nonfiction

Book Review: The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum

The 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge required me to find a book set in the 1920’s. Not my favorite decade to read about, and I’m really not sure why. The fiction choices on the list weren’t really appealing to me (a lot of them were more literary fiction, and I’m not really a fan), but one book finally caught my eye: The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum (Penguin Press, 2010). Nonfiction? Awesome. History?Awesome. Poison? WHOA. This sounded like a pretty cool book, and I dove right in.

In a nutshell, before, during, and slightly after the 1920’s in America, everything was made of poison, deadly poison of every sort was widely available for pennies, people constantly poisoned themselves, often to death, and if they weren’t doing it to themselves, their friendly neighborhood poisoner (often a family member) would do it to them. Add to that a medical examiner’s office whose corruption and cronyism resembled something ripped straight out of today’s headlines, and you had a major mess on your hands, along with a disturbing amount of murderers running free.

Enter chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler. Together they revolutionized the study of forensic medicine and revealed what poisons of all sorts do to the human body in every stage. They designed and ran experiments that not only helped to identify killers, they helped educate the public on the effects of the many poisonous substances that surrounded them so that they could exercise better care in what they were consuming and so that they would be familiar with the process of forensic medicine when it came time to serve on a jury and convict a murderer. This was no easy task; Norris fought his entire career for the New York government to take his lab seriously and fund it appropriately, but the advances he and Gettler made changed the face of science forever.

This is a seriously fascinating book that nearly reads like a novel. Did you realize that the United States government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition? And when people died, instead of, you know, NOT poisoning the alcohol, they just shrugged and said, “Eh, they shouldn’t have drank it, then,” and upped the amount of poison in it!!! And the US went through a radium craze- NO, SERIOUSLY- where radium was in a ton of different products, including RADIUM WATER THAT PEOPLE ACTUALLY DRANK. This worked out about as well as you might think. Like I said, basically everything was poison.

There are a lot of parallels between the society of this time period and today. Even though so much has changed, enough has stayed the same that chunks of this were really depressing. Like when men who worked in the plants that manufactured leaded gasoline began getting sick, going crazy, and dying, the owners of the plants blamed the men for not being able to handle the hard work (turns out it was the lead. Which they knew really early on). And most of us know the story of the Radium Girls who painted watch dials and died from radium poisoning after putting the tips of their paintbrushes in their mouths to make the brush pointy, a technique taught by their employers, who assured them that this was safe, then blamed the women when their jawbones and hipbones and femurs began crumbling. (It was all that promiscuous sex they were having, and not, you know, the fact that these women would glow in the dark when they went home.) There are a lot of stories like this in the book. It’s frightening, to be honest, because I kept wondering what’s being hidden from us today. (And I’m *not* a conspiracy theorist at all; there’s just enough disturbing historical content in here that it really freaked me out.)

There are so many interesting stories in this book, ones I didn’t know and never learned about in school. Deborah Blum has written a book that made the 1920’s come alive in a way they never have for me before. The Poisoner’s Handbook is information-dense, but it’s information everyone interested in American history or the creation of forensic medicine should know and understand. If you like true crime, this should probably be on your list as well, since it’ll give you a better understanding of what it took to get to today’s lab procedures that pin down whodunnit with chemistry.

SUPER cool book! I didn’t expect to enjoy this one as much as I did.

Visit Deborah Blum’s website here.

Follow her 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.

nonfiction · television

Book Review: Sunny Days: Sesame Street, Mister Rogers, and the Children’s Television Revolution by David Kamp

I’ve spoken here many times before about my love for Mister Rogers, but Sesame Street and its history are also pet subjects of mine. I love reading about how the show grew from nothing but a flash of an idea into the cultural institution that it has become. I love hearing the actors’ stories, how the songs came about, how the puppets were created and the sets decorated, and how it changed the lives of everyone who was not only involved with it but who watched it from the comfort of their living rooms. I needed a book with a bird on the cover for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge, and as I searched the Goodreads’ groups lists of books that fit this prompt, I was delighted to find that Sunny Days: Sesame Street, Mister Rogers, and the Children’s Television Revolution by David Kamp (Simon Schuster, 2020) fit the bill AND was on my TBR AND my library had the ebook! (I had to wait a few days for it, but that’s okay.)

