nonfiction · true crime

Book Review: Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession by Sarah Weinman

A few years ago, I read The Real Lolita: The Kidnaping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World by Sarah Weinman, which only made sense thanks to my earlier reading of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. It (the first book!) was a fascinating and compelling read, and it put Sarah Weinman on my radar. So when I learned about her new true crime anthology, Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession (Ecco, 2020), I slapped that bad boy onto my list.

I went into this anthology expecting the book to continue as it starts, with stories that recap true crime tales like a finely-tuned episode of Dateline (which I occasionally listen to as a podcast). The anthology starts out strong, only to get even better. Beyond delving into stories of murder and deception, this book also takes a hard look at the true crime genre as a whole. Whose stories are told- and whose aren’t, and why? What does it mean that we as a society are so fascinated by these real-life stories of terrible, violent death? What happens in the aftermath of these stories? And what does cleanup look like after someone picks up a gun?

This is a lot more than whodunnit, than a voyeuristic peek into blood-spattered rooms and chilled interrogation chambers. This is intriguing reporting that asks hard questions and demands that we ask ourselves hard questions. What are we getting out of this ethically dubious genre? Look harder at the aftermath of these crimes, at the broken families plagued by grief and the unknowns, at the hospitals struggling to keep up with the trauma victims and the survivors whose wounds stay with them long after the gun stops smoking and the knife is cleaned off. Think a little harder; examine what pulls you so strongly to this genre and why, and what you can take from it in order to make our society a more just place for everyone.

My goodness, this was incredible. There’s some powerful writing in this book, both in terms of narrative ability, and in terms of straight-up journalism that strikes all the right chords. There’s an article about a trauma surgeon tasked with repairing gunshot victims; you may be surprised at how not-linear their recoveries often are. A piece on the impact of the band Soul Train’s early 90’s video for their hit song ‘Runaway Train’ is deeply moving; I had actually read this article before but appreciated coming back to it, as the song and its accompanying videos (plural) of missing and exploited kids, still tugs at my heart. And a story of a murdered mother who turned out not to be who she said she was fascinated me- it’s near the beginning, and I bet it’ll pull you in as well.

If you enjoy the true crime genre, this is truly an anthology you cannot miss. I blew through the whole book in one afternoon and am sorry that there aren’t 23748324032 other volumes to accompany it. This was phenomenal.

Visit Sarah Weinman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Choosing Judaism: 36 Stories by Bradley Caro Cook and Diana Phillips

A few weeks ago, when my article on Alma came out, I was contacted via Instagram by Stacey Smith, who made me aware of a new book on conversion to Judaism. Of course this delighted and intrigued me, and I said I’d be more than happy to read and review it. A message from Bradley Caro Cook soon appeared in my blog email, and within a few days, I was happily swinging on my back yard porch swing, reading Choosing Judaism: 36 Stories by Bradley Caro Cook and Diana Phillips (Kindle Edition, 2020). In Judaism, a convert is viewed as no different from a born Jew, but we do have certain things in common and experiences that are unique to our group, so it’s always comforting to read stories of people who have been through this process, who have experienced some of the same things I have, and who have come out Jewish on the other side. Reading the stories in this book was like receiving a warm hug from a good friend.

Choosing Judaism is a collection of stories by 36 different authors (some of whom I was happy to see live not that far from me!). Most are prose, written in essay form, but there are a few poems in there to mix things up. Each explains their discomfort with the religion they were born into (hellooooooooooooo, feeling like you’re the only one in the pews just. not. getting. it!), their questioning (and how that questioning wasn’t often acceptable to whatever branch of Christianity they previously belonged), what initially drew them to Judaism, and the process of conversion, which- as was true for me- often stretches on many years. Some authors are newly converted; others have been living Jewish lives for many years, including raising Jewish children who are now Jewish adults themselves.

These are truly beautiful, intriguing stories that will be intimately familiar to you if you’ve ever felt drawn to Judaism or have considered or are in any stage of conversion. You’ll recognize yourself in the questioning, in the arguments with family, in the wonder of realizing that there’s a you-shaped space in this beautiful and ancient tradition. Conversion isn’t a decision anyone makes lightly, and this book illustrates that over and over again. From those who were introduced to Judaism by a romantic partner but found it met their needs regardless, to those who came in on their own, from secular Jews to Orthodox, from Jews by Choice who make their homes in the deep South to those who have made aliyah and now live in Israel, straight people and gay people, this is an inclusive book of stories that will touch the heart of anyone who has been touched by conversion to Judaism.

There’s no shying away from the reality of conversion in these stories, either. The authors are honest about the difficulties, from struggles with family, to not being moved by the mikvah (the Jewish ritual immersion bath; immersing in the mikvah is a part of halachic conversion. I’d heard so many people talk about how they didn’t find it moving that I was actually surprised that I got choked up when I was saying the blessings during my immersion!), to the vast amounts of work that go into a conversion (so much reading! Yay!), to the changes Judaism affected on their during-and-post-conversion lives, I found myself nodding along and being able to relate to so much as I rocked back and forth on my swing and read.

