nonfiction

Book Review: The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn

This! This is the book that has held up my blog updates for so long. Sorry, fellow booklovers! I hadn’t realized The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn (Harper, 2006) was so long (512 pages), or that it would be such a challenging read. I knew it would be tough- Holocaust books are always emotionally difficult, and this came at the time during my class when we were studying it, so at least it was a timely read- but the complex story and masterful writing, combined with the painful subject matter (and small print!) made for a read that was informative, intriguing, wrenching, and one that I had to put down quite a few times in order to maintain my sanity.

Daniel Mendelsohn grew up as his family’s historian, the grandchild who was always interested in the family lore and who was always collecting stories and tidbits and information from his relatives who fled to the US from modern-day Ukraine. The stories of his aunt, uncle, and four cousins who didn’t make it out, who died at the hands of the Nazis, always gripped him, and as an adult, he began the worldwide search to discover what really happened to them. What parts of the stories he had growing up were true? When and where did they die? What had they been like before the Holocaust destroyed everything about them, and was there any part of them left in the place they used to live?

Mr. Mendelsohn’s search is a race against time; the survivors he travels to interview are all in their 80’s and 90’s, many in failing health. The information he receives isn’t always what might give him a more complete picture of his missing family members (quick: think of a family who lived across the street from you, or down the hall from you, when you were fourteen. Think of what you would tell their relatives today. “They always waved”? “They had a black and white dog”? Could you give much more information than that?). Sometimes, the memories are still too painful or frightening, or shameful, to talk about; his interview subjects still get choked up seventy years later, remembering how they suffered, how their parents disappeared, how they watched their friends, neighbors, family slaughtered in front of them, often while they hid in fear for their own lives.

From country to country, continent to continent, from archive to darkened living room, Daniel Mendelsohn pieces together the story of his grandfather’s brother’s family and how they were all murdered. The full story takes years to fully stitch together, from multiple sources in multiple languages, mined from memories that contain some of the most painful images known to humanity. His dedication to uncovering the truth as to what happened to his lost family members should be a reminder to the everyday reader as to just how much was lost during this horrific period of time.

Heavy, heavy book. I don’t think it necessarily needs to be said, but this is a book about the Holocaust; there are many pages that contain gruesome imagery and descriptions of the worst things that could possibly be done to other human beings. They’re real, they happened to real people, and reading of how they suffered, while necessary to ensure that their stories will never be forgotten, takes an emotional toll. If at all possible, space this book out with some lighter material. Remembering the stories of the victims doesn’t mean breaking ourselves down.

The Lost should serve as a master class in family research. The lengths to which Mr. Mendelsohn had to go, the hoops he had to jump through, the flights he had to catch and translators he had to hire, to be able to produce this story, while all of it was likely exhausting and expensive, it’s likely a dream come true to people who engage in serious genealogy and family research. His story wound up with a concrete ending, with solid knowledge as to what happened to the final surviving members of the family who remained in Bolechow. Not all- maybe not even most- genealogists are so fortunate to end up with such clear answers, but I’m guessing everyone who wants to engage in such serious research could learn a few things from his techniques and his dedication, or at least be better prepared for the Odyssean journey ahead.

The Lost is a long, painful book of the atrocities suffered by one family and the grandson who was determined to shine a light on their lives and their ultimate fate. It’s meticulously researched and crafted, with the desperation and determination to give voices to the dead and ensure that their lives and their suffering will never be forgotten. This isn’t an easy read, but it’s worth every second of the time it takes to read and every moment you’ll set the book down, take a few deep breaths while staring off into space while wondering how anyone could ever do that, and then begin reading again.

Visit Daniel Mendelsohn’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Secret Soldiers in America by Debbie Cenziper

I like nonfiction. I like history. I like justice. All of these come together in Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Secret Soldiers in America by Debbie Cenziper (Hachette Books, 2019). (And huh, I’m just now seeing the discrepancy between the Goodreads title and what’s on the cover of the book!) I believe this came to me from a book list- either a list of amazing nonfiction, or a list of Jewish-themed books. Either way, it hung out on my TBR for a bit, until I made my latest order-for-pickup at the library, and then I dove right in as soon as I picked it up. Be warned, though: even if you’ve read plenty about the Holocaust before, this is a rough read.

