nonfiction

Book Review: Browsing Nature’s Aisles: A Year of Foraging for Wild Food in the Suburbs by Eric and Wendy Brown

Finally! Finally, it’s warm out when I’m reading a book about foraging! Normally, it’s freezing and there are twenty feet of snow on the ground, a fact that never ceases to amuse me. Perhaps I’m just looking for a taste of warmer weather when that happens. This was more coincidence; Browsing Nature’s Aisles: A Year of Foraging for Wild Food in the Suburbs by Eric and Wendy Brown (New Society Publishers, 2013) had been on my TBR for quite some time and it was time to move it off of there. Thanks, interlibrary loan!

Eric and Wendy Brown, who live in suburban Maine, realized they wanted a more local, more sustainable way of life. They began to garden, they bought some chickens, they started to frequent their local farmer’s market. But they realized that this wasn’t enough, and that to supplement their diet, they needed to check out what nature was providing all around them for free. Starting with their own yard and branching out to the wide-open spaces around them, they began to learn the local plants that most people regarded as weeds or nuisances. Taking classes with urban foraging experts and instructors and learning from mycologists, they built up their confidence in identifying edible plants, fruits, roots, and mushrooms, and began to supplement their diet with items they foraged themselves.

This isn’t an instructional book. There are no, “Here are the plants that are safe to eat, here’s how you identify them and what you do with them once you’ve got them in your kitchen.” It’s the recounting of one couple’s adventures during a year of foraging in Maine. They talk about why they got started foraging (this part is a little doomsday-style depressing; it’s not necessarily inaccurate, just something to watch out for if you’re in a poor mood at the time) and their successes and failures, and all the reasons why urban foraging is a good idea. It’s not a bad story, but to be fully honest, I didn’t necessarily find anything new or inspiring in it, either.

I’m always impressed and a little bit baffled by people who live in the suburbs but who manage to find all sorts of wild-growing food. We have things like chickweed and common plantain and dandelions growing in our yard, of course, but there aren’t really stands of wild berries or apple trees growing nearby that are free for the taking. There are no empty fields where we can forage. All the forest preserves around us have signs all over explicitly stating that removing any kind of nature from the preserve is strictly forbidden. I’m very honestly unsure of where on earth we would find the kinds of things these authors are constantly stumbling across. There’s just not a lot of nature around us that we’re allowed to take things from, at least, not that I’m aware of. Maybe I’m just missing out. Our local community college did offer an evening prairie walk, pre-pandemic, where an instructor would walk with the participants and point out edible plants. I had planned on signing up for that, but, well, you know. I’m sure that’ll come back in 273489374923 years, when this is all over…

So this book was just okay for me. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, and I didn’t find the writing to be terribly interesting. It wasn’t bad, by any means, but it was no Stalking the Wild Asparagus, either.

nonfiction

Book Review: Down to Earth by Rhonda Hetzel

Simple living. It’s not always the simplest way to go, ironically, but it’s something I’ve been engaging in for most of my adult life. Handmade gifts, homecooked food, canning and otherwise preserving, knitting and crocheting and sewing, doing my best to reduce, reuse, and recycle, it’s all a big part of my daily life. I happened upon Rhonda Hetzel’s blog, Down to Earth, a few years ago, and discovered that she had written a book on simple living, also titled Down to Earth (Penguin Australian, 2012). Onto my list it went. It took a bit to get to me via interlibrary loan; Mrs. Hetzel is Australian, and I don’t know how widely known her book is here in the US. My copy came from Virginia, which would probably take most of a day’s driving to get to from where I’m at! Oddly enough, the library in the next town over has another of her books, but not this one. Strange!

If you’re looking to get back to basics, to simplify your life and begin a gentler, more earth-friendly, more soul-nourishing way of living, but you don’t know where to start, Rhonda Hetzel has a plan for you. From the very basics of building a budget that ensures you can cut back and what you can cut out, to building a garden that works for you, and why knitting and sewing and mending is important, to the keeping of chickens, to home cooking and preserving and more, this is an explanation of what simple living looks like at its most fundamental level.

