nonfiction

Book Review: Refugee High: Coming of Age in America by Elly Fishman

It was a segment on NPR that clued me in to the existence of Refugee High: Coming of Age in America by Elly Fishman (New Press, 2021). Located about forty-five minutes from me, Roger C. Sullivan High School in Chicago, the focus of this book, has one of the highest populations of immigrant and refugee students in the country. It’s a fascinating place, and the author gave a wonderful interview. As soon as I parked my car in the grocery store parking lot, I grabbed my phone and smashed that ‘want-to-read’ button on the Goodreads app.

For an entire schoolyear, author Elly Fishman followed the students and teachers and administrators of Roger C. Sullivan High School in Chicago. Increasingly known as a school that serves a population of immigrants and refugees, its students hail from thirty-five countries and speak at least thirty-eight languages. These students have been through and are still experiencing immeasurable trauma; they and their families are struggling to adjust to not only a new language, a new culture, and a new country, but also brand-new dangers in the form of gangs and street violence. Their setting may have changed, but often the levels of the students’ stress has stayed the same, or worse, increased.

While Ms. Fishman focuses on just a small handful of students and professionals at the school, it’s easy to see both the determination and the dedication of both, and the difficulties they all face. The increasingly hostile-to-refugees political climate has absolutely affected the school; fears are up, both for the safety of the students and for the funding that allows the school to stay open, continue to improve, and best serve their population of new Americans. It’s an incredible look into a world few long-time Americans often aren’t aware of, though they all should be.

What an amazing book. At times, it’s heartbreaking; the students have already been through so much before even arriving in America, and more often than not, their lives here continue to be terribly unstable, with poverty, family violence, and insane amounts of stress affecting everything. And with Chicago having the problems it does with guns and gang violence, this bleeds into the lives of these students. With great respect and humility, Ms. Fishman documents their stories, the ups, the downs, the pain, the joys. This can’t have been an easy task, but it’s a masterful account, and respectful every step of the way.

I’m so grateful to authors like Ms. Fishman, who take us as readers into places we would never get to see otherwise. In Refugee High, we sit with students struggling with the language, communicating with each other via Google translate, fearful of the gangs that roam their streets and are targeting them, engaging in a tug-of-war between cultures, between the person they want to be and the person their parents are demanding they become. With all the refugee crises raging across the world, it’s imperative that we develop a better understand of why they’re here and what they go through when they arrive. Refugee High is an incredible look into the world of teenage refugees and what it takes to help them integrate into their new world.

Such a wonderful book. Highly recommended.

Visit Elly Fishman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church, edited by Chrissy Stroop and Lauren O’Neal

I’ve been doing my volunteer work for over a year now, compiling lists of resources to help people who are leaving or have left high-control religious groups (cults, for sure, but also the kind of churches that aren’t necessarily regarded as cults but which take over their members’ entire lives). It’s deeply fulfilling work, and it makes me happy to know that I’m helping people build stronger, more meaningful lives. There are so many people out there who need this kind of support, and this is obvious in books like Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church, edited by Chrissy Stroop and Lauren O’Neal (Epiphany Publishing, 2019). This has been on my list since it came out, but the pandemic stopped me from visiting the nearby library where it was located. The pandemic isn’t over, unfortunately, but I’ve been able to check books out from that library lately, and I’m thrilled! (Also, I learned that Chrissy Stroop and I have a mutual friend, which makes me feel cool by association – the only kind of cool I’ve ever been, hehehe.)

This is a collection of essays by various authors who have left different forms of Christianity. Some have left more cult-like groups (like the IFB); others have left what are regarded as more mainstream churches, evangelical or otherwise. What all have in common is an awakening, be it sudden or gradual, that this was not a good fit for them, for various reasons. Some left immediately afterwards; others tried hard to cram themselves into a box where they would never fit. All made their way out in a painful process that, for many, takes a lifetime to recover from.

