memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live by Melody Warnick

Like many Americans, I’ve spent the majority of my adult life on the move. At age 40, I’ve lived in seven different towns; this February will mark six years in my current location, which is the longest I’ve stayed anywhere since life in my hometown my first eighteen years. And this is a good thing; I love it here. But I haven’t always loved the other places I lived in, and that’s why This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live by Melody Warnick (Viking, 2016) appealed to me so much. Could I have done better? Could I have learned to love the other places I lived? I wanted to know.

Like me, Melody Warnick has spent her adult life as a Mover, packing up every few years in search of a better place, a city that feels like Home with a capital H. Nothing ever felt quite right; happiness always lay beyond, in a different city- maybe one with a waterpark? A better arts festival? Maybe a city with more nature would do the trick. But after her husband accepted a job in Blacksburg, Virginia, and Melody’s first reaction upon arrival was, “Ugh…”, she began to wonder if she could train herself to love a place- if the problem wasn’t with all these cities, but with her avoidance of putting down roots.

Step by step, Ms. Warnick began to devise means of falling in love with her city- in order to love a place, you need to act like someone who loves it, and that means getting involved in a lot of different ways. Part memoir, part personal experiment, part how-to, Melody Warnick instructs a society not used to staying in place on how to enjoy- and maybe even love- the place you’re in, even if it’s not your forever home.

This is absolutely the book I wish someone had handed me before my first big move at 18. I don’t know that it would have made *all* the difference- not where we lived in Tennessee, I’m sure. That town was lovely, the area had so much to do, and I made some wonderful friends, but the city itself is very much run by a Good Ol’ Boys club that terrorizes even lifelong residents; if your vision of what the city could be doesn’t match theirs, you’re no one, and they’ll not only let you know, they’ll let everyone else know, too. It’s hard to love a place like that. But the other places I’ve lived? Ms. Warnick’s book makes me realize I could have and should have done better.

Get involved, Ms. Warnick urged (advice that may not be all that possible right now, or that may not be safe; one of the reasons it took me so long to read this book- over a week!- was that it was just hard. Hard to read about all the things that aren’t possible to do right now, all the things we’re missing out on to keep ourselves and our families safe, all the things that won’t be possible for the foreseeable future…), and she offers suggestion after suggestion of the many possibilities to take part in the running of or enjoyment of your city- from the largest to the smallest, from tiny towns, to your neighborhood or block in a massive city. Putting down roots and feeling attached to a place takes work, and if this isn’t something that comes naturally to you, this book is a road map to falling in love with the place you live in.

I’d been trying to implement some of her suggestions pre-pandemic, and I’ll continue on with new inspiration whenever life resumes as normal (not anytime soon, so it’s a good thing I’m patient and have a plethora of available reading material to wait this out…). Despite my struggles reading it during this pandemic, This Is Where You Belong is chock-full of great advice and should be issued to anyone who packs up a moving truck and heads off in search of happiness in a new city. This is the book that will help you find it.

Do you love where you live? Have you tried? What’s worked for you?

Visit Melody Warnick’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

I’m perpetually about ten years behind in my reading. I mean, pretty much every book in the world is on my TBR, so I’m never actually caught up, but if something is popular at a certain point in time, that basically ensures that I will ignore it for the next decade in favor of reading things people read ten years before now. Reader problems, amiright??? I never got around to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper, 2007) when it first came out, but I grabbed a copy at a used book sale last year, since I figured the price was right (man, I miss those book sales, but it’s giving me a chance to catch up on reading from my own shelves!), and this was what came on next on my by-the-TV shelf.

Author Barbara Kingsolver and her family moved from their home in Tucson to the farm property her husband owned in Virginia in search of a more authentic life in which they could grow their own food and eat more locally, taxing the earth’s resources less. They began a year-long experiment in growing their own food in sizeable gardens, raising chickens and turkeys (and doing the slaughtering themselves), and eschewing almost all food products that didn’t come within a hundred (or so) miles of their home. Starting in the spring, they realized they’d have to give up a few staples- no more bananas, fresh fruit was hard to come by at that time of year and they had to substitute with locally grown rhubarb, etc.- but they soon realized that almost everything they needed or wanted could be grown on their land, obtained from a local source, or foregone entirely. It wasn’t easy- it involved hard word, sacrifice, occasionally paying a little more or doing a lot of research to find a local source- but it changed the way her family saw their own abilities, their community, and the world.

