fiction · romance

Book Review: Head Over Heels by Hannah Orenstein

The 2020/2021 Olympics are in full swing now, and I can’t watch. I just can’t. I love the Olympcs- love the races, the swimming, the diving, the gymnastics. I’ve been a huge fan ever since I was young, but this year, I have zero desire to watch anyone potentially get Covid with a camera in their faces, and the IOC has been so gross in so many ways this year that I don’t feel like supporting the Olympics is something I’m personally comfortable with. Which makes me really sad, because I’ve loved the Olympics for such a long time. But my disappointment was assuaged by diving into Head Over Heels by Hannah Orenstein (Atria Books, 2020), a novel set in a world where the Covid-19 pandemic never happened, and Tokyo 2020 went off without a hitch. Would that this could have been a reality…

Things haven’t gone so well for Avery Adams since her gymnastics career came to an abrupt, surgery-necessitating end during an Olympic Trials meet. She’s been floundering since then, partying her way through and then failing out of college, half-heartedly part-time coaching a girl’s gymnastics team, and sweatpants-and-ponytail-ing her way through a relationship with a professional football player. When he finally dumps her over her lack of ambition and direction, Avery moves back in with her parents, unsure of where to go and what to do with her life. Gymnastics was her only dream; she had never learned to or thought of wanting anything else. What does a former elite athlete do when there’s never been a contingency plan?

At home, Avery receives a phone call from another former gymnast. Ryan, who had made it to the Olympics, is now coaching Hallie, an Olympic hopeful. She needs help on her floor routine, and Ryan thinks Avery’s just the person to do it. Unsure of what else to do with her life, Avery signs on and finds that this is truly where she belongs. But the issues of the gymnastics world run deep: Hallie confides in Avery her discomfort about the sports medicine doctor she’s seeing, just before the news breaks that he’s been molesting other gymnasts, and Jasmine, Avery’s former gymnast friend, is now married to their shared abusive former coach. Along with helping Hallie grow as a gymnast and developing her relationship with Ryan, Avery realizes the responsibility she has to make things better, for gymnasts and the gymnastic community as a whole.

This is a really lovely book about not only the excitement of the gymnastics world, but the devastation it can wreak on young women. It’s not all critique; time and time again, Ms. Orenstein points out the positive changes that have occurred over the years, including how much  healthier the gymnasts look (I grew up in an era where gymnasts were rail-thin, eating disorders were pretty much guaranteed in the sport, and muscles were nonexistent. I can’t speak to the prevalence of eating disorders in the gymnastics world these days, but I’m in awe of how strong and powerful today’s gymnasts look). But the critique is definitely there, especially in abusive coaching styles and how ill-prepared most gymnasts are for a future that won’t be dominated by performance. Avery is a mess before she moves home, partying too much, having no goals or dreams for herself, just kind of existing as a professional football player’s girlfriend (Tyler, said professional football player, doesn’t exactly find this attractive). She’s blown away by Hallie’s post-career goals for herself, including college and possibly law school. Why doesn’t every gymnast have those kinds of plans?

Avery’s not afraid to call out the ickiness of her former friend Jasmine marrying their much older and abusive former coach, Dimitri, which I loved. She doesn’t just nod and smile for the sake of being polite; she full-on asks Jasmine what the heck she was thinking. Jasmine too had just sort of fallen into her post-gymnastic life; together, she and Avery begin to question how things could be different for these high-tier athletes, how the community could better support them, especially in the wake of sexual abuse scandals. And then they DO something about it, because what counts in this life is action. Things with Ryan get complicated, but Avery never lets that get her down, and she doesn’t let whatever their relationship is at the moment become her identity. So much growth going on in this quick-paced story, for everyone (including Ryan, who makes a bad decision at one point and who then spends a good portion of the rest of the novel making it right in a variety of ways. TAKE NOTE, MEN).

There’s a lot of social commentary in this book and it’ll hopefully raise a lot of questions in your mind, including what we demand from young athletes and what we offer them in return; what support looks like, what accountability looks like, what oversight looks like, whom insular communities protect and why, and what it means to be brave in the face of worldwide scrutiny. You’ll have Aly Raisman and Simone Biles and their teammates front and center in your mind as you read this, and you’ll be in awe of them for speaking out about the way they were abused and for what they need to be whole and healthy, and furious that that doctor wasn’t stopped sooner.

If you’re looking for some Olympic excitement and escapism, along with great writing and a strong character who turns things around not only for herself, but others (plus a lovely romance between two people who need to work out their own stuff before committing to building anything of substance together), this is a really fun and deeply thoughtful read.

