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! πŸ™‚

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.

nonfiction

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children- Wendy Mogel

I’ve mentioned before that I’m always trying to find resources to help me raise my daughter more effectively. Her personality is so very different from my son’s that I’m left scrambling 99% of the time, because I have very few tools in my box to deal with whatever she’s thrown at me. I’d heard of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children by Wendy Mogel, PhD (Penguin Books, 2001) before; she actually came through this area last year and I didn’t make it to see her (boy, am I kicking myself about that now!). But when this book showed up as one of the reading suggestions for my Intro to Judaism class, I knew it was time to see what wisdom it had to offer me.

Part Reform Judaism primer, part parenting how-to, Wendy Mogel gets at the heart of what kids need (and a little of what they want, and how the two work together). Today’s fast-paced world is tough on kids: they receive too much stuff (I don’t know a single parent who isn’t drowning in mass-produced kid stuff and constantly weeding things out), have too much input from all directions (school, family, friends, television, social media, music in the car and in stores), deal with ridiculous, age-inappropriate expectations, and get short-changed out of time with their stressed-out parents. The message they get is that in order to stand out from all of this is to behave in ways that get them the most attention, even if it’s negative attention. But Judaism has ways to teach families to slow down, unplug from the hustle and bustle around us, connect with each other, and celebrate the small, quiet moments when each opportunity presents itself.

Mogel writes about parental respect and how it’s okay and even necessary to demand it (this was HUGE for me. Like, HUGE), and how kids want to be part of the family and want to help out (and if they don’t, it’s still necessary for them to help without complaining). She discusses how to work with a kid’s nature and how to make the behavior that drives you the craziest work in your kid’s favor. She gives suggestions on how to get your kids to speak more respectfully and how to gently but firmly let them know they’ve been rude. It’s not necessarily to change a kid’s attitude toward something, she claims; change their actions first and after repetition, their attitude will follow. In Judaism, action counts more than attitude, and this applies to her parenting theories in so many different and fascinatingly effective ways.

Y’all.

You guys.

I’ve implemented quite a few things Ms. Mogel discussed in this book, with plans for more, and you would not BELIEVE the changes I’ve seen. (I’m kind of choking up as I type this.) I HAVE A NEW KID. For the past eight days, my child’s room has been clean (without me having to do it!!!) and all the toys she’s dragged to the living room have been picked up and put away, with minimal complaints, before bedtime. There’s been no backtalk, no sassing, no eye-rolling (!!!). She hasn’t argued with me about wearing shorts to school when it’s snowing. She puts her dishes in the dishwasher after asking if it’s clean or dirty, she asks to help do other chores and does some without being asked (not always effective; we had to have a conversation yesterday about why it’s not necessarily the best idea to line up the boots and other assorted winter footwear in the path between the kitchen counter and the refrigerator, but I thanked her for her enthusiasm and willingness to help and showed her a better place to line up the boots where no one would trip over them). And biggest of all?

We’ve. Had. No. Tantrums.

Like.

NONE.

This has never happened before. EVER.

I suggested that we implement a system where, each day, she earns part of an allowance (and it’s *not* a huge one) by keeping her room picked up, but her behavior is also tied to that allowance. Throwing fits, being unkind or disrespectful, not doing what’s expected of her, all that cancels out her allowance for the day. She has a calendar where she’s able to mark the day if she’s done everything she needs to. And every day, she’s so excited to mark off that she’s completed all her chores and behaved in a way that earns her something.

She’s still the same kid who gets a little too screechy indoors, the one who (of course) needs to pee the second I step into the shower and then spends my entire shower sitting on the toilet singing songs from Frozen, the kid who is slow to calm down when she’s excited and having a good time. But boy, does she snap right back into place when she gets her one warning (which is all she gets, and then the allowance is cancelled for the day), and she’s now constantly looking for ways to help out around the house.

It’s pretty wild.