Citizen 865 tells the story of the OSI, the Office of Special Investigations within the Department of Justice. It focused on bringing to justice former Nazi soldiers and collaborators who became naturalized US citizens under false pretenses, after lying on their citizenship documents about their activities during World War II. Because alongside Holocaust survivors who had lost everything and who had journeyed to America to start all over again, hundreds of former Nazis who had spent their war years carrying out Hitler’s orders to torture and murder slipped into the country as well.

Debbie Cenziper recounts the difficulties of puzzling out exactly who these men were and what they did during the war, a task made even more challenging because many countries refused access to identifying records and documents. The historians and lawyers who staffed the OSI worked long hours and traveled long distances in order to ensure justice was served to the millions of murdered souls and the survivors who fought so hard to rebuild after everything had been stolen from them. While not a simple or easy job, it proved a satisfying one.

This is a rough, rough read. I kept having to put the book down and scroll through Twitter or Facebook in order to get a bit of a mental break after reading some particularly heinous detail about how the Jews of Poland were tortured and murdered by people who took such glee in it. No matter how much I read about the Holocaust, I don’t think I’ll ever, ever understand how one person could perpetrate such horrors on another human. Ms. Cenziper doesn’t go into graphic details, but the stories the OSI digs up are nightmarish in nature. If you’re sensitive, be sure to balance this book with something lighter. These stories deserve to be heard, lest we ever forget, but they’re not easy to read.

While grief and despair are definitely feelings that Citizen 865 evokes, rage is also prevalent, so be prepared for that. There were plenty of American politicians who defended the Nazis, who thought that enough time had passed and that the victims should just get over it and move on from the murders of their entire families,- unity, amirite? (STOP ME IF YOU’VE HEARD THIS ONE BEFORE *eyeroll*). I’ll give you one guess which political party these Nazi defenders belonged to. I spent a lot of time taking deep breaths and trying not to explode in a fiery ball of fury. So, so little has changed. What are we even doing???

Debbie Cenziper makes digging through historical documents to build a legal case deeply intriguing. Under her treatment, the historians are detectives, justice- and truth-seekers of the highest degree, and their jobs go beyond poring over decades-old documents. The survivors’ stories are treated with the utmost of respect, and while I feel it’s a bit clichéd to note when nonfiction reads like a novel, this absolutely does. It’s difficult subject matter, but it’s one worthy of your time, and Ms. Cenziper’s writing will keep readers turning the pages.

(I apologize if this review isn’t up to my usual standards. This is an amazing book and I don’t feel like I’ve done it justice. It’s a bad day for pain here and I’m struggling to come up with words. When the pain gets this bad, it’s the equivalent of trying to focus on the television with someone blaring the radio right behind you at full volume. ☹ )

Visit Debbie Cenziper’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett

I first learned of Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett (Celadon Books, 2020) from my friend Sibyl, who came to my parenting group’s book forum to tell us all about a new memoir written about a man’s aftermath of being raised in a cult. I was intrigued, but kind of forgot about it for a bit (I think there was a lot going on at the time) until I started seeing it pop up on Twitter, and that’s when I added it to my TBR. And since one of the challenges from my parenting group’s reading challenge this year is to read a book recommended by another member, I turned to Hollywood Park. Whew, this is a sad one.

Mikel Jollett and his brother Tony were born into the Synanon cult, which started as a drug rehab and was good until it wasn’t, as everyone in the book said. (Big shout-out here to the podcast Cults, on Parcast; this is where I had learned about Synanon a few years back. I hadn’t heard of it before. If you’re not familiar with Synanon and you want to read this book, I highly suggest you listen to their episodes on this cult before diving in.) His parents, who were no longer together, escaped when Mikkel was five and Tony was about six. You may wonder why the cult affected them so deeply the rest of their lives, since they were so young, and this is because by the time Mikel and Tony were infants, Synanon had a policy of separating children and parents, because in the cult’s way of thinking, children shouldn’t have parents, they should be ‘children of the Universe.’ Thus, Mikel and Tony grew up, like other kids in Synanon, being raised in what seemed like those awful Romanian orphanages of the 1990’s under Nicolae Ceaușescu, unable to form attachments to other people. It gets worse from there.

Their mother has either borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder and spends their childhood gaslighting them, denying their feelings and experiences, and making everything about herself. Poverty abounds in their household, and their mother brings a parade of men through the house, trying to form the family of her dreams. Both boys turn to substance abuse to cope with the dysfunction; Mikel manages to escape this early on, but Tony falls into full-blown addiction. With a massive amount of hard work and therapy, Mikel and Tony manage to forge healthy lives, but the drama along the way is worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster.