Ms. Kingsolver is a master storyteller; The Poisonwood Bible is one of my favorite books, and I have a copy of The Bean Trees waiting for me on my downstairs shelves. The stories she tells in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle are lovely; they make me want to plow up my entire lawn and plant a massive garden (how is it that I always manage to read these books at the end of the season???), and it definitely got me thinking more about buying local products and paying attention to where my groceries come from. It doesn’t always make sense to purchase products that come from thousands of miles away when there might be a similarly-priced alternative that comes from our own area, that doesn’t have as much packaging and hasn’t used up so much fossil fuels to land on our doorstep (sometimes only to liquefy in the crisper bin, yikes!). Ms. Kingsolver makes a good point that we must do better eating locally; our climate and the future of our planet depends on it.

What I didn’t particularly care for were the sections on meat and her proclamation that vegetarians would totally chow down on meat if they could see the happy lives of the animals on the farms where she purchases her meat products. That felt dismissive and reductive; I stopped eating meat and cut way back on the animal products I consume in general after a bad cholesterol test a few years ago. I don’t sit around eating tofu burgers, as Ms. Kingsolver claims (and what little tofu I do consume comes from about twenty miles away anyway); my diet consists of legumes, vegetables, fruits, and grains (not much of the fancy stuff like quinoa, either, it’s usually outside our budget), and that wouldn’t change even if Happy Lamb Farm took their lambs to Disneyland every other week and bought them all Mickey Mouse shirts and balloons. I’m doing the best I can for what my body is telling me it needs, and I didn’t appreciate having my health concerns dismissed in this manner. It seemed a bit self-righteous and didn’t mesh well with the rest of the tone of the book.

The other bone I had to pick was about farmers’ markets. We have a lovely one here near us that sells a lot of really awesome local produce and locally made products; we haven’t been since last year, because it just gets SO crowded, but I really enjoy going. That said, Ms. Kingsolver seems to be attending different farmer’s markets than I do in terms of cost (as do the majority of people I’ve seen singing their praises). I do understand that local food is often going to cost more, but I can’t afford to pay six dollars for a pound of strawberries or tomatoes. So many of us are doing the best we can with our food budgets; a lot of Americans live life on the edge, paycheck to paycheck, and asking us to pay more for the food we eat isn’t always a tenable suggestion when you can either buy a pound of local strawberries, or apples and broccoli and a head of cabbage from the grocery store to feed your family for the week for that same price. It’s a terrible choice; we need those local farmers and their produce, but we also need full tummies and a varied diet. It’s frustrating to read that her experiment saved her money in some areas and her meals cost so little, when I’ve seen some of the prices of produce at our famer’s market and thought, “I could buy that and no other vegetable for the week.” Doing our best here, but there’s only so much we can do.

But the rest of this book absolutely put me in a warmer state of mind, in lush gardens with sun-warmed soil, in steamy kitchens with pots of tomato sauce bubbling on the stovetop with sterilized glass jars glinting on the counter nearby. The weather is turning here; we’ve got rain in the forecast for most of this week and chilly temps in the 40’s and 50’s, so it was lovely to curl up on my reading chair and follow Barbara Kingsolver into her barn and kitchen as the rain streaked my living room window.

Visit Barbara Kingsolver’s website here.

memoir · nonfiction

Home Sweet Anywhere: How We Sold Our House, Created a New Life, and Saw the World by Lynne Martin

And here we go! I’m a few books behind in reading books off my own shelf, so this is the first in a few. I believe I picked up Home Sweet Anywhere: How We Sold Our House, Created a New Life, and Saw the World by Lynne Martin (Sourcebooks, 2014) from a thrift store a few years ago, but it *may* have come from a used book sale. Either way, I know I saw it and thought, “Huh, I bet that’s an interesting story!” Wellllllllllllll…

Lynne Martin and her husband Tim decided that instead of becoming stodgy retirees, they’d sell their California home and instead spend their retirement traipsing around the world, spending varying amounts of time living in rented apartments in various countries around the world. Though their initial arrangements failed to take the Schengen Agreement into consideration, they were soon on the road, leaving behind family and friends for a life of adventure. What could be better than traveling the world?