Visit Hannah Orenstein’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria

Pretty sure You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria (Avon, 2020) came to my TBR from an episode of the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books podcast. Book-related podcasts fill up my TBR so fast, as do those end-of-the-year ‘Best Books of This/Next Year!’ lists, and this book had been on the list for a while. I did recently have to rewrite my local library TBR list- the old one had gotten too messy, full of crossed-out books that I’d finished, and the list of books from my list that are available at my branch is down to 53, which actually kind of scares me! We’re allowed to sign up at other branches in the same system and check out books there, but I haven’t done that since before the pandemic, since I didn’t want to add to their stress. Interlibrary loan is up and running, though, so that’s at least a relief!

Jasmine Lin Rodrigues, soap opera star, has just been publicly dumped and humiliated, so she’s back home in New York, licking her wounds and resolving to the be the powerful leading lady she knows she can be while preparing to head a new romantic comedy series for the hottest streaming service out there. She’s not counting on the last-minute recast of the series hero, one that changes the course of her life. Ashton, telenovela superstar, is juggling a lot right now- a son he’s kept secret from the world for eight years, an aging father and grandparents back in Puerto Rico (their restaurant is still struggling to recover from the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria), the PTSD caused from a psycho fan breaking into his home with a knife years ago. But this bilingual romantic comedy is his chance to break into the English language market and become the megastar he know he can be.

Ashton’s secrecy and standoffishness immediately affects the intimacy between his and Jasmine’s characters; it’s hard to give a performance your all when you’re holding back. But little by little, he and Jasmine begin to fall for each other, and Ashton starts to let his guard down. Old habits die hard, however, and both he and Jasmine have a lot of work to do to overcome the pain of their pasts.

Cute contemporary romance novel. I loved the setting, and now I want Carmen in Charge (the show they’re filming)- or something like it- to be real. Bilingual shows, with the option for subtitles in either language? HOW COOL WOULD THAT BE? I would watch the hell out of something like that! Someone from Netflix call Alexis Daria, because this woman has brilliant ideas! Ashton is an actor who has spent his career making a name for himself in telenovelas (which I’ve always wished my Spanish was good enough to follow); he’s trying to break out and become Hollywood’s biggest Latinx leading man, and I loved hearing his perspective on his career, where it’s been and where he wanted it to go. His relationship with his family was sweet; the dilemma his career, which supported them all, caused, in terms of maintaining his son’s privacy, was an interesting aspect of the story.

I didn’t love Jasmine quite as much. I wished the story would’ve gone deeper into her psyche, instead of just focusing on ‘middle child who wanted attention and whose family thought her career was silly and not serious.’ I definitely felt as though her issues weren’t as serious as what Ashton was struggling with (especially the PTSD and worrying over his son’s safety). Obviously breakups suck and having your face splashed across crappy tabloids isn’t fun, but I wanted a little more from her side of the story. I did love, however, that she’s starring in this bilingual rom-com series without being fully fluent in Spanish. She needed help here and there, mostly extra practice with what seemed like pronunciation and the fluidity of her delivery. This really added an interesting aspect to her character (one that I’d love to see explored in other novels as well. My husband is Belgian and my daughter has so fully resisted learning the French he spoke to her when she was young. It’s something I’m sure she’ll eventually regret- second languages are so useful- but not every child of immigrants speaks their parents’ native languages, for various reasons, and I appreciated this aspect of the story).

A fun read with a great setting.

Visit Alexis Daria’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books by Aaron Lansky

Right along with books, I’ve long been obsessed with languages. I learned a bunch of Japanese when I was in grade school, took four years of Spanish and of French and one of German in high school (our school schedule was structured in a way that made this possible), have been through Duolingo’s Norwegian tree five times now, and am currently picking up some Hebrew. The many different Jewish languages fascinate me as well (there are more than just Yiddish and Hebrew!). And where Jewish language and books meet is Aaron Lansky, founder of the Yiddish Book Center and author of Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books (Algonquin Books, 2005). I’ve known about Mr. Lansky since my son was very young and I read him a children’s book about how Mr. Lansky saved Yiddish books, so when I learned that he had written a book for adults, it immediately went onto my list (and my library had an ebook copy!).