My goodness. This isn’t *quite* at the levels of dysfunction seen in The Glass Castle or Educated, but it’s just as raw and painful. Mikel’s father, though rough around the edges, had his heart in the right place and was an effective parent, and his stepmother Bonnie is an absolute gem, so it’s not all tension and pain, but the chapters with his mother are…they’re rough reads. She’s dismissive of everything Mikel and Tony feel, everything they experience, and won’t anyone think of how hard this (this being anything from leaving Synanon to the death of someone Mikel loves) is on HER??? She’s the kind of person you just want to grab by the shoulders and shake in order to force some sense into her and get her out of her own head. I have a feeling she’s going around these days, talking about how hard the publication of this book has been on her, and I can’t say I have any sympathy.

This is also a story of addiction and the toll it takes, and how it’s passed down the line, how we continue to act out our family traumas so that the next generation repeats them. Both Mikel and his brother have taken the steps to break this chain, but not without some damage already caused. It’s a painful read and may be even more painful if you’re struggling with addiction or you love someone who is or has struggled. It might also be a tough read for anyone who has lived with a narcissistic parent. But it might also be enlightening, seeing what Mikel and Tony go through, and how hard they work to rebuild healthy lives for themselves. Take into account what you’re ready for before you read, and be kind to yourself. Recovery of any sorts is a long, difficult process.

Hollywood Park is a painful story of growing up amongst massive dysfunction coming at the author from nearly every direction, but it’s also one of growth and triumph for those who are willing to put in the work, arduous and challenging and daunting though it may be. I flew through this one, but I’ve heard from others that they didn’t care for Mikel Jollett’s style. It’s not an easy read, emotionally-speaking, but it’s worth it. His life is a fascinating story, and I flew through this book. If you’ve read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Follow Mikel Jollett on Twitter.

nonfiction

Book Review: An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz

What do you know about Chicago? The Sears Tower (it’ll never be the Willis Tower, dammit!), the Magnificent Mile, Lake Shore Drive, our sports teams, corrupt politicians…and violence. Maybe Chicago’s violence was the first thing to come to your mind. But whatever you think you know, the story most likely goes deeper, and one of the very best people out there telling the story of the devastation suffered by Chicago’s Black and brown communities is journalist and author Alex Kotlowitz. He’s probably best know for There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America (if you haven’t read that, I highly recommend it). I’ve admired him for years, and I was excited to read his latest, An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago (Nan A. Talese, 2019). There aren’t a whole lot of people out there writing books about Chicago, but Alex Kotlowitz’s masterful writing and storytelling is the equivalent of a thousand lesser authors.

An American Summer begins with Pharoah (not a misspelling), one of the boys profiled in There Are No Children Here, giving an update on his tumultuous life. Mr. Kotlowitz then delves deeply into Chicago’s most violent communities, expanding upon the stories that make headlines, the ones people blow off because they read ‘gang member’ and immediately dismiss the victim/s as unworthy of sympathy. The story, as always, goes far deeper than that. These are real people, loved by their family, friends, and community; they’re parents, friends, employees, students. They’re people who have spent the vast majority of their lives being traumatized over and over again by the violent deaths of their loved ones and community members, and being dismissed by the world around them as not worth caring about. The phrase ‘hurt people hurt people’ comes to mind often when reading their stories, and while it’s difficult to grasp this level of violence, this book illuminates what daily life looks like for the people who live it.

Alex Kotlowitz paints pictures of bleak, isolated neighborhoods full of run-down homes, often abandoned, full of bullet holes and grieving families. These communities aren’t without hope, though it’s occasionally difficult to find. There are high schoolers who have witnessed multiple deaths by gunshot- of friends, of family members, of strangers, often right in front of them. These are entire neighborhoods of people with the worst forms of PTSD and no hope for treatment, because unemployment- and thus lack of health insurance and an income high enough to pay for regular therapy and medicine- is so high that comprehensive treatment is often out of reach.

An American Summer is nonfiction that reads like a heartbreaking novel, but this is all tragically real. I could get into my car and be in some of these neighborhoods in less than half an hour. The massive difference between their lives, their neighborhoods, and mine is unfathomable, and it should never, ever have become like this. These people deserve so much better than what racist America has afforded them. They need jobs, fully funded education, healthcare (including comprehensive medical care)- the same thing the rest of America needs, but the situation is desperate here, and no one makes this clearer than Alex Kotlowitz.