I love essay collections, and this was a great read on a difficult and emotional subject. I was pleased to recognize many of the authors – some from Twitter, others because I’ve read their writing elsewhere. The authors are all in various stages of exit: some are still freshly out, while others have been out for years. Their pain and sadness are all similar, however; it’s hard to leave such all-encompassing belief systems, and it shows in these essays.

Empty the Pews is thought-provoking. Not quite a condemnation of Christianity, but it points out where it hurts its members, where it’s doing more to chase people out than fill the pews, and the pain it causes, which can ripple down through the generations. Ms. Stroop and Ms. O’Neal have collected and edited a wonderful collection of essays that doesn’t hold back in illustrating the pain its authors have gone through, and this book should be an eye-opener for those who haven’t had the experiences of their religion pinning a target on their back solely for who they are.

Wonderful collection, and I’m glad I finally got to read it.

Visit Chrissy Stroop’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Follow Lauren O’Neal on Twitter here.

Visit the website for Empty the Pews here.

book review · memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Go Back to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American by Wajahat Ali

I’ve followed Wajahat Ali on Twitter for years. His astute political commentary, sense of humor, and love for his children (especially his daughter Nusayba, who fought stage-4 liver cancer and won with the help of a new liver – which was found because Dad tweeted about it! Bless that man who gave her part of his, when he didn’t have to) made him an easy and enjoyable follow. So when I learned he was coming out with a book, I added Go Back to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American (WW Norton Company, 2022) to my TBR. And this week, it was finally in.

The son of Pakistani Muslim immigrants, Wajahat Ali has led an interesting life, much of which I knew nothing about. This part-memoir, part-humor writing, part-textbook on Islam in America and the immigrant and second-generation experience, introduces the reader to a world they may not understand much about. With a large extended family and frequently gossipy community, Wajahat Ali may not have always felt accepted by white America, but he kept his nose down, worked hard, and tried his best. Life fell apart, however, when his parents got caught up in some shady business deals, were arrested, and were sentenced to prison.

Instead of getting started with his adult life and heading straight to law school after college like he’d planned, Wajahat picked up his parents’ mess, attempted to take over the business (while trying to finish up school as well!), and did what he could to support his parents and try to garner more support from the outside community. The stress nearly devoured him whole; he survived, finished law school, became a playwright, a writer, and a lawyer, and became a man who, if only on the outside (anxiety and OCD solidarity, Mr. Ali!), handles himself and the challenges he faces with courage, grace, and a wicked sense of humor.

Wajahat Ali’s writing style will pull you in. When terms come up that a non-Muslim may not be familiar with, he’ll define them, but he’ll do so in a way that keeps the conversation going. Never once does he talk down to his audience, even when he knows far more about the subject than we do. He wants to engage us, to involve us in his story so that we understand the full Muslim-in-America story: what it’s like, how it feels, how white non-Muslims have affected his life (positively and negatively). How white people have ignored people like him, until they can blame him for something that someone who may have looked like him or shared his religion did – something we don’t do to white people. (As I write this on July 4th, police are frantically searching for the gunman of the Highland Park parade, which is only about 45 minutes away from me. Ten bucks said that guy had a Christmas tree in his house when he was young, and I’ll bet all my savings that we’re not going to hold all Christians or Christianity responsible for his behavior. And we shouldn’t. And the same courtesy should be extended to our Muslim brothers and sisters.)

What I’m trying to say is that this will make you think deeply about how you think of Muslims – the ones in your community, the ones you see on television, the ones in your family or friend group, if you’re lucky enough to have them. How are they portrayed in the media? Are there any ways you think about them differently than you’d think anyone else? Can you do better? (The answer here is yes. Always yes. We – and this includes me – can always do better.) This book is a great start, and it’s a great read.

I’m glad this made its way to my list, and I look forward to hearing more in the future from Wajahat Ali. I’m glad I got to enjoy his writing in longer form.