As college students learning Yiddish, Aaron Lansky and his classmates had a difficult time finding reading material. New Yiddish books weren’t really being published, and most libraries didn’t have much, if anything, on their shelves. And then he learned the terrible fate of many of the Yiddish books in existence: they were being thrown out. When elderly Yiddish speakers died, their children, who often couldn’t speak or read the language, didn’t know what to do with the books and so they got tossed. Horrified, Mr. Lansky began collecting these books. As more and more books piled up when people learned that he wanted them, he opened the Yiddish Book Center and began racing against time (and weather, and terrible storage conditions) in order to preserve the literary traditions and history of a world that no longer exists.

It wasn’t an easy job. Funding was always an issue. Space was another problem. Vans that broke down, elderly folks who overfed Mr. Lansky and his crew while sharing the stories of their lives and their books (and putting them hours behind schedule!), people who didn’t seem to understand what he was trying to do, trips to pick up books that were downright dangerous, there were a lot of obstacles in the way, but things always seemed to work out, and today, the Yiddish Book Center is an amazing institution that has helped the modern-day study of Yiddish flourish.

This was such a great read. It’s right at the intersection of a bunch of things I care deeply about- books, languages, Judaism- and Mr. Lansky tells the story of his life in a truly engaging way. The Yiddish language has never been dead; it’s still in use today as a living language, though mainly among the more Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) groups, who, in general, don’t engage with the mainly secular literature in the books Mr. Lansky was trying to save (which is why it was so important he collected them; these books are history, culture, linguistics. They’re the legacy of a people who survived some terrible times, but who left behind a rich literary treasure trove). And Yiddish has seen a bit of a resurgence among this current generation of non-Haredi Jews (are there any non-Jews engaging with the language on a widespread basis? I don’t honestly know). There are Yiddish classes in the city near me; the University of Chicago also offers Yiddish courses (my kingdom for a winning lottery ticket so that I could afford to attend!). It makes me happy that non-native speakers are continuing to engage with this beautiful language (to me, it sounds a little like Norwegian, which I think is gorgeous!). (I really love parentheses, if you couldn’t tell. Eesh.)

The people who gave Mr. Lansky their books are deeply moving. So often, they had already lost far too much in their lives; they understood the importance of the books they loved, and they shared their lives and their stories (and their homecooked food!) with the Yiddish Book Center crew. Elderly as they were, many of them went on to help collect books for the Center. You’ll be moved by their stories, their pain, their joy, and their enthusiasm for and dedication to their book collections (seriously, as literary people, we ALL get how important books are! The thought of any books ending up in trash heaps, regardless of whether or not I can read them, makes me scream inside my heart!).

Outwitting History left me in awe of everything Aaron Lansky has accomplished. He saw a problem- a whole culture and history being erased- and dedicated his life to solving it. And in return, scholars of Yiddish visit and contact his center every day. The Center sends Yiddish books all around the world, and Yiddish literature was the first to be digitized. He has done the world a massive service by preserving so many books, and though I don’t speak the language (though at some point, I’d like to learn some!), I’m deeply grateful to him for the books he and his crew have rescued. Imagine what the world would have missed out on had all those books been lost forever.

Visit the website of the Yiddish Book Center here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: This Side of Home by Renée Watson

I don’t often read the same author’s books too close together- I’m more of a space-them-out-to-make-an-author’s-works-last kind of gal- but it just so happened that not too long after I read Renée Watson’s Piecing Me Together, her This Side of Home (Bloomsbury USA Childrens, 2015) came up on my TBR and was in (still working through a bunch of ebooks), so onto my kindle it went. I spent a lovely Saturday on my backyard patio swing, chilling and swinging and enjoying this book, which has given me a lot to think about.

Maya and her twin sister Nikki are identical and have always done everything together, including sharing a best friend and making plans together for the future. But things are changing. Best friend Essence is moving 45 minutes away, thanks to her landlord selling the house she lives in. Their new neighbors are a white family Maya’s not so sure of, but Nikki becomes fast friends with Kate, and Tony…seems okay (and he’s super cute). The neighborhood is gentrifying, and although Maya’s glad it’s safer, the racial tension is hard to deal with and she’s got a lot of justified resentment about the hows and whys of it, and the feelings like all the changes in her neighborhood aren’t meant for its longtime residents.

School is changing too. The new principal seems hellbent on making sure the school isn’t focused on Black history. Inclusion is great, but it doesn’t mean erasure, and Maya’s going to fight like hell to ensure that doesn’t happen. When things get serious between her and Tony, Maya’s not sure how to tell everyone about their new relationship- and not just because Tony’s dad is fluent in microaggression. Senior year is a year of changes, and Maya engages in a lot of self-examination in order to come to terms with who she is and wants to be in this new world.