If you think you know Chicago, read Alex Kotlowitz’s work. He’ll show you another side, the people behind the headlines, the trauma lived there every day. It’ll break your heart in a thousand different ways.

Visit Alex Kotlowitz’s website here.

anthology · fiction · nonfiction

Book Review: How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish, edited by Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert

So, I was a weird kid. (I’m sure you’re shocked.) I became fascinated with foreign languages on a Brownies field trip to the library at age seven (somewhere I was already intimately familiar with!). The librarian took us on a tour of the children’s section, pointing out where the fiction section was, and then letting us know what the nonfiction section held. She pointed out the foreign language section and I was immediately intrigued. ‘There are other languages???’ I remember thinking. A copy of a learn-to-speak-French book came home with me that day (the very first French sentence I ever learned to say: Où sont les toilettes? Super useful!), and I’ve been fascinated ever since, digging briefly into Japanese as a tween before studying Spanish, French, and German in high school, studying French in college (and marrying a native speaker!), dabbling in sign language here and there throughout my life, and picking up Norwegian as an adult. All this to say that a copy of Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish came home with me from the library when I was around eleven or twelve, which may have seemed weird if I had opened with that, but now that you know my history, eh, maybe not so much. I’ve always thought Yiddish was a cool language, and so I was glad my library had a copy of How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish, edited Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert (Restless Books, 2020).

This 500+ page anthology is a quilt, a little bit of everything for the Yiddish-curious reader. Essays, interviews, poetry, short stories, excerpts from novels. There are discussions of modern-day Yiddish, trips back to the shtetls that haven’t existed for decades, glimpses of a way of life long gone, and both optimism and pain. There are stories of shame and devastation, but also of triumph, of Aaron Lansky’s rescuing of millions of Yiddish books, of poetry so beautiful that I only wish it were better known (Emily Dickinson, eat your heart out!). If one format doesn’t interest you, the next piece will likely be entirely different, which makes for a really interesting read.

I was expecting something different, however; I had thought this was more a book about Yiddish and not just occasionally about Yiddish and then a lot of Yiddish-writing-translated-to-English. That’s not a bad thing, just different than what I was expecting. I was also expecting it to be entirely nonfiction, instead of including a lot of fiction and poetry. Again, not bad, just different.

It was also fun to see familiar faces in the book. I’ve known about Aaron Lansky for ages; his book is on my TBR and I’m very much looking forward to reading it. I’ve read Ilan Stavans before; Resurrecting Hebrew is a fascinating look on how the Hebrew language was brought back from being almost solely a textual language to the fully functional national language of Israel. And while reading the introduction, which spoke of how translated pieces were included in this anthology, I thought, “Hmmm, I wonder…” and I flipped through the index in the back. And sure enough, the wife of one of the rabbis who taught my Intro to Judaism class has a translated piece in the book! She’s a Yiddish professor. Small world, eh? 😊

Even if you’re not super interested in languages or Yiddish as a language, this book almost has the feel of reading a magazine, with all of its different pieces and formats. Reading it kept me engaged throughout its 512 pages, which is no easy feat!

Follow Ilan Stavans on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness by Alisa Roth

Ever since reading Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation by Joseph T. Hallinan in my early 20’s, I’ve been fascinated by prison and have read about it often. And with prisons being the largest supplier of mental health care in the United States, I knew I needed to read Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness by Alisa Roth (Basic Books, 2018) when I learned about it- partly because of this fascination, and partly for semi-personal reasons.

In Insane, Ms. Roth details the challenges the prison system faces being the provider of mental healthcare for its millions of prisoners. Funding is short, so providers- whom it’s difficult to hire for various reasons, including safety and lower-than-civilian-jobs salaries- are constantly lacking. Therapy is challenging when it can only be given out in the open, with no privacy. Fewer providers mean services don’t get rendered in time; meds don’t get handed out in time; diagnoses don’t get made for months, sometimes years. Officers get little-to-no training in how to deal with severely mentally ill prisoners. Overcrowding exacerbates symptoms and strains already strained resources. If you’re unaware of just how overburdened the prison system is in regards to mental healthcare, you’ll have a pretty good idea after reading this book.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t places trying, and Ms. Roth points that out throughout the book. It’s just that this is a monumental task, and the country does almost next to nothing in order to keep these mentally ill patients treated so that they don’t end up in prison in the first place. (Our garbage healthcare system, tied to employment, shares a lot of this blame, as does the lack of therapists and psychiatrists- and I’d say the problem of affordable higher education is also an issue there.)