David Kamp has written a beautiful book that covers the glory days of early children’s television, from its first anemic offerings, to the slightly better Captain Kangaroo, to the powerhouses that were Sesame Street, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, The Electric Company, Schoolhouse Rock, Zoom, Free to Be…You and Me, and a few others that ran on more local channels. In a vibrant, upbeat manner, he chronicles how the shows came about, from conception to either today (in the case of Sesame Street) or completion, how the teams worked together (so many of the shows’ creators either didn’t have children or weren’t particularly interested in children or children’s programming, which I find fascinating, but which probably contributed heavily to these shows’ never talking down to kids), and how the political climate at the time was ripe for the creation of educational television for kids, something that would be extremely unlikely to happen today.

This is an utterly joyful read. While my parents assure me I watched The Electric Company, I have no memories of the show; I do, however, have a brain full of memories of early 80’s Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (including a song I’d forgotten about but that came right back to me when the book mentioned it: I in the Sky. Such a great song), and reading interviews with the actors, musicians, and creators that grew these shows from the ground up fascinated me to no end. There’s so much planning and hard work that went into these shows, and it doesn’t seem like anyone working on them got rich, but to be part of such cultural monoliths must have made all of it worth it.

It’s never overt, but Mr. Kamp illustrates over and over again how such innovative children’s programming would never be possible in today’s political climate, and that’s something that hurt my heart as I read. Too many people have dismissed the need for the government to get involved in helping to create quality educational programming, especially for the preschool set, in our hyper-individualistic society, dismissing the idea that we are a society and we can’t fully function unless all of us are able to participate. And when there’s a skill gap starting in kindergarten that only grows wider over time, we’re effectively kneecapping a large portion of society (and then blaming those people instead of working out solutions to solve this problem). Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood sought to be solutions, and in a time when most people were on board with the government helping to fund that, they achieved it. In an age when I’ve heard multiple politicians (local and national) support closing public schools entirely (“Parents should be entirely responsible for fully educating their children! Don’t have them if you can’t teach them entirely at home!” was something I heard often when we lived in the south), that this ever even happened at all seems almost magical.

Such a lovely book of a time when people worked together to achieve a common goal. Would that we could return to such an age.

If you’re interested in Sesame Street and early PBS programming, other books that might catch your fancy (which I’ve read and can vouch for!) are as follows:

Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street by Michael Davis

Sesame Street Unpaved: Scripts, Stories, Secrets, and Songs by David Borgenicht et al

Sesame Street: A Celebration of 40 Years of Life On the Street by Louise Gikow

If it’s Mister Rogers you’re interested in, check out these books:

I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers by Tim Madigan

The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King

Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers by Michael G. Long

Do you have any great memories of PBS programming from your childhood?

Visit David Kamp’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter 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.

nonfiction

Book review: There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done: Actors and Fans Celebrate the Legacy of Supernatural, edited by Lynn S. Zubernis

So I was browsing NetGalley a few weeks ago, checking out the selections (I don’t often request books; my blog is still kind of small and I don’t necessarily think I’ll be approved for many titles, but I like to know what books are out there that I can look forward to!), when the first part of the title of one book reached out and punched me in the face: There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done: Actors and Fans Celebrate the Legacy of Supernatural, edited by Lynn S. Zubernis (BenBella Books, 2020). The song by Kansas has been a long time favorite of mine, so I was immediately curious as to what the book was about, and I was a million times more delighted when I read the rest of the title and learned that this was a collection of essays about the CW show Supernatural, a show my husband and I binge-watched two years ago on Netflix and which I’ve enjoyed ever since. The book was offered as a ‘Read Now,’ and I happily clicked the button. (And since I was pulled in by the title, I’m counting this as my read for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt of ‘a book you picked because the title caught your attention.’)