I don’t know if it’s solely this book, or if she’s at the right place developmentally to finally begin responding to these kinds of measures, or maybe a combination of all that and something else, but this book has worked for us like nothing else has ever worked before. Ms. Mogel’s warning about parents who martyr themselves for their children’s sake serve no one, especially not their children, really spoke to me, and this past week, despite its business, has been the calmest, most productive, most well-behaved week of my daughter’s life, and I am deeply, deeply grateful for everything this book has taught me.

While there’s a chapter on implementing religious practice in your family’s life, you don’t need to be religious (or Jewish) to read and benefit from this book. You do need to be creative and able to apply Ms. Mogel’s lessons and ideals in a way that best fits your family. For example, you may not celebrate Shabbat weekly with a huge dinner, prayers, and songs, but maybe you can implement a weekly (or nightly, if your schedule allows for it) dinner and create your own rituals that carry weight and meaning for your family, that shape your life and give your kids something to look forward to and something they may carry on in their own families one day.

Even though I wish I’d read this earlier, I think this book came into my life at exactly the right time. I’ve got pages and pages of notes I’ll refer back to as necessary, and I’m looking forward to read Ms. Mogel’s The Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Resiliant Teenagers when the time calls for it. I’m so grateful to Ms. Mogel for sharing her wisdom; it’s really changed things for our family, and I can’t speak highly enough about this book.

Visit Wendy Mogel’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom- Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers

I love nonfiction. I could read it exclusively (and kind of have in the past), although I realize that’s kind of outside the norm for book bloggers. I so enjoy learning and getting to expand my knowledge of the world, so I was excited to find a nonfiction pick as this month’s Library Book Reading Group selection. I’ve read two books about North Korea in the past (The Girl With Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee with David John, and Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick; both excellent books and highly recommended, especially Nothing to Envy) and have found the subject alarming and deeply intriguing, so I’m really looking forward to the group discussion of In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom by Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers (Penguin Press, 2015).

Yeonmi Park lived a semi-privileged existence in North Korea, under the dictatorships of Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Un. Despite rarely having electricity, having no running water, at different times having her parents imprisoned, having to forage in the forest for plants to eat in order to not starve and weighing only 60 pounds when she escaped, at the age of 13, with her mother in 2007, Yeonmi and her sister were better off than many of the North Korean children around them. As their living situation and the conditions in the country continued to deteriorate, the family began to realize their only hope of survival was escape. But in a country where even making a joke about the leader could lead to one’s execution, escape carried with it nearly as many risks as staying.

When Yeonmi and her mother flee across the river to China, they fall into the hands of human traffickers. They’re separated for some time, but through determination, some help along the way, and more than a bit of luck, they’re able to finally make it to the safe haven of South Korea, where the fight to finally build a life for themselves, find Yeonmi’s sister (who escaped just before them) and pull themselves free of the North Korean indoctrination presents yet another challenge.

Yeonmi’s story isn’t all that different than so many other defector’s stories. There are some serious moments of heartbreak here, including multiple accounts of rape and the death of family members, so take care to prepare yourself or choose another book if this isn’t the right time for you to read this. She explains in depth how much she and her fellow North Koreans had to numb themselves to the pain of others in order to survive and maintain the regime’s facade that theirs was a prosperous country with no problems; seeing piles of dead bodies in the streets, fellow citizens who had starved to death, was nothing out of the ordinary, and ignoring it was a matter of survival, mental, physical, and emotional. When you’ve been taught to care for nothing but your country’s leader, caring for your neighbor is a concept that doesn’t exist. A particularly harrowing quote:

‘The frozen babies that starving mothers abandoned in the alleys did not fit into my worldview, so I couldn’t process what I saw. It was normal to see bodies in trash heaps, bodies floating in the river, normal to just walk by and do nothing when a stranger cried for help.’