Seasoned homemakers and advocates for this slower way of life may not find anything new here (but inspiration to keep going is always nice, and this lovely book provides that in spades in its gentle encouragement and gorgeous photography), but for neophytes looking to escape the rat race, exhausted working parents barely able to keep up with the daycare costs, folks looking to retire a little early (if possible; here in the US, our lack of a nationalized healthcare system makes this tricky), newlyweds or college graduates just starting out in the real world, all of these people will find a glimpse into a way of navigating life that they may not have considered.

This is an absolutely lovely book- a bit smaller than a traditional coffee table book, more like a small textbook, but it’s filled with beautiful photography of Mrs. Hetzel’s gorgeous life. If you’re looking for a gift for a recent college graduate or a unique bridal shower gift, Down to Earth would make a fabulous choice. Let everyone know that there’s a better way than constantly stopping for fast food and precooked, preservative-filled junk at the store, that even in apartments, your life can be sustainable and earth-friendly.

Down to Earth is a lovely, gentle read about a way of life you may already be engaged in, or something you long for but aren’t sure how to get started. If you’re looking for an overview of all the ways you could slow things down, this is a beautiful place to begin.

Visit Rhonda Hetzel’s blog, Down to Earth, here.

nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit Eric Weiner’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Miriam’s Kitchen by Elizabeth Ehrlich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit Sharon Astyk’s website.

Follow her on Facebook here.

nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit Benjamin Lorr’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz

Sometimes books end up on my TBR because people I love have read and raved about them, and that’s how I came across Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz (Vintage, 1999). My friend Sandy had read it years ago and mentioned it in my parenting forum- she may have even recommended it directly to me as something she thought I’d like. Onto my TBR it went! To be honest, if I’d seen the publication date, I may not have read it; I was a little iffy about starting it when I did see it. Not because I have anything against older books, but sometimes older nonfiction can be out of date and irrelevant. Not so with this book; if anything, this book reveals how long today’s problems have been simmering. It should have served as a massive, massive red flag when it was first published.

The American Civil War, fought from 1861 to 1865, is still a source of deep fascination for many Americans (and some non-Americans, as Mr. Horwitz shows!). From amateur history buffs to hardcore reenactors, from condescending politicians to red-faced parents screaming in stuffy high school gyms about Confederate flags and racist high school mascots, so many people think they know exactly what the Civil War was fought for and what happened at every step of the way. Some of these people get it. Others have rewritten their own version of history and have dedicated their lives to living in a way that honors that revised history. For so many people, for a multitude of reasons, the Civil War didn’t end and it’s still being played out in various forms today.

Tony Horwitz travels all over the South, visiting battlefields, gravesites, reenactments, museums, and the people who are still living out the consequences of Americans fighting Americans. He covers the tense racial climate that persists in this country, that we never really dealt with and that will continue to persist until we do. He follows a few hardcore reenactors who wear grimy, period-appropriate costumes (that they don’t wash, for authenticity, right along with their bodies…ew) as they tramp across various battlefields in the heat of a southern summer. He profiles a murder that happened because of a Confederate flag, a woman makes a career of performing as Scarlett O’Hara (and is beloved by the Japanese, who apparently adore Southern culture), and visits dusty museums with sometimes bizarre period relics.

There are so many times where this book fairly screams out, “You should have seen this coming, 2021 reader!” The hatred, the racial tension, the division, the utter selfishness and concern for no one but oneself, all of this is right there in the text and makes it fairly obvious that the rise of Donald Trump and the cult that follows him was inevitable and shouldn’t have surprised anyone. It wasn’t a surprise to me, based on other things I’ve followed for most of my adult life, but this book lays it all out there and makes it utterly, utterly obvious in a way that’s honestly pretty depressing.

You don’t have to be a history buff or love the Civil War in order to read this, but it helps. Tony Horwitz has an almost jovial writing style that makes the reader feel as though they’re riding in the car next to him, tramping along beside him on a Virginia battlefield, and listening to him interview his various subjects. He goes places that I wouldn’t feel safe or comfortable in, even after his interviewees make hideous antisemitic comments (Mr. Horwitz was Jewish), and his bravery here is to be admired. This book is a fascinating look at what some people take away from history, what they choose to cling to, and what we as a country can’t move on from. Perhaps we don’t really want to.