Lynn S. Zubernis has edited a collection of essays and interviews by both cast and crew members and fans that speak to not only the brilliancy of the show, but the camaraderie and deep friendship that has blossomed among its ardent fans. Cast, crew, and fans alike refer to themselves as family (the SPNFamily, to be exact), and in every essay, their bonds are made obvious by the love the fans show each other, the charity work that every person even loosely associated with this show is moved to participate in, the deep desire to follow Sam and Dean’s footsteps by making the world a better, safer place, and the courage to be open, vulnerable, and thus, free.

The essays run the gamut, from experiences on set and how they changed an actor or actress’s life, to how being part of the fandom helped each fan to grow, but the common theme here are the permanent effects one single TV show has had, and the effects are massive. Far from being a mere aside of pop culture, Supernatural has acted as a catalyst for personal growth, from inspiring fans to keep fighting with the anxiety that has plagued them for years, to pushing them to take steps and make changes that they’d been afraid of taking. For a show that carried on for fifteen seasons, that’s no small feat, and no small amount of changed lives. The effects of Supernatural are long-ranging.

There’s an awful lot to fall in love with in this book. The actors’ willingness to connect with their fans is truly remarkable, and their essays, in which they detail their involvement in fan conventions and on social media, is absolutely heartwarming. But what really shines is the dedication to charity that this show has fomented among its followers. Almost every essay has some mention of how its author engaged in work that benefited people they never met- fundraising, multiple crisis support networks, helping other fans to pay off devastating medical bills- because that’s what family does, even far-off family you don’t often, or ever, see face-to-face. And the Supernatural fandom is the family everyone deserves.

The book isn’t without its criticism of the show, particularly towards earlier the seasons’ treatment of women. It’s never harsh, but it’s fair, and I appreciated such an even-handed take, because when you love something, you want it to be the very best it can be, and we should all be able to criticize the things we love while still loving them. And there are deep dives into certain characters (Charlie is a particular favorite, but there’s plenty of love for Sheriffs Jody Mills and Donna Hanscum as well) and their far-ranging influence, but my favorite essays were the ones that demonstrate that Supernatural‘s ripple effects are less like a tossed pebble and more akin to a giant bolder dropped into the middle of a lake.

Actor Rob Benedict sharing his experiences with suffering a stroke helped a fan to recognize that she was experiencing similar symptoms, and that pushed her to get medical help in time to save her life. A professor used the show to develop a course that helped veterans suffering from PTSD return to civilian life. Fans crowdfunded gender correction surgery for another fan who had decided to move forward with living his best life. Other fans raised money to start a school in Nicaragua and a children’s center in Haiti. The list go on and on and the stories are no less impressive as the book nears completion. Ms. Zubernis has chosen a set of essays that reveal the depth and heart of a television show about two brothers saving the world from things that go bump in the night (and day!), and its true legacy is the love its fans have extended from the show itself to each other and the world beyond.

If you’re a Supernatural fan, this book, this love letter to not just the show but to you and the friends you’ve made because of it, is one you can’t miss. Even for the casual fan like me, There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done was an utter joy to read: the fandom’s love and connection to each other is evident on every single page, and that kind of love is absolutely what the world needs right now. To be honest, I didn’t want this book to end, and I’m looking forward to reading Ms. Zubernis’s other works at some point as well.

“Because family really don’t end with blood. And those of us who have been part of the SPNFamily, whose lives have been changed for the better by this show, are now a little more able to ‘carry on.'”

There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done is a beautiful, moving testament to a television show that transcended the bounds of pop culture and changed what it means to be a fan, and we’re all the better for it. Carry on, friends, and Always Keep Fighting.

Huge thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read and review this wonderful book!

Visit Lynn Zubernis’s website, Fangasm the Book, here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book review: Concealed by Esther Amini

This week in my (Re)Introduction to Judaism class was our week to study Jewish history from Creation to the Enlightenment. Thousands of years of history in just an hour and a half, not an easy feat, and as the rabbi teaching the class said, “Jewish history is a bit of a misnomer. We have Jewish histories, plural.” And in a stunning bit of serendipity, this lesson showed up in my own life when I was offered a chance to read and review Concealed by Esther Amini (Greenpoint Press, 2020). After reading the premise of this new memoir, I leapt at the chance, because this sounded perfect for me, and it was. From the very first paragraph, I was hooked.