The propaganda fed to North Koreans is incredible. Yeonmi grew up believing Kim Jong-Il could read her mind and she would be punished for any bad thoughts about him. She and her classmates are taught to inform authorities on their parents and neighbors, and even their schoolwork is taught through a nationalistic lens of propaganda (“If you kill one Yankee bastard and your friend kills three, how many Yankee bastards have you killed?”). The flow of information is tightly controlled and Yeonmi’s family has almost no idea of how the rest of the world really lives- though the propaganda they’re fed tells them that North Korea is the most powerful nation on earth, and every other country is an utter nightmare to live in. It’s all doublespeak to the extreme, almost as if the leaders of the country were using 1984 as an instruction manual.

Her escape and journey to South Korea is harrowing and disturbing, especially considering how young she was at the time. I’ve read that it’s very difficult for defectors to build new lives, even with financial support of the South Korean government, for diverse reasons but mainly due to things like PTSD, lack of education and difficulty catching up, and difficulty learning to live in a society so radically different from the one in which they were raised (and one they were propagandized against). I can’t imagine the struggle, and it’s amazing that anyone comes out the other side and manages any kind of a life at all. So much pain, so much loss, so much left behind.

My book group discussion isn’t until the middle of this month, but I’ve got four pages (back and front) of notes I can go over in order to keep things fresh in my memory. Ms. Park apparently lives in the US now, is married, and is continuing her human rights work. She’s also a huge reader (it’s really the best club to be a part of, isn’t it???), which thrills me and fills my heart with such pride for her and all her many accomplishments. That she could survive such a brutal regime and use her life to shine a light on the egregious human rights’ violations ongoing in North Korea, while still working hard to improve herself every day, is inspiring. What an amazing story.

Visit Yeonmi Park’s website here.

Watch her TED talk here. (Highly recommended!)

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal- Mary Roach

I adore Mary Roach. Reading Stiff set off a fascination about what happens- or can happen, if we so choose- to our remains after we die, and has introduced me to so many other excellent books (such as Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty, and Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell Tales by William Bass and Jon Jefferson). Her Bonk was hilarious and made me admire her courage to insert herself into the research process, if you will. I always meant to get to her Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (W.W. Norton Company, 2013); I may have checked it out of the library once but time got away from me and I had to return it unread. When I saw it as a suggestion for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt of a book by an author with flora or fauna in their name, I knew Gulp‘s time had come.

Mary Roach is a science writer with a sense of humor, and she’s out to make sense of the world and present her findings in a way that will keep her readers laughing out loud long after they turn the final page. In Gulp, she goes on a quest to look deeper in the system of tubes that makes up the human alimentary canal: its function, its processes, its ability to produce gas so pungent, it could floor an elephant. If you have even the least bit of curiosity about fecal matter (why do we poop so much? How long can we really hold it? Why do some animals eat their own poop?), digestion (what’s the deal with how long it takes? How powerful is stomach acid?), saliva (why do we swallow our own without a second thought but can’t get anyone to swallow their own spit after first having spit it into a cup?), and gas (what’s the volume of a human fart? What exactly makes some farts smell worse than others?), or you have kids who think poop and farts are hilarious and would love to regale them with factual information about these things, you’re going to want this book.

Gulp is filled with so much random trivia about human bodies and nature, most of which is completely inappropriate to talk about in polite company, but which makes me love Mary Roach all the more and think that she must be a fantastic person to hang out with (if you’re a friend of hers, know that I’m deeply jealous). Despite having owned cats for the past fourteen years, I didn’t realize they’re primarily monoguesic, which means they stick to a single type of food. If you have an outdoor cat (which is generally recommended against, for reasons of health and safety; mine are strictly indoors) and they consume outdoor critters, for example, they’ll tend to eat either mice or birds, but not both. One of my housecats will eat canned cat food (though she’s picky about what kind), and will gladly accept offerings of fish or chicken, but she wants nothing to do with anything else. The other cat will eat cat food (his own, the other cat’s), any type of carb, vegetables (like carrots from my salad, or the green bean he stole off my plate and then shot me a filthy look as he consumed it under the piano bench as I yelled, “Hey!”), which makes me wonder whether he’d be a mouser or a birder or more of a junkyard cat who gets his calories ransacking the neighborhood garbage cans.