There are other Tony Horwitz books that I’d like to read, but as he died, far too young, in 2019, my brain is already screaming at me to space them out, to make what he left for us last, so I don’t know when I’ll pick up another of his books, but this definitely won’t be my last. His style and clarity really spoke to me, and I’m looking forward to reading more of his insights.

Tony Horwitz, who was married to author Geraldine Brooks, died in 2019. Visit his website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South by Chip Jones

The US has a terrible past (and present) in regards to racism. Scratch the surface of just about any topic and you’ll reveal its racist roots- it’s an unfortunately truth, because things didn’t have to be things way, but we let it, and the only way to change things going forward is to confront what we’ve been and resolve not to be that again. The history of medical research leading up to the miracle of modern organ transplantation is no different, and after discovering The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South by Chip Jones (Gallery/Jeter Publishing, 2020) in a Book Riot email, I knew I had to read it. Onto my TBR it went.

In 1968, William Tucker, a Black man from Virginia got a received a strange phone call about his brother Bruce- something about his being in the hospital, and a bizarre comment about them taking his heart. After scrambling for information that no one seemed to want to provide, William learned that Bruce had died following a head injury. The hospital had never contacted anyone from the family, despite William’s business card with his phone number being in Bruce’s wallet upon his arrival at the hospital, and stranger still, they had removed his heart and kidneys without permission in order to use them for transplants, a new and still very much experimental procedure at this time. William was horrified at this desecration of his brother’s body and contacted a lawyer.

But medical experiments (often ones that lead to groundbreaking research and treatments) have a deeply racist history in the US; the progress medical science has made has often been built on brown and Black backs and bodies, quite often without their consent. Chip Jones delves into the history of Black grave robbing by medical schools for research purposes and how that led to William Tucker’s missing organs. His case went to court, and the outcome ultimately led to a change in legislation when it comes to organ donation and consent, but the history is there and cannot be erased, nor should it be hidden. The Organ Thieves shines a light on a subject a lot of people most likely know very little about.

Organ transplants have featured heavily in the books I’ve read throughout my life. In the 80s and 90s when I was growing up, I read Why Me? by Deborah Kent (about an adopted teenager who receives a donated kidney from her biological mother) over and over again, and plowed through a ton of Lurlene McDaniel’s medical dramas for young adults, which often featured teenagers who were awaiting donated organs. And of course there was Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, and recently, Rachel Solomon’s Our Year of Maybe. But I never really knew the history of transplantation, the many failures and deaths it took to get to the place where receiving a donated organ meant a new lease on life, the difficulties doctors first had in recognizing the symptoms of rejection, and what this all meant for Black patients. They were aware of the grave robbing and knew this would have bigger implications, and unfortunately, this proved to be true. And all of this and more (such as history of the Tuskegee study) has led to the hesitancy of Black people in taking the Covid-19 vaccine. History never dies; its consequences ring throughout time like the loudest of bells.

There’s even more racist medical history that Mr. Jones doesn’t touch (the history of gynecology is utterly horrifying), but what he does cover is bad enough. The trial that covered the removal of Bruce Tucker’s organs without family consent is a complex read; the trial itself raised many questions and led to necessary changes in legislation, but at a heavy emotional cost for the Tucker family and the many others who came before them. So much of our progress as a society- maybe all of it- has been made at the expense of others.

At times, the story gets just the tiniest bit dry, but The Organ Thieves is so important that pushing on through is necessary and rewarding- you’ll be better informed, a better ally, better at knowing what shouldn’t be. If you’ve ever read or watched a medical thriller or drama and enjoyed it, or benefited from organ transplants or medical research that came from corpses dug up in the dead of night (and this is probably everyone), this is a book you should be aware of. We owe those unnamed people and Bruce Tucker that much.

Visit Chip Jones’s website here.

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.