While there were aspects of this that I enjoyed, a lot of it irritated me. I’m sure Lynne Martin is a lovely person, but this book occasionally has her coming off as an obnoxious American, especially in the chapter where they ‘live’ in Argentina (‘live’ because they’re still tourists, not residents). Her complaints about the language (which she doesn’t speak) and culture being difficult to understand grated on me, as did her constant referral to everything as ‘foreign,’ such as this quote:

By week four, we definitely needed an American fix- something familiar to orient us in this foreign place where we were floundering.

The use of the word foreign here bothered me; you’re IN the country. It may be different than what you’re used to, but if you’re going to ‘live’ there, as she claimed, referring to it as ‘foreign’ as you’re standing on its soil seems a bit disrespectful to me. Not every place will agree with every person, but her complaints about Argentina seemed a bit over-the-top, especially since this was something they willingly chose. Comments like this one didn’t help, either:

No wonder [Argentinians] seem to be a confused, melancholy people!

Yiiiiiiiiiiiikes. Another one that grated on my nerves:

When we arrived at the famous Topkapi Palace that afternoon, we ran into a long, slow-moving ticket line. That put us off immediately. Call us impatient, but waiting is agony for us, and the microscopic inspection of every site does not interest us too much. We are really not very good tourists.

So much privilege, so little desire to acknowledge it, or take advantage of so many aspects of it. They’re older, in their 70’s, but still- all this ability to see the world and you complain about needing to stand in line to see it? (MAN, I wish I could stand in line- literally! Some days I have trouble physically standing in line at the grocery store, thanks to my garbage back.) I was also bothered by her constant assessment of people’s levels of English. She is, like most Americans, functionally monolingual, and yet so many of the people she comes across are described in terms of their ability to speak- or not speak- English. I don’t know if this is a quirk of her writing style or a sign of her general attitude, but I get irritated to no end by people who have never put in any true effort to learn another language getting fussy or being critical in any way about the language skills of someone who is on their second, third, fourth language. I don’t expect travelers to be fluent, but a respectful attitude goes a long way, and that didn’t come through here for me at all.

I don’t know that I was the proper audience for this book; it seems to be more written for upper-class people with money to burn, who are physically capable of traveling anywhere with no concerns as to their health or accessibility. My husband and I have never taken a vacation other than our honeymoon in 13 years of marriage, and I’d have to do a *lot* of planning, including discussing some just-in-case prescriptions with my doctor, in order for travel like this to be possible for me. And to read Ms. Martin’s casual complaints about her trip to Argentina, where she didn’t need to plan for these kinds of things, and seemed irritated about the language and dialect and cultural differences, irritated me. I ended up hearing a *lot* of this book in my head as being read by the character of Moira Rose from Schitt’s Creek.

So while I normally enjoy travel memoirs, this one felt, to me, replete with unacknowledged privilege and upper-class dismissal of opportunity. Your mileage may vary, though; not every book is for every reader!

I am saddened to learn that her husband and travel companion Tim passed away last year. May his memory be a blessing.  

Visit Lynne Martin’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

graphic novel · memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker

On my last trip to the library for books for me, I had grabbed all the books from my list, and then I turned around and caught sight of a display of books behind the teen hangout part of the library. And there in that stack of books was the graphic novel They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker (Top Shelf Productions, 2019). It was obvious that this book told of George Takei’s family’s unjust incarceration in the Japanese internment camps during World War II, and despite already clutching a stack of books, I added it to my pile. I knew I couldn’t miss this one.

George wasn’t even in kindergarten yet when his family was rounded up with all the other Americans of Japanese descent after the attack on Pearl Harbor. They were sent to live in an American concentration camp (remember, concentration camps and death camps aren’t the same thing; technically, the US did have its own concentration camps). You can see a map of these camps here; he and his family were first sent to Rohwer, then later Tule Lake. His parents worked hard to keep the horrors of the situation from affecting George and his siblings too much, but occasionally the racism, the food shortages, and the injustice of being incarcerated for simply having the wrong ethnic background crept in. George spent years processing the injustices visited upon his family and community and is still working today to right the wrongs the United States committed and speaking out about the atrocities the United States still continues to commit against Mexicans, South Americans, Muslims, and various other populations.