Visit Wajahat Ali’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction · true crime

Book Review: Unmasked: My Life Solving America’s Cold Cases by Paul Holes

My long-time online parenting group (been with them twenty years now!) has a book group, and of course I’m one of the admins. Every Wednesday, we chat about what we’re currently reading, and a few months ago, someone mentioned that they were reading Unmasked: My Life Solving America’s Cold Cases by Paul Holes (Celadon Books, 2022). My brain immediately perked up, and off I trotted to my library’s website. Sure enough, they had it, and just as I expected, it was checked out…and likely would be for a good long time. ‘No worries,’ I thought. ‘I have plenty of other books to read in the meantime.’ But on this last library trip, Unmasked was on the new books shelf. YOINK!

Paul Holes worked for various offices in Contra Costa County, California, solving both active and cold cases, some of them well-known. Jaycee Dugard was discovered on his watch; his work with DNA helped to finally identify the Golden State Killer after decades. He was good at his job, and having served in that role for twenty-seven years before retiring, he’s seen some terrible, awful things. And he’s here in this memoir to tell you all about them.

For the sensitive reader, there are a few stomach-turning moments where the descriptions get a little graphic, but for the most part, Mr. Holes keeps that part calm. It’s more the details of what happened that are tough to read. Children and young women, mainly, ripped from their families, often times without a trace. Horrible suffering for both the victim and their families and loved ones. Paul Holes was privy to all of it over his career, and the horrors took their toll on him as well. This brutally honest memoir shows not just the brutality of crime but what it costs those tasked with solving them.

What struck me most about this book was its honesty. Paul Holes pulls no punches when it comes to what a shitty father and husband he’s been, in large part because of the demands of his work (and this goes for both the PTSD it caused him and how his brain is naturally wired to get obsessive about his cases). He drank too much, he spent far too much time at work, he had a hard time letting go of work once he did return home. The crimes he worked also destroyed his first marriage and deeply damaged his second as well; they weren’t the sole cause, and maybe he would’ve been just as crummy of a husband and father if he’d been a dentist or accountant, but the horrors he dealt with every day at work definitely didn’t help. His honesty at just how awful he was, however, is refreshing.

This is a grisly peek into what goes on behind the scenes of all those true crime podcasts and documentaries that so many of us binge-watch. It’s more than DNA swabs and footprint casts; it’s maggots and rot and murders continuing to ruin families because there’s not enough usable evidence. It’s horror on every side, but if true crime is something that intrigues you, you’ll do yourself a favor by delving more into this behind-the-scenes story.

Follow Paul Holes on Twitter here.

books about books · nonfiction

Book Review: Library Lin’s Curated Collection of Superlative Nonfiction by Linda Maxie

Books about books. Truly one of the best genres out there, right? We all love books, and so a book about books is just about as good as it gets. If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you know I veer heavily towards nonfiction (and depressing nonfiction, at that!). There are many reasons for this, but a big one is that I just love learning, and so when Linda Maxie reached out to me to offer up her book, Library Lin’s Curated Collection of Superlative Nonfiction (Spoon Creek Press, 2022), for review, I absolutely leapt at the chance. A book all about nonfiction? COUNT. ME. IN.

In this wonderful book set up exactly like a library, Linda Maxie takes the nonfiction lover on a stroll through the shelves, organized Dewey Decimal System-style (and not without a discussion about the pros and cons of said system, and the cons of its creator – major high five to Ms. Maxie for bringing that up! It’s something I learned of only in the past year or so, so I’m pleased that it’s getting more attention), with suggestions for each category, ranging from 001 (Knowledge) to 996 (Polynesia and Pacific Ocean Islands). In between is the whole library and a world of reading possibilities.

Each book suggestion has a few lines of description, enough to either intrigue the potential reader or let them know this book isn’t for them. The introduction encourages the reader to take notes in the wide margins (AND I DID!!!), make lists, and gain a better understanding of how the library works and what kind of books are available in each category. If you’re not a huge wanderer of the shelves, this would be a fabulous introduction to what you’ve been missing.