This is a deeply distressing, heavy book, full of information that I wish everyone knew and cared about. We’re all just one slightly different brain chemical away from ending up as a patient on the wrong side of the law- and that’s if we’re lucky, because far too often in the US, mentally ill people end up being shot by the police. A dear friend of mine had a son who suffered from schizophrenia and one of her greatest fears was always that he would end up being shot by the police during an episode. I learn so much about mental illness from her, and I think of her son and her continued fight to improve mental health care in this country every time I read a book like this. The two of them are a continued reason why I pick up these kinds of books; what Ms. Roth is doing, shining a light on the conditions faced by inmates who are often incarcerated due to the affects of their illnesses, is so necessary, and it’s such a service to the mental health community.

Insane isn’t an easy read. It’s a tough subject matter, and a lot of what she talks about will probably scare you or make you uncomfortable. It should. But you should use this information to become better informed and a better advocate for the mentally ill. Because stigma is bullshit and mental illness is illness- like cancer, or heart disease, diabetes, or epilepsy. It deserves research, resources, treatment options- treatment BEFORE tragedy, as my friend Laura says. And mentally ill people deserve dignity and respect, which Ms. Roth definitely affords them all throughout this remarkable book.

Visit Alisa Roth’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: What We Will Become: A Mother, a Son, and a Journey of Transformation by Mimi Lemay

I think I discovered What We Will Become: A Mother, a Son, and a Journey of Transformation by Mimi Lemay (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019) from a book list last year. A letter she had written (and published) to her transgender son on his fifth birthday had gone viral, and this is the book that sprang out of that experience. I don’t remember seeing her letter when everyone was talking about it, but I knew that I had to read her and her family’s story once I read the premise of this book.

What We Will Become skips back and forth in time, detailing the struggles of parenting Em, Ms. Lemay’s middle child, and detailing her own life journey, growing up in a strict Orthodox home with an emotionally distant mother. Em is difficult to parent almost from the beginning, moody and temperamental, unhappy in her own skin. She’s two when she begins to insist she’s a boy; Mimi and husband Joe aren’t sure what to make of it, but they do their best to work with and around the challenges Em presents. Mimi’s childhood provides a similar story of struggle, of desperately trying to fit into a world who only had one role for her, of never feeling enough for her school or her mother.

As Em’s difficulties compound, Mimi realizes the meaning of everything she’s gone through in the past, of all the problems she’s dealt with and faced down, and how they’ve all lead her here, to be this child’s mother, to be the mother this child needs. And thus a boy named Jacob is born, confident where he never used to be, happy and giggly and authentically himself. It’s a story of transformation born from struggle, but one where everyone ends up exactly where they’re meant to.

This is a truly beautiful and extremely honest story of listening to your heart to know where you belong, and using the skills learned from there to listen to others’ hearts as well. It’s bravery, a story of having the courage to know when to walk away and when to stand and fight. Ms. Lemay took what she learned from her childhood- about the kind of person she wanted to be and the kind of parent she needed but didn’t have, and turned that into the kind of parent her son needed her to be. That’s extraordinary.

Her story of growing up fascinated me. Her mother was extremely emotionally distant and very religious; Mimi did her best to fit in and succeeded for a while as a teenager but then realized there wasn’t a place for her in that world. She left, wounded by her relationship with her mother, but with enough tools to carve herself a place in the outside world, one where she’s built a beautiful life for herself and her children. This is a story of transformation, of parents and children, and what not to do, but how to learn and grow from that until you figure out what TO do. I admire Ms. Lemay so much for that.

Such a beautiful book and a testament to how children can grow and thrive, as Jacob has done, when allowed to be who they are. May we continue to bend and shape the world into one that will always love him as fully as his parents do.

Follow Mimi Lemay on Facebook here.

Follow her on Instagram here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

Slightly different kind of book review today. Not as much of a review as a recommendation, and a plea.

I’ve had Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi (Bold Type Books, 2016) on my kindle for a while, but I hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Which made it a perfect choice for my parenting group’s reading challenge pick for a book that’s been sitting around on our shelves (or digital shelves) for a while. I’m glad my copy was digital; had I been able to flip through a paper copy, I would have been intimated both by the size (592 pages!) and the academic writing style. Instead, I clicked on the icon on my kindle and dove in.