The art is simple, in black and white, which adds to the stark horror of the US incarcerating its own citizens (and those to whom they refused citizenship outright) because of their genetics. George has some fond memories of the time in the camps, simply because his parents worked so hard to make that true and also because children are remarkably adaptable and will find ways to be children even as their countries incarcerate them in concentration camps. His experiences are slightly less stark than those illustrated in Farewell to Manzanar: A True Story of Japanese American Experience During and After the World War II Internment by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston. Ms. Wakatsuki Houston goes into greater detail about the terrible conditions and lack of food in the camps she was forced into, and the terrible reality of leaving the camps- having nowhere to go, with former neighbors having stolen all of the possessions the family had been forced to leave behind. George Takei does go into the family’s post-camp experience; they were homeless for a time and had to rebuild their lives from absolutely nothing.

I’m glad this graphic novel exists. They Called Us Enemy and Farewell to Manzanar are the only two books I’ve read on the internment of Americans of Japanese descent, and I know I need to read more (I welcome your recommendations in the comments, as always). I wish this were better taught in schools- my school did a surprisingly good job when it came to teaching about things like race and injustice, but while these concentration camps were mentioned, the subject was kind of glossed over, and I feel like I wasn’t properly educated on this when I was younger. It’s something I’ll make sure that my daughter knows about more fully as she grows; it’s shameful and disgusting that this even happened, but it’s worse that we apparently learned nothing from it and continue to perpetuate similar horrors.

They Called Us Enemy is a quick read, but it’ll stay with you, and hopefully it’ll inspire you to speak out against injustice. We’re not obligated to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it.

Visit George Takei’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, and One Unexpected Adventure by Rachel Friedman

And here we go, book fans! The first book off of my own shelf as per my resolution to read more of the books that I own. I picked up this copy of The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, and One Unexpected Adventure by Rachel Friedman (Bantam, 2011) either from my favorite local thrift store or from a used book sale (the books on that shelf came from a mix of those two places). I’ve always been a big fan of travel memoirs, and what better time to read one than when you can’t travel at all? (At least if you’re American. Sigh.)

Rachel Friedman, the girl who always followed the rules and the plan, graduated from college without any kind of plan whatsoever, and she surprised everyone in her life by buying a plane ticket to Ireland and applying for a student visa so she could work as a waitress to earn money to fund her travels there. She’d never traveled on her own before, never traveled without exact travel plans or a plan for the future, so all of this was definitely an adventure.

In Ireland, Rachel is bitten by the travel bug, aided by her wanderlusty roommate Carly, an Australian who hasn’t yet finished college and isn’t sure what she wants to do outside of traveling the world. When her time in Ireland runs out, Rachel’s next stop is Australia, and then on to South America. Deadly animals, blazing sun and chilly mountain air, experiences that scare the crap out of her, living out of a single backpack, Rachel’s experiences will have you longing for the days where you had no responsibility and could just pick up and go.

This was a lovely armchair vacation for me. Rachel’s experiences are so far from what my own were at her age that it was nice to read how very different her life was. I did understand her what-do-I-do-with-my-life stress, along with some of her travel anxiety; I applaud her for pushing her boundaries so much. I’m still working on working out my social anxiety (NOT EASY THESE DAYS), and I’m a massive wreck when I travel, so it’s good for me to read stories of people who do things that scare them simply because it scares them. There are a lot of reviews talking about how self-entitled and privileged Rachel is; I felt as though she does acknowledge her privilege in the book and how lucky she was that her parents had paid for her college and thus she didn’t have to immediately begin working off her student loan debt. She mentions that multiple times, and I see no problem enjoying someone else’s experiences even if they’re not struggling in the same way I do.

Reading this also made me a little sad. Rachel and Carly met each other during their travels; Rachel eventually meets her husband while traveling. How many friendships aren’t beginning right now that would have if the US and a few other countries had handled this pandemic better? How many travelers are stuck at home not broadening their horizons and experiencing the world? How many relationships and marriages will never happen because we’re not allowed to travel due to our own stupidity? Here in the US, our world has gotten so much smaller- even beyond the reason of Covid-19- and that just breaks my heart.