I had so much fun going through this book. I made lists of the books I wanted to read (it’s, uh, a LOT), and I kept track of the books mentioned that I had already read (fifty-one, baby!). I tend to read mostly from my TBR, so this was a great reintroduction to what belongs where on the library shelves and what I’ve been missing out on by sticking to specific sections. Ms. Maxie’s suggestions, compiled from lists of award winners and nominees and other best-of type-lists, tend toward more recently published books (though there are some older ones whose information and/or subjects are still relevant), which I very much appreciated; it’s a bummer to find a nonfiction book that sounds fascinating but whose publication date makes you realize everything between the covers will be out-of-date. Not a problem at all with this book!

If you love books about books but have always wished the authors would include more nonfiction on those lists, you will absolutely love Library Lin’s Curated Collection of Superlative Nonfiction by Linda Maxie. And if you’ve got a nonfiction lover in your life, pick a copy up for them, because this would make a great gift!

Thanks to Linda Maxie for the opportunity to read and review this book. I truly enjoyed it!

Visit Linda Maxie’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Since Sinai: A Convert’s Path to Judaism by Shannon Gonyou

Another Jewish book from NetGalley! I’m on a roll, baby!!!

I’ve followed Shannon Gonyou on Twitter for a while now. She converted to Judaism, like me, and I’m always interested in the perspectives of other converts: the whys, the similarities and differences to my own conversion. Shannon has always seemed insightful, with a good sense of humor, so I was thrilled to learn she’d written a conversion memoir. Lo and behold, there it was on NetGalley! I requested (of course!), and voilà, the acceptance email for Since Sinai: A Convert’s Path to Judaism by Shannon Gonyou (Msi Press, 2022) landed in my inbox a few days later. I may have gasped in excitement. Huge thank you to NetGalley, Msi Press, and Shannon Gonyou for the opportunity to read and review this book!

Shannon Gonyou grew up Catholic, the stipulation of her birth mother to the parents who adopted and raised her. They weren’t super into it, but they dutifully raised her in the faith, which didn’t particularly interest her as a young child, but in which Shannon took a greater interest as she grew older. She had a lot of questions, of course; maybe more questions than her religious educators cared for, and the answers often rang a little more hollow than she would’ve liked, but Shannon held on, trying to carve out a place for herself in Catholicism. The evangelical church she tried out next was much the same. Both churches’ white savior complexes felt faulty, along with their one-size-fits-all belief systems. What’s a spiritual-seeking girl to do?

Judaism was something Shannon just kept coming back to, over and over. She’d question friends, co-workers, classmates, anyone who she met and learned was Jewish. The tradition kept calling to her until finally, she blurted out to her husband one Christmas eve (what better time?) that she wanted to be Jewish. To his absolute credit, despite being caught somewhat off guard, her husband was remarkably understanding, and eventually he came to fall just as deeply in love with Judaism as Shannon did. This is the story of Shannon’s religious journey, from questioning Catholic to deeply committed Jew, and all that happened in between.

This is an absolutely lovely memoir. Shannon’s story is winding, full of questions and the struggle to find herself in traditions that weren’t quite meant for her. Conversion is a huge, intimidating leap (I sat in front of my first email to the rabbi I converted with for over a week, struggling to come up with the exact words that expressed how deeply I had fallen in love with Judaism); being able to travel her journey with her in all its stops and starts, in the moves she now considers uncomfortable at best (such as the mission trips she went on), was truly enjoyable. I saw a lot of my own story in hers and it was a true joy to not only read about Shannon’s path to the mikvah, but to also be able to compare and relive my own journey there.

This is no dry, dusty, stodgy memoir; Shannon Gonyou writes as though she’s having a warm, comfortable conversation with her oldest friend, and every sentence is infused with her love of Judaism and her absolute delight in having made her way home to where she belongs. If you don’t know much about Judaism and are curious as to why someone would choose to become a member of a traditionally persecuted group, Since Sinai will lead you to a greater understanding. If, like me, you’ve converted to Judaism, you’ll definitely see yourself in these pages. And if you’re in the process or are considering converting, this book will enlighten you as to what the process might look like for you – and you can pass it along to your family and friends when they have questions, too.