There are a lot of laughs in here, because Mary Roach really goes whole hog when it comes to research projects, and I deeply admire her for that. Example: after noticing that the facility that prepares human fecal matter for fecal transplants uses Oster brand blenders to blend their fecal samples in order to prepare the material for transplant, she actually emailed Oster for a comment, which they declined to give. (I mean, they could have mentioned that they were proud that their products are being used in exciting new medical technology bound to change lives around the world, but I guess it’s understandable that they don’t necessarily want their product associated with, well, poop.) This was only one of the many places I actually laughed out loud. If you’ve read any other of her books, you know Ms. Roach makes heavy use of asterisked footnotes, which are usually packed full of humorous tidbits, and Gulp is no different in this.

Eventually, I’d like to get to the rest of Ms. Roach’s oeuvre, but I’m entirely swamped with reading material right now and so this will have to be good, for now. Gulp is a joy to read. Heads up if you’re squeamish, though: she doesn’t shy away from much at all, but that’s the mark of an excellent scientist and investigator, I think.

Have you read any of Mary Roach’s books? Do you have a favorite? Stiff was my first and remains my favorite; I don’t know if I’ll get around to Packing for Mars, since anything about space tends to freak me out. Although, with the humorous way Ms. Roach presents things, I might be able to handle it…

Visit Mary Roach’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

The Color of Love- Marra B. Gad

For all its ills, social media is useful for a lot of things (like finding out my favorite Indian restaurant closed *sob*), and one of them is connecting with other bookish people in various groups. I belong to a few readers’ groups on Facebook, along with a host of other various groups, and it was from one of those groups that I learned about The Color of Love: A Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl by Marra B. Gad (Agate Bolden, 2019). The story was pitched as being about a mixed-race Jewish woman who eventually had to take care of a family member who treated her terribly. It’s that, but it’s so much more, and I’m deeply grateful I was able to obtain a copy through interlibrary loan.

Marra Gad was biologically the child of a Jewish woman and a black man. Her first mother knew she couldn’t keep her baby, and thus a rabbi helped to find a Jewish family to adopt Marra. Marra’s parents were happy to have a baby at all; the child’s skin color made no difference to them, but it didn’t take long for them to realize how differently the world around them felt, and member by member, their family and circle grew smaller. Within pages, you’ll be gasping out loud in utter shock and total disgust at the comments that family and friends thought nothing of leveling at Marra. Despite your heartbreak and rage on Marra’s behalf, read on; this is an important story.

Throughout her childhood and young adulthood, Marra is ostracized and made to feel different by the community that should have embraced her and celebrated her. Fortunately, she has her close family- parents, siblings, grandparents- to love her, fight for her, and instill a strong sense of self-worth in her. As the years go by and her family members begin to age and need care, Marra finds herself the only available family member to care for her out-of-state great-aunt, the woman who was perhaps the cruelest to Marra throughout her life. Despite the pain it causes her, she does so because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s never easy.

I won’t lie; this book brought me to tears multiple times. I kept turning back to Ms. Gad’s picture on the back inside flap and wanting so badly to both travel back in time and protect the vulnerable child that she was and to hug the adult she is now. I’m no stranger to racism; when I was young, my maternal grandfather was deeply, hideously racist, and I’ve heard racist comments coming out of family members’ mouths as recently as last year (you better bet I step in and say something these days, though. As a child, I didn’t, though I knew my grandfather was wrong. I’m not sure how well my correcting him would have gone over, but I remember having conversations with my mom on the way home from his house about why he was so awful regarding people of certain races). But the hateful comments directed toward Marra are just…soul-crushing. To have had such vitriol spat at you as a child and emotionally survive and still come out kind on the other side is an absolute miracle; I weep for the ones who did not.