This is a quick read, but it’s one that makes you think, like really think. About identity, about racial and cultural expectations, about microaggression and racism, about gentrification and the costs and benefits of it, and who it’s really for. It was really interesting to read the perspective of a narrator (especially a teenage narrator) who lived in the neighborhood both before and after gentrification, and to feel her ambivalence about what happened to the place she’s always called home. There’s a lot to be angry and frustrated and resentful about, and Maya is- her best friend was pushed out of her home because of this, and she never feels welcome in most of the white-owned businesses that have taken up residence down the street- but there end up being some good parts to it all as well, as she learns. Does the good outweigh the bad? It’s not an easy question to answer, but hopefully you’ll read deeply enough to come away with an understanding of what our responsibilities are to our fellow human beings and the work it takes to make sure everyone knows we’re truly all in this together.

Maya grows a lot throughout the novel. She comes to understand that things change, and she has to be able to give a little as she fights for what she wants and needs. She’s easy to empathize with: change is hard, especially big changes, especially when they upend the way things have been your whole life. But she has excellent role models in her life- her father, teachers, people in her neighborhood- to give her an idea of what the work looks like to create a true community and to be a responsible adult (being a teenager and learning these lessons is hard; I wouldn’t go back to that age for anything!), and her growth is truly admirable.

I live in a fairly diverse neighborhood, which I love. But it’s still majority white, and I fully admit I don’t know all that much about gentrification, so I’m very glad I read this nuanced take on it, that showed the many sides of it and what it could be like (at one part near the end, a very positive part where the neighborhood comes together after an unfortunate chaotic incident). One of the reasons I read so much is to understand the world, to understand the perspectives of people whose lives aren’t like mine, who have lived in different places and in different ways and who have different takes on issues. Seeing the gentrification of Maya’s neighborhood through her eyes clued me into an angle that I wouldn’t necessarily have been able to consider on my own, simply because her life and my life are different. The best books do that, and This Side of Home showed me what a neighborhood looks like when it doesn’t quite work for everyone, and what it takes to make it work for everyone. This has given me a LOT to think about, and Ms. Watson’s book is something I’m going to be carrying with me forever.

This is an excellent, timely novel. Highly recommended.

Visit Renée Watson’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq by Ariel Sabar

Combing through the selection of ebooks on my library’s website one day, I came across a book titled My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq by Ariel Sabar (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008). UM, YES! I’m always fascinated by the diversity of Jewish communities around the world and I love reading further about ones I’ve only ever heard mentioned by name (like the Jews who fled to Shanghai, China during World War II, which I hadn’t really known much about until I read Someday We Will Fly by Rachel DeWoskin). And lo and behold, this book was in as I’ve been working my way down the ebooks on my TBR. Win all around. 😊

Ariel Sabar wasn’t the greatest son growing up. He never connected with his dad and treated him terribly, especially as a teenager, but as an adult, he became curious. Who was this father of his? Yona Sabar is one of the world’s foremost scholars of neo-Aramaic, a language of which he happens to be a native speaker. He grew up in Kurdish Iraq, in the mostly Jewish town of Zakho, the last generation to live there in the years before modernity reached the town. His family fled to Israel in 1951, where he struggled to learn the language and live in a way that was entirely different from everything he’d ever known. A hard worker and a good student, Yona earned a place at Hebrew University, where his studies of the linguistics of his native language, via the folktales and lullabies he grew up with, propelled him into a career that would take him around the world and have him consulting with Hollywood when they needed help with Aramaic translation.

This is the story of a man whose life has undergone numerous massive changes. Time and time again, Yona has had to reinvent himself and learn how to survive and thrive in entirely new societies, in entirely new languages, and he’s always risen to the challenge, though maybe not to the level of coolness his teenage son desired. His son worked hard to understand him as an adult, however, to research and pen this riveting account of a fascinating life, and to do what he could to make up for the ways he felt he had failed his father. My Father’s Paradise is a beautiful account of a son’s understanding of his father, but it’s also a look at how the world has changed over such a short period of time, and what’s necessary for survival when times are difficult.

Wow. This was truly a fascinating book. Imagine growing up in a small Iraqi village with no electricity, with dirt roads full of sheep, where clothes are still dyed by hand and washed in the river, and by the time you’re verging on retirement, your life consists of air travel, credit cards, air conditioning, the Internet, all viewed from your modern home in Los Angeles. Yona Sabar grew up thinking he would likely take over his father’s dyeing business or work some other small job in his village of Zakho, and because life happened, he’s a world-renowned scholar and professor. That much change is absolutely mind-bending. How anyone could even begin to process all these changes is mystifying.