Since Sinai was an absolute delight to read. Pre-pandemic, I was staying off the internet on Shabbat, but fell away from that practice when the internet became my sole connection with family and friends who were similarly isolated. Reading this moved me back to the place where I felt ready to do that again, and I very much welcomed that haven of calm and peace the last few weeks.

Follow Shannon Gonyou on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Unmask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World’s Most Notorious Diaries by Rick Emerson

If you’re of a certain age like me, you likely read Go Ask Alice when you were a teenager. This book purported to be the real diary of a real teenager who fell victim to drugs and who ultimately died due to her addiction. This book used to be everywhere (and still is; I actually saw a copy of it at a used book sale this weekend!). I’m not sure I knew of many people who didn’t read it. I was probably around 12 when I first read it; I don’t remember too much of my reactions to it, but I’ve always been aware of its prevalence in American literary and pop culture. So when I saw Unmask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World’s Most Notorious Diaries by Rick Emerson (BenBella Books, 2022) up for offer on NetGalley, I. Was. IN. As someone who had looked into the story of the woman behind Alice before, I knew this book was going make some waves. And now, having read it, I’m even more certain that this book is going to be huge.

In the 1970s, the war on drugs began to rage, and parents were terrified. What could they do? How could they even begin to talk to their children about the dangers of drugs and how easily their lives could be ruined? Suddenly, a book appeared on the scene that answered all their questions: a diary, written by a real-life teenager, whose life was destroyed and ultimately ended by drugs. Teenagers saw themselves in it. Adults saw their children in it. Go Ask Alice was impossible to keep on the shelves (whether due to selling out or due to panicked legislators banning it), but it opened pathways to communication between parents and children.

The only problem: it wasn’t true. None of it was. Go Ask Alice was the creation of a con artist, a Utah housewife named Beatrice Sparks who claimed to be a psychotherapist who worked with teenagers, but who, in reality, had been desperately trying to reinvent herself for years. And while her lies about young Alice may have lead to some positives, her next offering, Jay’s Journal, quite literally destroyed lives in a multitude of ways.

Rick Emerson has penned a well-researched eye-opener about a cultural icon whose effects are still being felt today, both the positives and the negatives. Beatrice Sparks was a scammer of the highest order, in multitudes of ways that would be much easier to verify these days, but back in the 70s, information wasn’t quite so easy to come by. Her religious housewife façade allowed her to ooze through the cracks and cause incredible harm to grieving families, along with setting the stage for what would eventually become the Satanic Panic of the 80s (and which would ultimately lead to people wrongfully convicted of various crimes and spending decades of their lives in prison). With humor, pathos, and empathy, Rick Emerson tells the story of a book that so many of us grew up with, but about which we never really knew the truth.

Whew. This is an absolute page-turner, and an incredible story. I absolutely flew through this book, because the story spreads so far and wide, and I was absolutely incredulous that one woman’s scamming had so many devastating consequences. I hadn’t known that Art Linkletter’s daughter’s suicide had set the stage for Alice to be published in the first place; I had no idea that Jay’s Journal (which I read in 2005 and immediately pinpointed as a whole entire load of horse dung) set the Satanic Panic into motion (the story behind this book is absolutely heartbreaking). It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Beatrice Sparks had some sort of diagnosable condition, such as narcissism or sociopathy; she had absolutely zero empathy and hurt people with wild abandon. Monsters come in all shapes and sizes.

I hope to see more from Rick Emerson in the future. Beatrice Sparks’s story is both horrifying and fascinating, and his voice absolutely added to my enjoyment of this book. And this is the third book I’ve read in the past few years from BenBella Books that I’ve really enjoyed. They’re definitely a publisher I’m going to have to keep my eye on!

Visit Rick Emerson’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Uncovering Secrets, Reuniting Relatives, and Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland

At-home DNA testing is all the rage these days. How much percentage British are you? Where did your ancestors come from? To whom are you related? So many of us want to spit in that tube and then peer at the pie chart that comes out of it, but the results can be far more complicated than that. I’m one of the millions of Americans who spit in the tube and clicked the link that wound up in my inbox several weeks later, informing me that I’m a good 30% Norwegian, but almost not at all Italian, despite my mother’s Italian maiden name. Fascinating! And that’s why The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Uncovering Secrets, Reuniting Relatives, and Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland (Abrams Press, 2020) appealed to me so much.