Esther Amini was born in New York, but her parents and older brothers came from a world away in Iran, Mashhadi Jews who spent their lives passing as Muslim in order to stay safe and alive, living as Jadid al-Islam, a kind of Persian converso. Outwardly, they presented as Muslim, their status as Jews a public secret; when tensions rose and the community stopped looking the other way, violence- stonings, robberies, assault, and murder, all sanctioned by the government- erupted. It was with this trauma that Esther’s parents lived, affecting their marriage, their outlook on life, and how their raised their children.

“Can we ever really know our parents?” Ms. Amini asks, before admitting the weight and sheer gravitas of this task. In this memoir, she recounts the struggles of her youth and young adulthood with parents whose volatile marriage and difficulty adapting to the cultural norms of their new home touched every part of her life. As she matures, she comes to understand her father’s fierce overprotectiveness and silence, her mother’s drive for independence and single-minded desire to stand out, while still acknowledging their faults and gathering the determination to stop the pattern of chaos with her own children.

A memoir of religion, immigration, family history, the challenge of reaching an adult understanding of one’s parents, and healing from the scars of the past, Concealed tells a story of a life lived with grace, perseverance, forgiveness, and the drive to shed the turmoil of one’s past.

I’d known there were Jewish communities in Iran, but Concealed was my introduction to what those communities look like. Extremely insular out of necessity, the community suffered greatly and lived in constant fear for their lives. It was after Esther’s brother David, then three, was burned on the ear with a red-hot fire poker by his teacher (who also screamed a terrible antisemitic pejorative at him) that Esther’s mother insisted that they needed to leave.

What fascinated me, however, was how much of the surrounding Persian culture and the lifestyle her parents had needed to adopt in order to survive, yet which they still carried with them to their new country. Early marriage for girls, as young as nine and to men twenty to fifty years older, was the norm in Iran (for the Mashhadi Jews, the reasoning behind this early marriage stemmed from the fact that minority girls and women ran a higher risk of being raped, which would then affect their chances of being married at all; thus, the earlier the marriage, the safer they would be, the reasoning went). While marriage at nine was, thankfully, out of the question, Esther’s parents made it clear that marriage, the earlier the better, was the only goal they had for her. Doing nothing to disavow her parents of the notion that graduation from high school was mandatory in America, Esther put all her effort into her studies, determined to make something more of herself than the anemic vision of her future presented to her by her parents. The book illustrates an almost stunning parallel: her parents sneaking and hiding their Jewishness in Iran, and Esther’s furtive studying, hiding books under the covers and reading with a flashlight, sneaking schoolbooks from her parents. The type of survival differed, but both types of concealment were necessary for each person to persist.

Her brothers were encouraged to study and work hard, however, a sexist stereotype that unfortunately transcends culture. “Stop thinking. No man will marry you,” her father told her. “Books are evil, they poison girls’ minds.” Her mother, herself illiterate, mocked Esther’s constant studying and desire to attend college. Her brothers, however, formed a team to educate and protect her, teaching her about periods, taking her bra shopping, serving as the knowledgeable, tuned-in substitute parents she desperately needed. “Es, create a mind you want to live with,” her brother David told her. And through hard work, trial and error, and the help of a good therapist, she does.

Her parents are mysteries, human contradictions whom Esther defies as a young adult, then endeavors to understand as she ages and then has children herself. Her father, harsh and reticent with a fierce protective streak, remains an enigma until she sees him through the eyes of a parent. Her mother, never missing a chance to create a spectacle, denied so much in her own life yet content to deny so much in her daughter’s, felt the world owed her, something Esther doesn’t come to terms with until late in her mother’s life. Maybe we can’t ever truly know who our parents our, but Esther Amini never stops trying, never gives up piecing together the puzzle of where she came from and how it affected her. Readers will triumph alongside her as she reaches hard-won conclusions and answers about the family she was born into.