Ariel Sabar truly captures the spirit of the Zakho his father grew up with, a Zakho to whom modernity has finally arrived. It’s a place that exists only in memory now, with modern buildings and American pop music a part of its current landscape, but through the power of Ariel’s writing, the Zakho of old comes back to life. If you enjoy writing with a strong sense of place and books that will transport you to another world (especially worlds of the past), this is a must-read. But more than a sense of place, he captures the strength and determination of his quiet, humble father, a man who, despite circumstances that haven’t always been easy or pleasant, despite coming from a family that has suffered trauma along the way, has always risen to the challenges presented to him. He’s a father to be proud of, with a proud past and a proud history, and watching his son recognize all of this is heartwarming.

This is a lovely, fascinating book. You’ll learn a lot- about the Kurdish Jews of Zakho, of course, and what their lives were like, but also about strength, perseverance, and what it takes to mend a frayed father-son relationship. I really enjoyed this.

Visit Ariel Sabar’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria by Wendy Pearlman

I struggle to understand a lot of things sometimes, especially the tough parts of the world. Some things are just so terrible that I find them difficult to grasp, and I have to read multiple books about those subjects in order to feel like I’m making any headway at fully getting it. The situation in Syria the past twenty years or so is definitely on that list, and I’m not sure I’ll ever fully comprehend, but I keep trying. It just so happened that after reading Other Words for Home, which dealt with a young girl immigrating from Syria, one of the next ebooks available from my library was We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria by Wendy Pearlman (Custom House, 2017). It’s the kind of book I wish everyone would read, especially those people who don’t want Syrian immigrants coming to their countries, and who boast about how THEY would stay and fight if their country went the way that Syria did. Those people have no clue, no idea what Syrians have gone through, and I wish they would educate themselves.

Arranged in a style reminiscent of the interview-style books of Svetlana Alexievich, We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled tells the story of a country and the people who loved and left it when a devastating crisis tore it apart. Each section recounts the history of the crisis through its citizens, the ones who hoped and dreamed of living in a country where their voices could be heard and they could live in freedom, the ones who worked for it and fought for it, and the ones for whom the country gradually turned into a living hell.

Starvation. Rape. Beheadings. Explosions. Gunshots. Imprisonment in the most deplorable conditions imaginable. Torture. Constant fear. All this and more are what the citizens of Syria lived with every day before many of them fled the country for a chance to live in safety. Some of the testimonials are lengthy (though not more than a few pages); others are just a few words, but each eloquently describes nightmarish situations that will break the heart of even the most jaded reader.

The style makes this an easily readable book; the content makes it difficult. Ms. Pearlman makes it easy, however, to place yourself in the shoes of the Syrians interviewed, however, and I learned a lot that I hadn’t known before about just how terrible the situation was before so many people made the difficult decision to leave their country (difficult in that it’s always hard to leave your home, and the conditions they traveled in were bleak and often deadly; leaving was likely the best decision out of a handful of terrible options). The prisons weren’t something I’d known about before; the conditions in them were shocking to read about, as were the accounts of torture (if you’ve ever read anything about Iraqi prisons, it’s similar). When people fighting for a better life in Syria were captured by the government, the soldiers would go through their phones and begin rounding up all their contacts. And that’s just the beginning of the reign of terror that so many Syrians needed to flee.

I’m glad I read this, though it’s a heartbreaking book, and it’s one I’m going to be recommending every single time I see people crowing about how people fleeing desperate situations should just stay and fight. That’s something that’s extremely easy to say from the comfort of your own home in a stable country, and when you have a better understanding what people are fleeing, statements like that sound even more appallingly callous. If you don’t have a great understanding of what caused so many Syrians to leave home, We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria should be on your list.

Visit Wendy Pearlman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Sick Kids in Love by Hannah Moskowitz

I’ve enjoyed Hannah Moskowitz since she first blasted onto the YA scene with Break in 2009. Her addition to It’s a Whole Spiel blew me away, and so I was thrilled that the next book on my TBR (ebook edition, since that’s what I’m focused on now) was her Sick Kids in Love (Entangled: Teen, 2019). The tagline for this book is, ‘They don’t die in this one,’ which was a relief to read (you know, having been traumatized by all the Lurlene McDaniel tragedy porn I read growing up, and then again by John Green with The Fault in Our Stars). I still stressed out while reading this excellent book, though.