This is a history of racism and racist ideas in the United States from the beginning of the country up until the present (or at least until the book was published in 2016). Whatever you think you know about racism in this country, it’s worse, and this book pulls no punches. That historical figure you always admired? Racist, and disgustingly so. That president you considered a decent guy? Yeah, he said some horrible things and signed off on policies that mirrored those things. History looks a little different than the stars-and-stripes-waving rhetoric that American grade school textbooks push, and if you haven’t really looked into history beyond that, you need to. This book is a good place to start.

This book is extremely comparable in tone and depth to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, so don’t go in expecting an easy, relaxing read; this is a book you work for. There were sentences and paragraphs I needed to reread to make sure I was understanding them fully. There were times when I paused and looked things up online to get some extra information. And on nearly every page, there’s a story that made me want to hurl the book across the room in a total rage. How are people like this? Why? How are they still like this? This book doesn’t answer those questions, but it does provide a fuller picture of the suffering that people who look like me have caused to Black people, and it provides impetus for doing better NOW.

I know over the summer this was free as an audiobook on Spotify; I don’t know about now, but most libraries should have it available. I don’t normally make the suggestion of audiobooks, since I myself don’t listen to them (not enough quiet time here, plus at least for fiction, my brain tends to wander), but if those are your jam, I highly, highly recommend this on audiobook as an easier way of making it through the book, because this is an information-packed, intense read, and I so want everyone to read this book. It’s 2020, people. We should have been beyond racism a loooooooooooonnnnnnnnnnnnng time ago, and instead, we’re still…here. We have to do better. And we can.

Start here. Start with this book. And then go out and do better and be better.

Visit Ibram X. Kendi’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–And Doesn’t by Stephen R. Prothero

I had the privilege of attending a Zoom webinar on continuing Holocaust education a few weeks ago, presented by a local university and given by professors, a rabbi, and Holocaust educators. It was fascinating and deeply moving, and one of the things that a Holocaust educator said struck me, about how in order to understand the Holocaust, one must be religiously literate, and she made the suggestion of reading Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t by Stephen R.Prothero (HarperOne, 2007). I put it on my list and grabbed it on my last library run (can you tell how slow my reading has been lately? My last library run was before Thanksgiving *sob*).

Stephen Prothero shines a light on America’s disturbing lack of religious literacy in this book. No, Jesus did not part the Red Sea. No, Joan of Arc wasn’t Noah’s wife. And if you can’t name any of the Five Pillars of Islam or describe the Eightfold Path of Buddhism, you’re not alone- most Americans can’t, either, and what’s even worse is that far too many people can’t describe most of the basic tenets of their own faith’s theology. This is especially true for Christianity, it being the dominant religion in the US, and Mr. Prothero provides many examples of this.

When exactly did we become so religiously literate? It goes much further back than the 1950s and 60s, and some of the history of how we lost our taste for in-depth religious knowledge- even of our own faiths- may surprise you. Stephen Prothero makes an excellent case for becoming religiously literate- we can’t truly call ourselves educated without understanding religion (and not just our own!)- even if we’re not believers ourselves. Religion permeates every aspect of our society, our literature, our history, and our politics, and religious literacy is a necessity for full participation in an educated society.

This book is more about shining a light on our problem of religious illiteracy and how it came to exist, rather than providing solutions (other than pointing out the need for classes in the basics of world religions for high schoolers). There’s a lot of history here, from America’s earliest days of Puritans and Deists, the Protestant/Catholic divide, religion’s role in such historical events as the abolitionist movement, Prohibition, the New Deal, and more. Mr. Prothero rightfully argues that American and world history cannot be understood without at least a basic grasp of religion. Imagine trying to study the Crusades without knowing what each side was fighting for. Imagine reading about the Spanish Inquisition without previous knowledge of the beliefs and history that led that society to that point. Imagine trying to read The Grapes of Wrath or Les Misérables without any knowledge of Christianity- the biblical allusions and allegories would go entirely over the reader’s head, and they would miss out on so much. Being religiously literate gives people a fuller, richer, more thorough understanding of nearly everything.