The Lost Family starts out following the family of Jim Collins, the Irish Catholic patriarch who had grown up in an orphanage, and who always struggled with his fractured family. Technology hadn’t advanced far enough at the point of his death, but afterwards, when home DNA testing was in its early days, his daughters began uncovering some shocking mysteries. Why weren’t they Irish at all? How on earth were the tests saying Jewish??? Why was Dad (Jim) so very short? What was going on?

Interwoven between the stories of the Collins family and other families whose DNA tests came up with surprises or mysteries are in-depth looks at how the ancestry and at-home DNA testing industry runs: how it began, what it means to the people who ran it (most of them genuinely seem like good people and are super enthusiastic about genealogy), and what the implications are, legally and morally, both for now and in the future. If you’ve ever taken one of these tests or you’re thinking about it, or you just want to put together a family tree, this is a book you need to pick up!

Phew. There is a LOT of information in this book. I was expecting it to be a little bit more about stories like the Collins’ family (and they’re definitely in there; their story and others like theirs are just scattered in between more broad information about companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe), but I walked away with far more knowledge about the genetic testing industry as a whole than I expected. A lot of it was beyond me; I couldn’t begin to explain to you how any of the genetic comparison works and how to distinguish a third cousin from a great-uncle, genetically speaking, but there are plenty of people who could, and they’re REALLY into it (I envy their ability to grasp that kind of stuff. My brain just doesn’t work that way). I did like learning about how the companies grew and how they’re dealing with the more ethical concerns (how to aid customers who are shocked by their results; how to deal when the FBI comes calling and wants to compare genetic data on file with what they have from a crime scene or two), but what I really enjoyed were the personal stories, the family searches and bewilderment, the joy in discovering new relatives, the pain at losing what they thought was family-by-blood, or being rejected by newly discovered blood relatives. Those were the stories I enjoyed most about this book.

This was a slow read for me, simply because the book was densely packed with info, but it’s great science writing with a personal touch. I enjoyed settling down to read this book.

Visit Libby Copeland’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Dude Making a Difference: Bamboo Bikes, Dumpster Dives and Other Extreme Adventures Across America by Rob Greenfield

Earlier this year, my daughter and I read a book for her homeschooling about making a difference for the planet. Recycling, refusing things that you don’t need, reusing the things you have in creative ways, being smart about how you use energy and water, biking and walking to get to places when you can, it was all pretty fun and inspirational. The author was a man named Rob Greenfield, and the book told a little bit of his story and about the wacky things he does to call attention to the need to live a sustainable life. I did a little research and found he’d written a book for adults as well, so I checked, and sure enough, it was living its best life on my library’s shelf! So on one of my next trips, I grabbed Dude Making a Difference: Bamboo Bikes, Dumpster Dives and Other Extreme Adventures Across America by Rob Greenfield (New Society Publishers, 2015) and brought it home.

Rob Greenfield, known for wearing all his trash in a suit on his body for a month at a time, decided to go bigger to get his message across. He was going to bike across the US, with a list of rules for guidance. He could only eat local (to where he was) organic food, nothing packaged, unless it was food that was going to go to waste otherwise. He couldn’t use any electricity that wasn’t generated by his solar panels (with a few exceptions), and this even included walking in electric doors (he would have to wait until someone else went in and go behind them). Water had to come from natural sources (he had a purifier), and at times, he could only drink water that would have gone to waste. These were the rules that would follow him biking over 4,000 miles across the country.

And he did it! There were a few foibles along the way – flat tires, outrunning tornados, no bank branches in an entire state – but the over-one-hundred-day-journey taught Rob a lot of things along the way, both while he was on the road and when he stopped at various organic farms along the way. This is a wild and crazy journey that will definitely get you considering what you use, and how you can do more to be earth-friendly.