Isabel is sick. She’s had rheumatoid arthritis since she was eight (not diagnosed until age nine), so she knows pain and what it’s like to live with a debilitating illness, what it’s like to have to plan your entire life around your unpredictable body, what it’s like to have no one around you really get what it’s like to live with this always hanging over you, what it’s like for an illness to just be part of who you are. She doesn’t date- for a lot of reasons- but then she meets Sasha, another chronically sick kid, and her life turns upside down. Sasha gets it. Sasha understands what it’s like to have a body he can’t trust. And dammit, he’s cute with a capital CUTE.

When she decides to let go and jump in with both feet, things are…good. There are the usual romance ups and downs: they annoy each other; they like different things; Isabel can’t make up her mind about anything; both of them have struggles with their conditions. And then the little things become big things, and things get tough. Isabel needs to learn to make decisions, to speak up for herself and maybe learn to make the necessary changes that come when you’re no longer alone and have to compromise to get along.

I loved this. I loved this a lot. Hannah Moskowitz (who is indeed a sick kid; she has ankylosing spondylitis, a type of spinal arthritis- I’m familiar with it because it shares a lot of symptoms with my back/pelvis issues and is often misdiagnosed as what I have for years. Which makes me wonder a lot, but doctors don’t seem to want to investigate further, so whatever) is wise beyond her years and shows it all over the place yet again. Life with chronic pain is so eloquently explained in this book; if you live with chronic pain or you love someone who does and want to understand, you NEED this book. NEED. I’m going to quote a section below that made me gasp. I read it, read it again, reread it, and then copied it down, because it summed up what chronic pain is like so, so well:

You stop noticing pain, is the thing.

You notice it when it’s really bad, or when it’s different, but…on the rare occasion someone asks me what it’s like to live with RA, I don’t ever know what to say. They ask me if it’s painful, and I say yes because I know intellectually it must be, because the idea of doing some of the things that other people do without thinking fills me with dread and panic, but I always think about it mechanically. I can’t do x. I don’t want to do y. I don’t continue the thought into I can’t do that because it would hurt. I don’t want to do that because then I would be in pain.

You can’t live like that. There’s only so much you can carry quietly by yourself, so you turn an illness into a list of rules instead of a list of symptoms, and you take pills that don’t help, and you do the stretches, and you think instead of feeling. You think.

And you don’t soak in hot water and feel the tension bleed out of your joints because it’s just going to remind you that it will come right back.

This is it. This is it entirely. This is what I live with, and Hannah Moskowitz has put it into words. All hail our new leader! Long live the queen! Seriously, this put my feelings and frustrations into words far better than I can at this point (it’s been a really bad year for pain for me; I’ve been on steroids four times since the pandemic started- my doctors don’t think that’s at all a problem, apparently- my neuropathy is going wild, my gabapentin doses have increased 300% and still aren’t covering it all, the Celebrex doesn’t work at all anymore so I’ve stopped taking it…). The tests coming back normal when you’re barely able to function- when that happened to Isabel, I nearly wept, because that’s something I so understand (right along with being blown off by doctors. It’s like there’s a giant belief of, “It’s just pain, why do you care so much?” attitude in the medical community. Quality of life means nothing, and it’s so, so good to hear someone else talk about this. THANK YOU, HANNAH MOSKOWITZ.

(Also? Two Jewish main characters, THANK YOU, HANNAH MOSKOWITZ. Truly. Long live the queen!)

So I loved this. It was a fun, sweet love story about two kids who get each other, but who are also still trying to get themselves, because they’re teenagers, and on a large level, it drops some serious truth bombs about life with health problems that aren’t ever going away. This book got me- as a forty-year-old woman, it got me, and I am so utterly grateful for that.

Follow Hannah Moskowitz on Twitter here.

Check out her Wikipedia page here.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

Another library ebook for me! Next up on my TBR was Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga (Balzer and Bray, 2019). This has been on my list since I first learned about it. I always forget how great middle grade books are- my son has been out of that age range for quite a while and my daughter isn’t ready for most of those books in terms of interest (reading ability, yes; interest, ehhhhhh), so I don’t spend a ton of time in that section quite yet. But I learned about this book on a list of multicultural middle grade books, and after reading that it was about a Syrian girl who leaves her home to live in the US, onto my TBR it went. (And look at that gorgeous cover!)

Jude has lived in Syria all her life with her parents and older brother. She’s always loved American things, right along with her best friend, but when life starts getting complicated in her home country, she travels with her pregnant mother to live in Cincinnati with an uncle and his family, leaving her father and her missing brother behind. Life in America is complicated. Jude, who used to be the best at English in her school in Syria, is now struggling to understand both the language and the culture around her. No one seems to want to try to understand her. She misses her father, she’s worried about her brother and her best friend (who isn’t answering her letters), and her cousin Sarah seems to hate her.