But reading about Rachel Friedman’s boundary-pushing journey made for a pleasant Sunday out on the porch swing. If you can’t travel right now, taking a book vacation is the next best thing, and I enjoyed seeing the world through Ms. Friedman’s eyes.  

Visit Rachel Friedman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir

Book review: Wiving: A Memoir of Loving then Leaving the Patriarchy by Caitlin Myer

I’ve made it clear many times on this blog that one of my favorite kinds of books to read are memoirs about people’s experiences leaving religious groups (the more restrictive the better, but I’m open to any kind of exodus here). What makes some people leave, when others can’t imagine departing? Are there differences between the messages sent and what is received? What are the factors that aid in leaving, where is the breaking point, how do they rebuild their lives in the outside world? The psychology behind all of this fascinates me to no end, and I was so pleased to be offered a review copy of Wiving: A Memoir of Loving then Leaving the Patriarchy by Caitlin Myer (Arcade, 2020). I don’t know that I’ve ever hit the ‘reply’ button in my email so quickly.

Caitlin Myer was born in the late 60’s into a Mormon family whose mother was plagued by bipolar disorder, spending much of her time closed in her bedroom and closed off from the hearts of her six children. Amidst that constant pain, Caitlin loses her best friend at age 7 to leukemia; her older cousin begins molesting her later on that same year. In a culture, both religious and secular, that pushes girls and women to focus on becoming wives and mothers to the detriment of all other accomplishments, she flounders, grappling for purchase onto any male that pays her the least bit of attention, regardless of the healthiness of that attachment. Often, the attachments cause her pain and impede her growth, and even leaving behind the restrictions of her birth religion and the chaos of her family doesn’t help. It’s only after years of struggle, painful life experience, and medical challenges that Caitlin begins to grow into the self she always knew she could be, beyond the restraints placed upon her as a child- not in a perfect manner, but with the deep wisdom that comes realizing that the only way to survive is to change the course of the story itself.

Wiving is prose that reads like poetry. Caitlin Myer has created a raw memoir, a full-on confessional in which she divulges her deepest secrets, with the effect of a mosaic, tiny bits and pieces that collectively add up to a singular whole of a woman who has suffered greatly to find her place in the world. Her early childhood, lost in a sea of siblings with parents focused solely on their own survival, led her to fill this void and seek out approval in the only arena she had been taught was acceptable, at the foot of any man who paid her the least bit of attention. “I never felt like I got enough attention,” she writes. “Maybe nobody ever does.” It’s hard to imagine how Caitlin’s parents could have done better in the circumstances in which they lived and were raised themselves, especially within the confines of her mother’s bipolar disorder and the lack of effective treatment at the time, but this does veer into the territory of cautionary tale for today’s reader.

Her condemnation of the patriarchy, both religious and otherwise, is worthy and on point. “It is simultaneously expected for a woman to arrange her life around a man’s needs, and shameful for her to do so,” she writes, a message echoed daily in opinion pieces which outline the impossible demands on all women- be feminine and sexy, but not slutty; have children, but not too many; have a job, but also be a perfect homemaker; be educated but don’t display your wisdom. “We have made a bright line between wife, whore, victim, and set each against the other, but they all grow from the same story,” she tells us, and it’s the truth. These patriarchal messages come in many forms, but they all absorb in a similar fashion, and the stories they create play out across cultures and societies in nearly identical ways. While Caitlin’s story isn’t a unique one, her telling is, skipping back and forth in time to create a raw tapestry of pain and growth, of decisions colored by the desires of others and choices made in the wake of her own hard-won sophistication.

This is not an easy read. There are obvious content warnings for molestation and sexual abuse, neglect, sexual assault, long-term illness and death. Ms. Myer’s pain is fresh and raw on every page, and it’s impossible not to grieve along with her for all that she’s suffered under the guise of becoming the perfect woman in the eyes of the societies in which she’s moved.

Wiving will take you on your own road of self-examination, of dissecting how the patriarchy and its constrictive rules have affected your life, life path, and behavior. We should all be as fortunate as Caitlin Myer to arrive at a place of such profound awareness and self-acceptance.