Wow.  First off, I love these kinds of adventure/experiment books, where people live out certain ideals or go on long adventures that take large amounts of time. Although I felt like sometimes Rob took things to the extreme (in no way shape or form would I drink unpurified water from a stream, nor would I EVER drink a half-empty bottle of water I found at the side of the road *gag noises*), I deeply admire his commitment to living out his ideals. He’s young; I feel like he recognized a lot of room for growth in himself and how he treated the friend who accompanied him for most of the journey, so hopefully that’ll be something he works on in the future. I do really like that he’s calling attention to food waste by dumpster diving a large portion of the food he ate while biking cross-country; he’s even mentioned in his TED talks about this experiment that he gained ten pounds while biking 20-50+ miles per day for over a hundred days. That’s pretty wild!

The book is written in journal format, so there are times it gets a little repetitive and navel-gazey, and his youth and immaturity show through, along with his lack of knowledge on certain subjects (there was a bit in there about race that made me cringe), but overall, this is an enjoyable read about something I’d love to be able to do but can’t. I do wish he would have spoken to the privilege that allows him to make fantastic journeys like this. He’s young, physically fit, and healthy (my garbage back alone disqualifies me from a trip like this); he’s male (the dangers a woman would face making a trip like this? Not something I’d want to risk) and straight (ditto) and white (he had a few interactions with the cops where he was very much given the benefit of the doubt in a way most Black and brown men would not have been offered). I’d definitely like to hear him speak on these topics a little more in the future (and maybe he has and I haven’t read it or listened to it yet; I have enjoyed several of his TED talks, however!).

Overall, this was a fun read, and definitely inspiring.

Visit Rob Greenfield’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir by Dee Williams

I’ve been on a kick lately, reading about tiny homes. I’ve watched documentaries about them in the past and enjoyed them, but I think I’ve just reached that part of middle age and that stage of the pandemic that a small house all to myself seems like the ultimate fantasy. Combine that with all the environmentalism stuff my daughter and I have been reading for her schoolwork, and having a smaller carbon footprint in a house mostly run on solar and built out of used materials sounds amazing. I dug through my library’s catalog and one of the selections they had was a book called The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir by Dee Williams (Blue Rider Press, 2014). Yes, please! Into my bag it went on my next library trip.

Dee Williams lived a normal-to-hippyish life in the Pacific Northwest. She owned her own home (which was constantly breaking down in various ways) and had been building her DIY skill set since she was young (which came in really handy when her house needed repairs!). When a health problem surfaced that couldn’t be ignored, Dee began to take a hard look at her life and what mattered. What did she want? What would truly make her happy?

Almost overnight, she purchased a trailer and began to build an eighty-four square foot house on it. She had help; friends, neighbors, random passersby, the men giving free advice at the hardware store, they all pitched in to help her dream become a reality. And suddenly…it was built, and eighty-four square feet became home.

Dee Wiliams has written a charming memoir of the ups and downs of building your own home, of learning the skills you need to create a place you can live in, of figuring out what’s important and what can be discarded, and how to build not just a dwelling place, but a community. There are definite downs: her health scares are stressful, and she writes about an incident involving falling off a ladder that resulted in multiple unable-to-be-casted-or-splinted bones that made my whole body cringe (because I’ve also broken one of those bones, and it’s awful); pulling her house behind her down the highway is my actual nightmare (I’ll stick with my smaller vehicle and continue fantasizing about tiny homes that don’t need to be moved anywhere); not having a shower or washer in my tiny house is a no-go for me, but she manages just fine. But the ups outweigh it all. The community she builds around her, the friends who rally and cheer her on when she’s building and afterwards, the family she builds when the house is finished, it’s all so lovely and cozy-feeling.

You might not be ready to give all your possessions away and move into a house smaller than most bedrooms, but it’s still fascinating to read about someone who was, and did. I enjoyed the time I spent living vicariously through Dee Williams’s tiny house-building journey. What a fun and thoughtful book.

Visit Dee Williams’s website here.