Bit by bit, Jude pulls together a life for herself in America. Her English improves; she makes friends in her ESOL class, a Muslim friend, and a friend from her math class; she works up the courage to try out for the school play. When anti-Muslim sentiments start up in her town, it’s not what Jude had hoped for in her new life, but she responds with courage and dignity, just as she takes on the rest of her journey.

Written in verse, Other Words for Home is a look at a young girl tasked with starting over under difficult circumstances, how she rallies, and how the people around her make her new life both easier and more difficult. There are plenty of helpers, but there are plenty of people- including adults- who try to bring her down.

This is a quick read, but it’s a great one. It would make an utterly fabulous read for a mother-daughter book club (especially if you’re looking for books that touch on immigration and/or refugees, the crises in Syria, and Muslim girls. Heads up for a few mentions of menstruation, a few mentions of bombings, and several instances of anti-Muslim behavior- all of which are things that kids in this target reader age are either likely to be discussing or need to discuss with adults, but sometimes parents need a little bit of time to think and prep for how they want to approach these subjects).

Jude is a delight of a character, strong and determined and an excellent role model (not necessary for a character, but it’s nice when you come across one). She works hard to understand the whys of her life: why are she and her mother moving to the US; why is her father staying behind; why does her brother feel the need to fight; why are people treating her this way in America (not sure there’s really an answer for that, to be honest). She works hard at everything she does, even when it’s difficult, and she never stops trying, even when she’s pretty sure she’ll fail. A new immigrant, still learning the language, trying out for a school play? RESPECT. I didn’t even have enough courage to try out for my school plays when I’ve lived here my whole life. I would have been in utter awe of Jude when I was young. I wish I’d known girls like her. Maybe I did and didn’t even know it.

Super great read, this one. I always enjoy a good novel in verse, but the subject matter and Jude as a narrator really hit it home for me.

Visit Jasmine Warga’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book Review: The Guest Book by Sarah Blake

Some books just sit on your TBR for ages for no particular reason; The Guest Book by Sarah Blake (Flatiron Books, 2019) was one of them. My library only had an ebook version of it, and I tend to use my kindle in fits and streaks. I’ll read a TON of kindle books, then not touch it again for another six months. (I checked out a library ebook today, thinking it was a kindle- my Libby account is supposed to only check out kindle books- but it turned out not to be, and now I’m waiting for my ancient iPad to charge so I can read it on there, sigh.) But I reorganized my paper TBR list so it’s less messy and fresh and clean, with all the books I’ve already read and crossed out taken off, and all the ebooks I had on there were reeeeeeeeeeally bothering me, so I decided to start tackling them. The Guest List was the first available book.

The Guest List tells the story of three generations of the Milton family, East Coast blue bloods who helped the US out of the Great Depression…but by what means, exactly? Kitty and Ogden Milton’s early years are marred by tragedy; this tragedy echoes into the future and has serious consequences for other people, ones that Kitty is loath to admit until she finds the perfect dumping ground for her secrets. Joan, her daughter, burdened with epilepsy, has an entire life unknowingly affected by said tragedy, and it isn’t until Evie, Kitty’s granddaughter, is a middle-aged adult that all the secrets come to light when she and her cousins are trying to figure out how to handle the family island.

Yes, family island. Ogden and Kitty had bought an island off the coast of Maine in the wake of their tragedy. This island will become a source of joy and healing, but almost immediately a source of remembering of things Kitty would rather forget, things that paint her in a way she would rather not see herself. For Joan, it will shape the course of her life; for Evelyn, it is her family, but it also reveals uncomfortable truths about what her family is and has always been, both good and bad, because people are complicated and can be multiple things at once.

This is one of those books where the setting is as much of a character as the people. Crockett’s Island becomes monolithic, looming over everyone in a variety of ways. If you’re a reader who really enjoys stories with a strong sense of place (or you’ve just always wanted to inhabit a world where people are rich enough to own their own islands), this would be a great choice for you.

Content warning for the accidental death of a child shortly into the book, and some post-World War II-era antisemitism; if you’re not up for reading these things at this time, put it away and find something that better suits your needs at this time. Be kind to yourself. Life is tough enough already.