Concealed is an intriguing memoir of not just one woman, but of a family, of a community, of the past and how it follows us all, and the effort it takes to grow and flourish beyond the places predetermined for us. Esther Amini is an absolute bastion of strength and determination, and her meticulous insight glows on every page of this book. If you enjoy memoirs, you won’t want to miss this original take on the genre spotlighting a community and a type of voice not often heard from.

Special thanks to Alessandra Scarpaci of Wunderkind PR and Greenpoint Press for sending me a review copy of Concealed.

Visit Esther Amini’s website here.

Follow her on Facebook here.

Follow her on Instagram here.

nonfiction

In Cod We Trust: Living the Norwegian Dream- Eric Dregni

There aren’t a whole lot of books out there about Norway, nor are there books set in modern-day Norway (other than Nordic crime fiction, and I’m not a huge fan of mysteries and crime fiction in general). I’ve looked. But my search, done years ago, did turn up In Cod We Trust: Living the Norwegian Dream by Eric Dregni (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), and onto my want-to-read list it went. The author and I both come from Norwegian stock (shoutout to Ole and Alfa, my great-great-grandparents, who came here from north of Bergen somewhere around the 1890’s, and to the relatives in Norway now that pop up on 23 and Me), and it’s always fun to read something by an author who has as much interest in his family’s background as I do.

Eric Dregni won a Fullbright Fellowship to study in Norway for a year on the same day he learned his wife was expecting their first child. Their sense of adventure packed in between their warmest clothes, the two of them headed off to his ancestral homeland so he could learn, study, and eventually write a book about Norway. It’s a definite change, to be sure. The people aren’t as open or outgoing as they’re used to, the language is a challenge (fortunately for them, most Norwegians speak perfect English), the cost of living is astronomical, the food is much different than they’re used to (gas station sausages, lutefisk, and rakfisk, oh my!) and the weather is…well, it’s Norwegian weather, so dress accordingly, like with spikes on your shoes so you don’t slide off the sidewalk and into traffic. And then there’s the colicky baby…

But there’s also the beauty of the mountains and the fjords, the joy of meeting long-lost relatives and discovering the places his ancestors once lived, the complete acceptance of children in Norwegian culture (even at their worst!), and the friends they manage to make along the way. Slap your skis on your feet and join the Dregni family for a year abroad in a country you probably don’t know much about!

In Cod We Trust is fun and informative. I had to giggle a few times at his stories of how the language tripped him up; the first time I ever saw Norwegian, it looked bizarre and unlike anything I’d ever seen before and now even the words I’m unfamiliar with have a certain familiarity to them (except for the more dialect-y words, and outside of Oslo, it’s all basically dialect!). His descriptions of the Norwegian landscape are stunning, and his recountings of the various surprising meals he ate there are…less than entirely appetizing, to be honest. Norway isn’t exactly known for its cuisine (if it’s white and made of cod, potatoes, or flour, they’ll eat it), but Mr. Dregni should definitely be applauded for his willingness to put himself out there and slurp down rakfisk. (Fortunately, no mention of smalahove- look it up if you’re curious.)

His wife is a pretty good sport, I have to say. I’d love to spend a year abroad, though I’m not sure I’d be willing to do it while pregnant (I’m an utter wreck while pregnant with the vomiting and constant nausea all the way to the end. My son put me in the hospital twice. Not great for international travel, even to places with great medical systems!). She seemed to take most of it in stride, or, if she struggled, Mr. Dregni kindly left that out. I admire her for being willing to follow him on this journey.

Turns out I’ve also read Eric Dregni’s Vikings in the Attic: In Search of Nordic America, which I didn’t enjoy as much as this, though it was still okay. In Cod We Trust fits the bill for the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge prompt of a book with a pun in the title, so hurray for another one biting the dust there!

Have you ever read a book set in Norway? What about one set where your ancestors came from, if you know where? I’d love to hear about it!

