absolutely delicious, but in terms of heart-healthy cooking, they’re not something I would normally make (thank you SO much, genetic cholesterol levels!). Perhaps one day, I’ll get up the courage…

I don’t see any websites or contact information for Elizabeth Ehrlich; if you’re aware of any, let me know in the comments and I’ll amend this post. Miriam’s Kitchen is the winner of a National Jewish Book Award.

nonfiction

Book Review: Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage & Preservation by Sharon Astyk

What does your pantry look like? Do you have a dusty can of beans from a year when One Direction was still together, a package of an ingredient you’ve never used and are too intimidated by to open, and not much else? Or are you like me, with a few months’ worth of food stashed away in various corners of the house? This past year has shown us the importance of being prepared for tough times- job losses, shortages, weather events that cut off power and access to stores, all that and more has plagued us (pun intended) as a society, and being prepared for these terrible events isn’t a bad idea. Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage & Preservation by Sharon Astyk (New Society Publishers, 2009) has been on my TBR for a while; it piqued my interested because having a fully-stocked pantry has always been important to me (mostly because I’m lazy and don’t ever want to have to make an emergency run for a missing ingredient!). This seemed right up my alley, so I requested it via interlibrary loan.

Think about this past year, when toilet paper, hand sanitizer, yeast, garlic, and various other products were nowhere to be found on store shelves. How did you fare? Having a well-stocked pantry in trying times could alleviate stress and get you through rough patches caused by job loss, weather events, power outages, economic downturns, illness, pandemics, and all the other chaos that disrupts daily life and may make getting to the store or procuring sustenance for your family difficult or impossible. Changing your diet to one more sustainable to your location, gardening, obtaining food and supplies from more local and sustainable sources, and preserving this food in a variety of ways are all suggestions that Ms. Astyk has for creating a better-prepared life.

It’s a lot of work, true, but so is pretty much anything worth doing, she argues, and stocking your pantry is never something you’ll regret if things go sideways. With in-depth discussions on gardening, locating storage space no matter where you live, recipes, the ups and downs of various forms of preservation, and more, Sharon Astyk has created a basic primer for anyone interested in living a prepared life.

This is a pretty good book for anyone starting out on the journey of planning and stocking their pantry. She lays out some pretty compelling arguments for the need for keeping your larder stocked, and a lot of the scenarios she frets about have actually taken place in the years since the book was published. Her pleas to her readers about the necessity of storing water don’t seem so wild after this year’s devastating winter storms in Texas that saw residents without running water for ages, and storing pantry food isn’t at all far-fetched after seeing the shortages on grocery store shelves during this past year. (I keep at least two full boxes of toilet paper from Sam’s Club in the basement at all times; it wasn’t even something I had to think about last year as I watched people all over the country scramble for even the rough stuff. The only thing I lacked was an adequate supply of hand sanitizer, but that’s because it wasn’t something I normally use. Now, though, I’ll always have some on hand!) Some of the Goodreads reviews seem to view her as a kind of out-there prepper, but I have to wonder how those people handled the crises this past year.

If you’ve been serious about storing and preserving for a while, there’s probably not much to learn here, but this is a great resource for anyone who has realized that maybe it’s not so bad to keep a three-month (or longer) supply of food on hand. Ms. Astyk covers all of the why, along with some of the how, and provides a few recipes along the way. This was a nice reminder of why I shop the way I do, and why my kitchen resembles a small overflowing grocery store.

Visit Sharon Astyk’s website.

Follow her on Facebook here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket by Benjamin Lorr

I’m one of those weird people who actually enjoys grocery shopping. Of course, the pandemic has changed that a little bit; these days, it’s mostly get-in-and-get-out-as-quickly-as-possible-without-breathing-near-people, but in normal times, I enjoy seeing what’s on the shelves, what products I’ve haven’t tried, what’s on sale. I live by some great grocery stores, so this is always an adventure. It’s because of all this that The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket by Benjamin Lorr (Avery Publishing Group, 2020) ended up on my TBR. I requested it at my library even before it hit the shelf, and there were several people ahead of me! I love knowing I live in a town with such enthusiastic readers.

Think of the grocery stores you shop at- a chain? A big box store? A specialty store like Trader Joe’s, a co-op, maybe a store with lots of organic products like Whole Foods? Maybe you’re one of the few people who still have a local store. Regardless of where you purchase your food, there are rules as to what food ends up on the shelf. The supply chain, as we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, is a machine with many parts, but each part is far more precarious than the average American might expect.

From the studied beginnings and growth of Trader Joe’s to the exploitation of American truckers, from the numbers-and-hustle game of getting a product on store shelves to the exploitation of Thai shrimp workers, Benjamin Lorr covers the profits-over-all system of food shopping in the US and how we as consumers participate in this system simply by our need to eat. Were you aware that a large portion of shrimp in the US is produced via slave labor? Did you know that around 90% of new products end up failing each year, and that the producers of each product must pay to get their products on the shelf? How much do you know about how exploitative the trucking industry is, and how the men and women who deliver everything you consume and use might not be making any money at all, but might instead be paying to work? Almost every part of the machine that works together in order to fill our grocery stores has a dark story that we don’t necessarily see or think about, and it’s all laid out here on the pages of this book.

I went into this book expecting to learn solely about grocery stores, but I came out of it better informed about the horrors of the supply chain that makes American grocery stores possible. Absolutely every cog in this machine runs on exploitation, from the lowest paid shelf stocker to the one-handed Thai slave who works 20 hours a day on a shrimp boat, to the person who has developed a great new product and who has run themselves ragged and put their life savings into trying to get that product into stores. Other than the high-up CEOs and high paid businesspeople at big box stores and mega corporations, American grocery is built on the suffering of people around the world, including Americans.

This is one heck of an exposé, and it’s a pretty depressing read- it’s a necessary one that will change the way you look at grocery stores and the products on the shelves, but it’s a book that will have you questioning your participation in such a terrible system. (I didn’t plan it this way, but the book I picked up immediately after finishing this discusses ways to extricate oneself from this system to the extent possible, since we’re all bound to it in some part.) I did wonder how the pandemic’s affect on the supply chain would have affected the book (toilet paper, anyone?); an additional chapter in future editions would definitely make a great addition, but that might actually be its very own book.

The Secret Life of Groceries will force you to examine the ways you participate in a system that harms so many, and it’ll have you pondering exactly how these stores and corporations are manipulating you through their marketing strategies. Ethical consumption is the responsibility of everyone who can financially manage it, but the modern grocery store has made that a massive, massive challenge, and Mr. Lorr has proved that in this book.

Visit Benjamin Lorr’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.