Thanks to Caitlin Myer and Kristen Ludwigsen of Mindbuck Media for the chance to read and review an advance copy of the book!

Wiving: A Memoir of Loving then Leaving the Patriarchy is available today, July 28, 2020.

memoir

Book Review: How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones

One more book down from the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge, and also one off my TBR (no worries, though, I’ve added like five more books since then, so it’s in no danger of getting smaller…). For this particular prompt, I needed a book with only words on the cover, no images or graphics, and the Goodreads group for this challenge pointed out that How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones (Simon & Schuster, 2019) both fit the bill and was on my TBR. Magic!

Saeed Jones, the son of a single mother, grew up in Texas. Growing up Black and gay in the South is no easy feat, and as he begins his own adult life, he struggles deeply with identity: who he is, where his sense of identity comes from, who his mother expected him to be, who his grandmother tried to force him to be, who he really wants to be. For too long, he uses sex as an escape mechanism, one that allows him to ignore the question about the things that define him, but always, always, he’s pulled back to the love his mother gave him, even through the pain of losing her.

This memoir is difficult to sum up. Saeed Jones writes about the struggle of living at the intersection of being Black and gay, but it’s more than that. His memoir is about identity, the difficulty in defining our images of ourselves amidst all the conflicting messages we receive from our families and the many cultures that surround us. Case in point: while Saeed’s mother raised him as a Buddhist, he spent summers with his very Christian grandmother, who had a very different idea of who her grandson should be than her own daughter did. His resulting search for identity, one we all go through to some degree as we transition from adolescence to adulthood, is fraught with challenges, ones that cause pain to both himself and others. Perhaps some of this is inevitable, but Saeed’s story makes it clear that it doesn’t have to be, that accepting people for who they are and allowing them to be themselves would lessen a lot of that pain considerably.

There’s strong sexual content in this book, along with multiple scenes of homophobia, and the serious illness and death of a parent. Go easy on yourself if these are things that will be difficult to read about right now.

How We Fight For Our Lives is a quick read, since Saeed Jones’s writing flows like water, but it will leave the reader with a lot to think about concerning who we are and how easily we’re able to define ourselves. If your transition from childhood to adulthood was a smooth one, where everyone accepted you at face value and allowed you to be who you needed to be, read this to learn how privileged you were and expand your sense of empathy.

Visit Saeed Jones’s website here and here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: A River Could Be a Tree by Angela Himsel

Another book right up my alley! Funny story about A River Could Be a Tree by Angela Himsel (Fig Tree Books, 2018). So my library opened up this week to start doing curbside pickups. Cool, cool. (They also, after four years of arguing with our local park district, made the move to purchase an empty grocery store downtown and will be building an entirely new library, but that’s beside the point- but can you FEEL my excitement?!?!?!!????) They have a really great selection of ebooks, including early chapter books for kids (like The Magic Tree House series and the Junie B. Jones series) so we’re managing okay, and thus I figured I’d leave the curbside pickup services to people who don’t have the privilege of checking out ebooks. But on the very first day of curbside pickup, I received an email letting me know that this book, which I’d placed on hold via interlibrary loan in MARCH, was waiting for me (and had been this whole time, but the library had been closed). Woot! Even with their reduced hours, I was able to run over and grab it that day. This is the first paper book I’ve read since the end of March or early April!

Angela Himsel was raised in the basically-a-cult Worldwide Church of God (now Grace Communion International), a bizarre fundamentalist sect which forbade celebrating birthdays and Christian holidays (which they considered pagan) and instead celebrated appropriated versions of Jewish holidays, including observing the Sabbath on Saturdays. The church’s focus on the End Times eclipsed most everything else, and Angela grew up pondering some of the more esoteric points of the Bible, such as which of her ten siblings her parents would eat in the end of days. She believed in the religion of her childhood so fervently; this, coupled with growing up in a very small, very white town in southern Indiana, very much stunted her views on what the rest of the world looked like.

A meeting with her high school guidance counselor put her on the path to college; a single glimpse of a study abroad brochure had her making plans to study in Jerusalem. Once there, Angela fell in love with Israel, but the more she searched, the more difficult it became to find the answers to her many questions about the religion she grew up with. And in Israel, she made the surprising discovery that Jews- those Hebrews of the Bible that had so fascinated her- still existed! (Ahhh, growing up in small Midwestern towns. I so understand this.) Her faith struggles continued well after moving back to the US and setting up a life in New York City, but getting involved with a man raised as the son of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi set her on the path to an eventual conversion and finding a new home for her soul.