I can’t find a website or Twitter for Eric Dregni, but if you’re aware of one, let me know and I’ll post it here! 🙂

nonfiction · true crime

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer- Michelle McNamara

So, according to Goodreads, I’m the last person on Earth to read I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara (Harper, 2018). I read maybe a handful of true crime books every year; it’s not usually a section I wander through at the library, but if a case interests me for a particular reason or someone I know recommends something from this genre, I’ll pick it up. A ton of my friends read this last year; I finally picked it up based on a prompt for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge: a book with gold, silver, or bronze in the title (this being an Olympic year and all…if the Olympics still happen, what with mass events like that getting cancelled due to coronavirus). Not being a huge true crime person, I went into this book almost entirely cold, which made for an interesting read.

Michelle McNamara was the wife of comedian Patton Oswalt. She passed away unexpectedly in her sleep from an accidental overdose in 2016, but in life she was a true crime writer and obsessively searched for the man she dubbed The Golden State Killer, a man who terrorized Southern California throughout the seventies and eighties. He was responsible for at least thirteen murders and more than fifty rapes (and who knows what other crimes haven’t been tied to him). Despite massive effort to pin him down, he always seemed able to slip through the fingers of law enforcement, to blend into the background and remain unnoticed.

Finding him was Michelle’s obsession. She dug through old evidence, interviewed witnesses, befriended investigators. From what it sounded like, she was as much a part of the investigation team as some of the officers and retired officers still at work on the case. She passed away before her book was finished, a heartbreaking ending to her story, and a devastating blow to her family.

SPOILER ALERT- not for the book, but for what came after:

I *thought* I remembered hearing things about this on the news recently, but I didn’t look it up while I was reading (and I wasn’t entirely sure if what I saw related to the case itself or to the book). It was only this morning, after I finished the book, that I allowed myself to Google, and sure enough, they found him, just as Michelle had so desperately hoped. His time had indeed run out, thanks to a DNA match that investigators were finally able to run through an ancestry site. With the help of a genealogist, suspects were narrowed down and a match was secured. The suspect, Joseph James DeAngelo, will go on trial at some point for being the Golden State Killer. Science is amazing, you guys. Back when he was terrorizing the people of Southern California, he was nearly unstoppable, but science hunted him down. I’ve seen articles purporting that the age of the serial killer is over, or at least greatly slowed down thanks to DNA testing, and I pray that’s the case.

Two major emotions settled in as I read Ms. McNamara’s work. First off, fear. It’s nigh impossible to read real-life accounts of home invasion, rape, murder, and the type of terror that this man evoked and not feel at least somewhat vulnerable. Even in this age of heavy locks, security systems, doorbell cameras, and the like, do any of us ever feel entirely safe? This book definitely creeped me out (and made me thankful for my cats, who would never greet me at the door like they did this morning if there were a stranger in the house, as they’re kind of terrified of strangers and scurry off to hide under the bed if someone they’re not familiar with enters the house) and made me a little more aware of my surroundings and my safety during the time I was reading.

And second, sadness. It’s hard to read the master work of someone who passed away so young, not only before she had a chance to finish the book but before she had a chance to see the case come to fruition the way it has. Reading the scenes where she talked about her husband and young daughter were heartbreaking, because I read them with the obvious knowledge that they’re still here and she’s not. Life is so very, very unfair in so many different ways. I wish Ms. McNamara were here to see this monster finally caught and celebrate his capture with her investigator friends. I wish she were here to watch her daughter grow up and to live out her natural life with her husband. I wish she could have finished the book with its rightful conclusion.

If you’re into true crime, you’ve probably already read this, but if you’re like me and only read the genre now and then, it’s a worthy pick despite the aura of sadness surrounding the untimely demise of its author. Lots of information on investigations and police procedures, what happens when a case goes cold, and the history and growth of DNA testing in here, and that alone makes it a great read, as does Ms. McNamara’s own history and her explanation of her involvement with the case.