Kitty is a complex character. She’s definitely a product of her time and class (class is a huge factor in this book), and most of the time I massively disliked her. She has a few redeeming qualities, and then she comes around and opens her mouth and ruins it all. Joan is more sympathetic, to a point, and therefore more tolerable to read. Evie is written in the modern era and has more progressive and acceptable attitudes, and I enjoyed her storyline most of all (although I did enjoy Joan’s as well; there were a few things at the end that soured it for me).

There are other characters- Reg and Len- that really made the story tolerable for me. They added a touch of reality that you just don’t get when the story solely focuses on a family that owns a freaking island, and they end up providing the key as to the hows and whys the island ownership came to be in the first place. Without them, Evelyn may never have known, and that made this all the more interesting. What this book ends up being is a deep look at the attitudes towards race and religion that shaped the past and the ways they’re still shaping the present, and it asks how we plan to move forward from that. There’s a lot going on in this book, which is, again, more literary than I usually go.

Not my favoritest (TOTALLY A WORD) of books, and it solidified my resolve to never turn into the kind of person that the original Miltons were, but it was an interesting read that asks a lot of important questions, which I love.

Visit Sarah Blake’s website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Choosing Judaism: 36 Stories by Bradley Caro Cook and Diana Phillips

A few weeks ago, when my article on Alma came out, I was contacted via Instagram by Stacey Smith, who made me aware of a new book on conversion to Judaism. Of course this delighted and intrigued me, and I said I’d be more than happy to read and review it. A message from Bradley Caro Cook soon appeared in my blog email, and within a few days, I was happily swinging on my back yard porch swing, reading Choosing Judaism: 36 Stories by Bradley Caro Cook and Diana Phillips (Kindle Edition, 2020). In Judaism, a convert is viewed as no different from a born Jew, but we do have certain things in common and experiences that are unique to our group, so it’s always comforting to read stories of people who have been through this process, who have experienced some of the same things I have, and who have come out Jewish on the other side. Reading the stories in this book was like receiving a warm hug from a good friend.

Choosing Judaism is a collection of stories by 36 different authors (some of whom I was happy to see live not that far from me!). Most are prose, written in essay form, but there are a few poems in there to mix things up. Each explains their discomfort with the religion they were born into (hellooooooooooooo, feeling like you’re the only one in the pews just. not. getting. it!), their questioning (and how that questioning wasn’t often acceptable to whatever branch of Christianity they previously belonged), what initially drew them to Judaism, and the process of conversion, which- as was true for me- often stretches on many years. Some authors are newly converted; others have been living Jewish lives for many years, including raising Jewish children who are now Jewish adults themselves.

These are truly beautiful, intriguing stories that will be intimately familiar to you if you’ve ever felt drawn to Judaism or have considered or are in any stage of conversion. You’ll recognize yourself in the questioning, in the arguments with family, in the wonder of realizing that there’s a you-shaped space in this beautiful and ancient tradition. Conversion isn’t a decision anyone makes lightly, and this book illustrates that over and over again. From those who were introduced to Judaism by a romantic partner but found it met their needs regardless, to those who came in on their own, from secular Jews to Orthodox, from Jews by Choice who make their homes in the deep South to those who have made aliyah and now live in Israel, straight people and gay people, this is an inclusive book of stories that will touch the heart of anyone who has been touched by conversion to Judaism.

There’s no shying away from the reality of conversion in these stories, either. The authors are honest about the difficulties, from struggles with family, to not being moved by the mikvah (the Jewish ritual immersion bath; immersing in the mikvah is a part of halachic conversion. I’d heard so many people talk about how they didn’t find it moving that I was actually surprised that I got choked up when I was saying the blessings during my immersion!), to the vast amounts of work that go into a conversion (so much reading! Yay!), to the changes Judaism affected on their during-and-post-conversion lives, I found myself nodding along and being able to relate to so much as I rocked back and forth on my swing and read.

This is a lovely, VERY current collection of stories about what conversion to Judaism looks like- the process (both before and after contacting a rabbi, because so often, those of us who are interested are intimidated and too shy to approach our local synagogues and put it off for years *blushes*), the struggles, the beauty, the joy, and the often long and winding road that leads to the place where we converts truly belong. I’m still not able to connect much with my synagogue community, since we’re still maintaining a high level of pandemic precaution due to our young child (come on, vaccines for kids!), so reading this felt like a respite from all of that, a moment of connection with community, with people who truly understand. If you’re in the process of conversion, wondering what it looks like, a little Jew-curious yourself, or you’re trying to understand a convert in your life, this is a fabulous collection of writing that will help you to connect, to understand, and to feel seen and heard.

Huge thanks to Brad and Stacey for offering me a copy of this book. Reading it was an absolute delight!