There are some content warnings for this book, including the death of a child and a few other deaths (though these occur later on in life), and a few brief mentions of sexual assault and abuse.

Reading about Ms. Himsel’s childhood and about how she didn’t know about the seedy underbelly of her church (including financial scandals, sexual abuse, and more) until long after she reached adulthood made me so, so grateful for the flood of information that is the internet. It’s so much easier these days to check into an organization, and anything we want, a luxury that Ms. Himsel and her family didn’t have during the days before the internet’s existence. I can’t help but wonder how much heartache has been saved simply because people can now look into religious groups before committing their time, their money, and their lives. Ms. Himsel’s parents remained in their whole lives, most likely due to the sunk-cost fallacy or escalation of commitment, essentially doubling down after terrible outcomes instead of admitting one’s losses were for nothing. And their losses here were sizable and painful.

I so enjoy these kinds of memoirs, learning what once drew the author to a certain religion or religious group and what eventually pulled them away, but my one beef is that generally, if/when the author does find a religious home in which he or she is comfortable, that section is usually more rushed and lacks as much depth as the beginning. That’s not just a criticism of this book; most memoirs of this genre seem to follow that same path, so this feels more like a general editing decision for all books of this type, and I wish editors would reevaluate this. I’d love to hear more about what draws the authors down their new paths (if there is one), what appeals to them about their new practices and why. Ms. Himsel’s Orthodox conversion only covered a very small amount of pages in this book, and I would have loved to read more- more about why this was the right decision for her, more about what she loved about living a Jewish life, more about what she found surprising or difficult or especially wonderful (if anything) after her conversion.

I’m counting this book as my choice for the Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge prompt of a memoir by someone from a religious tradition (or lack thereof) that is not your own. I’m not sure if I’ll continue on with this challenge (this year has been so weird and reading is so different right now that I’m thinking about completing the PopSugar Challenge and calling it good!), but this book was on my TBR and so I’m thrilled to finally have read it!

A River Could Be a Tree is deeply fascinating. While I wish it would have gone deeper into her conversion and post-conversion life, Ms. Himsel’s story so intrigued me that I flew through this book in two days. If you enjoy religious exit memoirs (seriously, is there a better term for this genre???) the way that I do, this shouldn’t be missed.

Visit Angela Himsel’s website here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Sorted: Growing Up, Coming Out, and Finding My Place (A Transgender Memoir) by Jackson Bird

With interlibrary loan not being available (and it won’t be for the foreseeable future *sob*), it was getting time to make changes to my reading challenge picks. I’m so grateful to Goodreads for making groups available where readers can discuss challenges and identify different picks for different prompts- makes things a LOT easier for me! The 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge has a prompt for a book by a trans or nonbinary author, and after a little searching and checking my library’s ebook database, I settled on Sorted: Growing Up, Coming Out, and Finding My Place (A Transgender Memoir) by Jackson Bird (Tiller Press, 2019). I love memoirs, I love nonfiction, and I love learning and especially learning about how to be a better ally, so this was a perfect choice.

Jackson Bird was assigned female at birth, but it became clear early on that this was a label that didn’t fit him well. Living in a very conservative area didn’t lend well to giving him the terms for what he was feeling, and he grew up in the days before ‘transgender’ was a common term. With the exception of an episode of Oprah and a heavily stereotyped Adam Sandler movie, Jackson’s education on all things transgender was as limited as anyone else’s of that time period, something that caused him considerable distress, as things do when you feel that alone.

Forcing himself to conform to female gender norms only compounded his gender dysphoria, and after the internet worked its magic and introduced him to more information on the topic, Jackson began the long, slow process of physically transitioning to the gender he’d been all along, finding love and support from his family and friend group along the way. Though not without difficulties, his journey made him realize he needed to help others along the way as well, something he’s forged into a successful career via YouTube, TEDTalks, and other well-known media outlets.