Now that the suspect is caught, my thoughts go not only to his victims, but his family members. His ex-wife, his children, his grandchildren. They never asked for this, they never asked for the publicity or to be related to this monster. My heart breaks for the family members because he turned them into victims as well. I so hope they’re getting support from their friends and community, because this has nothing to do with them as people.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer is probably the most in-depth true crime study I’ve ever read, and I’ll definitely be following the trial much more closely than if I hadn’t read this.

Michelle McNamara passed away in 2016.

nonfiction

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl- Timothy Egan

Chalk up another book challenge win (and another book that I might not have picked up on my own. I definitely would have been interested, had I come across it without this challenge, but I probably would’ve thought, “That looks great, but I’ve got too many other things to read, and who knows, it might be boring…”). One of the prompts for Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge is to read a book about a natural disaster. As natural disasters tend to freak me out, I checked their list of suggestions first and figured I could handle The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan (Mariner Books, 2006), which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2006. In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck wrote about those who fled the Dust Bowl; Timothy Egan writes about those who stayed behind.

I read The Grapes of Wrath in high school and…loved it seems like a poor choice of words for a novel so bleak and full of suffering, but it was my introduction to Steinbeck and made me a lifelong fan. I don’t remember learning *that* much about the Dust Bowl, other than it was terrible and people starved, so The Worst Hard Time was a full-on education for me.

The American Dust Bowl was an area of the Great Plains that was stripped of most all vegetation and aggressively overfarmed; combined with what was later discovered to be a normal period of drought for the area, this led to massive dust storms that swept the area for years throughout the 1930’s. Nothing grew and livestock died; people choked and suffered from dust pneumonia; poverty was rampant and families starved. If anything, the suffering in The Grapes of Wrath isn’t painted grimly enough. Timothy Egan recounts one of the worst climate disasters in the US to date in this in-depth work of nonfiction.

The picture is stark. Babies and the elderly suffer and die in the dozens of dust storms that rage through the area each month. The dust, whipped by sixty mile-per-hour winds, blinds some folks permanently. Dust coats every surface, and cleaning just means things will need to be cleaned again hours later. Drifts of dust, parched topsoil depleted from areas farther away, pile up to the rooftops of some houses, and the dust travels all the way to Washington DC at times, coating that city with a mere taste of what the residents of the Dust Bowl experience daily. A worse situation could hardly be imagined.

Alongside the climatic devastation, the Great Depression was raging on and almost no one had an income. People bartered for what they could, made shoes out of tires and clothes out of onion bags and the stripped fabric from broken down cars. They pickled tumbleweed and canned rabbit meat. Hospitals had to postpone operations; their surgical rooms were impossible to keep clean. April 14th, 1935, a day known as Black Sunday, marked the biggest storm of all, two hundred miles wide with 300,000 tons of dirt- more than twice as much as had been dug out of the Panama Canal- whipping through the air.

However grim you’ve pictured the history of the Dust Bowl, it’s worse, and Timothy Egan pulls no punches in showing exactly how. Nor does he stray from showcasing the immense hubris on display by both government and civilians when it came to taking responsibility for and dealing with this crisis. Settlers refused to believe that this crisis was man-made (so, so much of this book parallels our current climate crisis that it’s almost chilling to read); Roosevelt is devastated to learn that the Homestead Act of 1862 was an abject failure and led directly to the creation of the Dust Bowl; many farmers scorned the new farming techniques taught to them in order to even have a slight chance of saving what was left of the soil (spoiler alert: the area never completely recovered). This book is a clear warning signal of how man can easily alter his environment to utterly devastating permanent effects.

While not a simple read, it’s an easy one; Mr. Egan’s writing style lends to his prose flowing as easily as any novel, though the subject matter often sounds nearly like something straight out of Stephen King. The Worst Hard Time is a great book to read if you’re looking for that Read Harder Challenge prompt, but it’s also great if you’re interested in history, in poverty and hunger (I was pleased to see this book recommended on the reading list at Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger), in climate or weather, or if you enjoy nonfiction in general. It’s an incredible read, a living history whose consequences we still live with today, and I’m glad it’s one I included in my reading life this year.

Visit Timothy Egan’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.