This book has really got me thinking. My husband prefers that our daughter be raised without religion, which is fine with me, but I do feel she needs to be religiously literate in order to be fully educated (I was raised Catholic, am in the process of converting to Judaism, and I have a decent grasp on both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, plus I’ve read books on various sects of Christianity and other religions, and I’ve taken a fantastic comparative religions class. I’m not worried about myself here!). I’ve read several books on world religions to her, and I point stuff out to her all the time, but I don’t necessarily feel like that’s enough, and I’m unsure of how to instruct her further in the cultural aspects (stories, practices) of religions I don’t follow, since most of the materials out there about religion that’s geared toward kids are for kids being raised in that religion. We’ve read books like A Faith Like Mine and One World, Many Religions: The Ways We Worship, both really great books that give overviews of the major world religions, but I’d like to go a little more in-depth, and I’m not sure more resources are out there on ‘this is what we believe and here are some of the stories in our scriptures’ without ‘This is why you should believe this, too!’ for kids. If you’re aware of any books that cover this kind of stuff- for any religion- that’s geared towards kids, leave a comment below, because this is definitely something I’m interested in learning about! When life goes back to normal, I’ll have a chat with our children’s librarians and see what they can come up with.

To sum it all up, Religious Literacy points out a major flaw in both the American educational system and in the way American religious institutions handle their deeper doctrinal and theological teachings. If you’re interested in religion in any manner (or education!), this is a great book. It’s information-dense, however, which is great for normal times when it’s quiet and you can focus, but makes for a slower read when, for example, you’ve got all of first grade blaring out of an iPad several feet in front of you. 😉

Visit Stephen R. Prothero’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness by Rebecca Lerner

Why is it that I always seem to read gardening and foraging books when it’s cold out? I think I’ve only ever had the sense to read one of these books when I could actually put the information I learned in it to use. Just seems to always work out that way, and on my last library trip before they closed to everything but curbside pickups, I grabbed a copy of Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness by Rebecca Lerner (Lyons Press, 2013). I’ve always been interested in urban foraging and have read plenty of books on the subject, but I haven’t really done much with what I’ve learned, other than make a lovely batch of dandelion jelly a few years ago, with dandelions collected from the surplus in my yard (and only in a year when we had so many, there were tons left over for the bees. My two cups of dandelions didn’t even make the tiniest of dents). The community college here offers walking tours of the prairie outside the school with an expert who points out edible native plants, so I’m hoping to take one of those tours when life goes back to normal. Until then, I read on!

Rebecca Lerner is an urban forager, hunting for edible, usable plants in Portland, Oregon, and the surrounding areas. She begins her story with an experiment, having been assigned an article where she lives solely off of items she’s foraged for a week. The experiment fails massively, since Rebecca is a novice, but she learns from her failure and is determined to improve her skills. Immediately, she pinpoints everything she’s done wrong and sets out to learn from friends and locals who are skilled foragers. She finds new greens, edible berries and nuts (even those that need a lot of work to be edible- like acorns), plants that serve as natural medicine and tea, and a way of living that suits her just fine.

This one was just okay for me. It started out fine; Ms. Lerner’s enthusiasm is admirable, and I appreciated her ability to showcase the mistakes she made- who hasn’t made enthusiastic-yet-massive screwups at the beginning of a new project? I enjoyed following her adventures in the streets and urban landscapes of Portland, the process of learning to cook these new-to-her foods, and her descriptions of their tastes. It was easy to feel as though I was right beside her, tramping through a neighbor’s yard, minding the spikes and thorns of these edible plants, and tasting the explosions of flavor of nature’s gatherable bounty.

Her enthusiasm for her homemade medicine cabinet alienated me a bit, however. I’m not against natural medicines, but she displays excitement for certain things that I 100% know have been debunked by peer-reviewed studies. And boasting that her homemade medicines helped people get over their colds in two to three days isn’t exactly the flex she wanted it to sound like (you know, the normal amount of time people would get over a cold?). Her explanation of why people stopped using these homemade medicines fell flat for me (husband is a molecular biologist; it’s all science, all the time here, and I’ve done a lot of reading in the past on the natural health and supplement industry. There’s no conspiracy or power-grab takeover; many of these natural cures simply don’t show any levels of effectiveness when put to rigorous scientific testing). The placebo affect is real and I’m all for using that to its full effect, but I dislike the more woo-based treatments being passed off as being as or more effective than evidence-based treatments.

This isn’t a bad book, despite my being turned off by her allegiance to her homemade medicines. It’s a fun story of learning to appreciate what the earth offers around us, learning to notice the bounty and learning to take advantage of it in a respectful way. It’s a fairly quick read if you’re into this subject.

Visit Rebecca Lerner’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.