Taking care of her hurtful great-aunt was difficult; there are many descriptions of tears and heartache on the journey to and from her care facility, and I deeply admire the fortitude of character Ms. Gad possesses to have kept returning and providing care in the face of such a difficult challenge. It may not have been what she wanted to do, but doing so was the kind of person she wanted to be, and so she did. This is something I strive for in my own life, though normally under much less challenging circumstances, so I understand her motivation and I applaud it.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful and a deeply emotional read, and will challenge any reader in just how far they’re willing to take their devotion to kindness and generosity.

I’m going to count this as the book for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt for a book by a woman of color, but it won’t be my last for the year, not by a long shot (my next review is also for a book by a black woman, and my reading list for the year is bursting with diversity, as it should be). Read on, friends. πŸ™‚

Follow Marra B. Gad on Twitter.

nonfiction

In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language- Arika Okrent

I was around eight or so when I got the bright idea that I was going to invent a language. I thought I was pretty darn clever until I opened the dictionary to A and started making up words, which I wrote down on a piece of paper. Halfway down the page, I realized that there were an awful lot of existing words that I never used, and to come up with new words for all of them- and memorize them!- would be…difficult. And not exactly fun, because what’s the point of making up a language that I wasn’t sure I could memorize? Chastened and humbled, I abandoned my language creation and went off to do whatever it was that eight year-old me did, probably play outside in the yard or (surprise) read a book. It was this memory that led me to select In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language by Arika Okrent (Spiegel & Grau, 2009) for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt for a book with a made-up language. Maybe I could figure out where my eight year-old self had gone wrong. πŸ˜‰

Languages are complicated; in all their quirks of grammar and pronunciation, their exceptions to the rules and bizarre, untranslatable idioms, they arise to meet the needs of their speakers. Modern eras have seen the rise of constructed languages- conlangs, as they’re known- or languages purposefully and non-naturally created by a single or multiple human beings. Throughout the book, Ms. Okrent takes the reader on a tour through many of the better known conlangs, such as Klingon, Loglan (and Lojban), Blissymbols, LΓ‘adan, and probably the most well-known and most successful (for what that’s worth) conlang, Esperanto.

While the book does occasionally wander into drier territory for readers who aren’t major linguistics nerds (and I say that with deep respect and affection for linguistic nerds, because language is frickin’ cool), where it really shines is in telling the human stories behind the invented languages. Language creators, as it turns out, are a messy bunch. Drama- so much drama- anger, romance, quarrels and bickering, lawsuits, there are veritable soap operas surrounding the creation of just about every conlang, and it’s obvious Ms. Okrent is just as into these personal stories as she is the languages themselves. I very much appreciated when she became part of the story, reporting on her experiences at Esperanto and Klingon conferences; never having attended one of these conferences myself, it was interesting to see what another language enthusiast found useful- and irritating!- about them.

To be honest, while I did enjoy this, I don’t know that I would have finished it if it weren’t for the challenge. It often got little more academic than I would have normally felt up to at this time in my life, but that’s just a personal thing and shouldn’t reflect on anyone else’s opinion of the book. My brain is just pretty full from other things right now. I am glad, however, that I did finish it. It answered a lot of questions I’ve always had about the how and why of the failure, for the most part, of that perfect invented universal language. If you’ve ever wondered why we can’t all just have one single language so we can all speak to each other and finally achieve world peace, give this book a try, because you might walk away with your curiosity finally satisfied as well. πŸ™‚

Have you ever thought about invented languages? Tried to learn one? Wished you could speak Klingon or Esperanto? (Duolingo has them both: Klingon, Esperanto) I admit to some curiosity towards Esperanto, but I’m kind of full up on languages right now…

Visit Arika Okrent’s website here.