This is a GREAT book. If you’re transgender or questioning your gender and are interested in learning more and need to feel like you’re not alone, this is the book you need. If someone in your life has come out as trans and you want to learn more and understand how to be a better friend and ally, you need this book. If you keep hearing about transgender people and trans rights on the news but those headlines and malicious, hurtful jokes by family members constitute the entirety of your knowledge on the topic, this book is your primer. Go pick up a copy now.

Interspersed with chapters of his own story of coming out and transitioning, Mr. Bird includes educational sections that define terms and their proper uses and provide more in-depth knowledge on both issues that affect the transgender community (ie, how to purchase and use binders, how to prepare for top surgery, how to navigate employment as you transition) and how their friends and family can be better allies and work to make the world better and safer for their trans loved ones.

Mr. Bird’s story is one of bravery- not without its bumps in the road and its moments of self-doubt, but what story lacks those? His dedication and conviction, both to living his truth and to educating others, is admirable; I wish I had even a sliver of his courage. It seems as though he’s been extraordinarily fortunate in that his family and friends supported him and stuck by his side throughout, though it’s not difficult to tell why; Sorted is written in a style that makes his outgoing personality and friendliness apparent. You’ll be wishing you could hang out with him within a few chapters.

Sorted is a fast read- with as engaging as it is, how could it not be???- but it’s one that will stick with you and will have you speaking up the next time you hear someone making a crack about trans people. Jackson Bird is one of those people you’ll be sticking up for, and he and every other trans person out there deserve it. Don’t leave this one off your list; you’ll come away enlightened, educated, and determined to be better for trans people in every aspect of your life.

Visit Jackson Bird’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

Check him out on YouTube here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Devotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro

Onward with the reading challenges! (Or at least the one I’m most focused on, anyway.) I needed a book with a three-word title for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge, and, upon searching my TBR, found that my library had an ebook of Devotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro (Harper, 2010). This one ended up on my TBR last year after I read her other memoir, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, so I was really looking forward to reading her again and ticking off another box on the PopSugar Reading Challenge.

(Side note: Either there aren’t a lot of books with three-word titles, or I am just not drawn to those particular books!)

Ms. Shapiro writes of middle age and the challenges that come along with it. Having almost lost her son as a baby to a seizure disorder has left her with what is most likely some measure of PTSD and her anxiety about him and the rest of life is through the roof. She’s been asking the big questions about the meaning of life and how best to cope, but hasn’t come upon any true answers, and she’s not entirely sure she even knows how to.

Along the way, she discovers yoga and meditation, and those help, as do the lessons she learns from the mentors she seeks out. She also grapples with the Orthodox Judaism with which she was raised and has since abandoned- what parts of it, if any, does she want to retain? How can she pass along to her son a tradition she’s not fully comfortable in or with? There are never any concrete answers, only a sense of becoming comfortable with the questions and discomfort that life causes, and the knowledge that the search, however meandering, is an important part of life.

I liked this. It felt like a poignant read for these times. She occasionally moves back and forth in time, wanders here and there in her memories, but it’s never difficult to follow her train of thought. I understood her anxiety, the kind that wakes you up in the middle of the night (HELLO, THREE AM THIS MORNING!) and makes you unable to enjoy or fully live in this present moment. Worrying about your kids, worrying about the state of the world, that indescribable feeling of dread that pervades every moment of your life and always seems to be hanging out in the background, ready to crank up to eleven at any given moment, Ms. Shapiro does a great job of illustrating what life looks like with this.

Grappling with the religion she was born into is also something I understood, and while our paths differed in that Ms. Shapiro seems to have eventually found a balance with hers, I enjoyed reading the details of her search. At one point, she wrote about finally finding a synagogue that felt like home, and the name of the rabbi rang a bell. I googled, and sure enough, he had appeared on an episode of the Unorthodox podcast (Ms. Shapiro has also appeared on this podcast)! Small world. I love when that happens.

If you’re looking for a memoir with more concrete answers and advice, this may not be the book for you, but Devotion: A Memoir documents well that the journey is important, too; that anxiety, though a constant companion for many of us, can be managed in many different ways; that sometimes what we’re born into needs to be rearranged in order to fit the person we grow into. Two thumbs up for what ended up feeling like a calming read for me during this turbulent time.

Visit Dani Shapiro’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.