This is a lovely, VERY current collection of stories about what conversion to Judaism looks like- the process (both before and after contacting a rabbi, because so often, those of us who are interested are intimidated and too shy to approach our local synagogues and put it off for years *blushes*), the struggles, the beauty, the joy, and the often long and winding road that leads to the place where we converts truly belong. I’m still not able to connect much with my synagogue community, since we’re still maintaining a high level of pandemic precaution due to our young child (come on, vaccines for kids!), so reading this felt like a respite from all of that, a moment of connection with community, with people who truly understand. If you’re in the process of conversion, wondering what it looks like, a little Jew-curious yourself, or you’re trying to understand a convert in your life, this is a fabulous collection of writing that will help you to connect, to understand, and to feel seen and heard.

Huge thanks to Brad and Stacey for offering me a copy of this book. Reading it was an absolute delight!

fiction · YA

Book Review: It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories, edited by Katherine Locke and Laura Silverman

“Read a book from a genre you never read,” ordered the reading challenge from my parenting group, and my heart sank. Not that I’m opposed to reading outside my norms, but usually, if I don’t read something there’s a good reason for it. I don’t read the space opera-type sci fi because space freaks me out, as do aliens and other creepy space creatures like that (exception: I do enjoy Star Wars movies…). I don’t like westerns because…westerns. I don’t like short stories because of the 327847329473892 year-long unit we did on short stories in seventh grade, where I learned that short stories are depressing and formless and just kind of end mid-story with no conclusion (Naomi Kritzer’s Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories is the perpetual exception to this. One of the best books I’ve read and every story was enjoyable. READ THIS BOOK). Without going in and wandering the library shelves, this was a tough category for me to fill in my challenge…and then I remembered a collection of short stories on my TBR, It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories, edited by Katherine Locke and Laura Silverman (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2019). Something I actually wanted to read AND it fit the bill for the challenge? Sign me up! Thanks, interlibrary loan!

This is a book of YA short stories by a variety of different authors well-known in the YA world- Rachel Lynn Solomon, David Levithan, Dahlia Adler, Hannah Moskowitz, and more. Each story focuses on some aspect of Jewish identity a teenager is facing or struggling with, and the teens range from ‘I’m Modern Orthodox and literally everyone I know is Jewish’ to ‘Couldn’t properly recount the story of Hanukkah to save my life.’ There are kids who are serious about observance, kids who don’t find it especially important, and kids who are trying to decide what it all means to them (basically, they’re like every other group of teens out there who are trying on different cultural and religious identities for size). There are kids who are nervously venturing into the world of dating for the first time, and kids who are traveling the world alone. Each story is different, but each is perfectly crafted.

Hannah Moskowitz’s story is stunning and perfect and an absolute gut punch and worth picking the book up for all by itself. There are stories that are funny and that contain those absolutely mortifying moments of adolescence where you pray a sinkhole opens up under your feet and swallows you whole (I seriously do not miss being a teenager, like, at ALL), and there are stories that ask hard questions about what kind of person the main character wants to be. This book is basically everything good about the best YA writing, condensed into twelve short stories, and crammed into one amazing book. (Also? Excellent queer rep in this book. Fabulous.)

You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy these stories. Occasionally some background knowledge is helpful, but it’s not necessary. You only need to be a fan of YA, the search for identity, and great writing. I really enjoyed everything about this.

Visit Katherine Locke’s website here.

Follow them on Twitter here.

anthology · fiction · nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Ilan Stavans on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy- edited by Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi

While I’m not much of a series reader, after having read Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women, as soon as I found out there was a companion version from the men’s perspective, I knew I had to read it, too. Fortunately for me, my library also had a copy of Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy, edited by Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi (Beacon Press, 2014), so I happily grabbed it on my next library trip. (Which is pretty much every day, hence the name of this blog. Odds are, if I’m not at the library, I was there earlier in the day or will be there later on. Today, I was there twice. Why yes, I have no life!)

Just like Love, InshAllah, Salaam, Love is a collection of essays, this time written by American Muslim men on their perspectives on the search for love, dating, Muslim courtship, sex, the difficulties and joys of marriage, and all the happiness and heartbreak that come about in the search to find and live with a partner. Once again, this book highlights a unique perspective in romance; Muslim men aren’t necessarily the go-to voice when it comes to affairs of the heart, so each essay feels fresh, a novel (though it shouldn’t be) but welcome change from the usual, everyday take on love.

The essays, just as in Love, InshAllah, run the gamut on experiences: there are straight men who date, gay men who hide their relationships from their families (and one who grows in his faith after an encounter with a particularly devout man, which I found both charming and heartwarming), converts, Muslims from birth, men who submit to their parents’ wishes for a traditional Muslim courtship, men whose search for love continues, men whose loves died (both metaphorically and literally), love that works out, and love that doesn’t. Interspersed with it all are struggles with faith, culture (often the straddling of two or more cultures), and how to incorporate both fully into a relationship that may have ties to neither.

It’s possible I may have enjoyed Salaam, Love even more than Love, InshAllah (and I really enjoyed that!). I don’t read men’s writing as often as I read women- not on purpose, I tend to enjoy female writers more, especially when it comes to fiction- but reading about men’s thoughts on love and emotion and the struggle that goes with each, THAT was absolutely a breath of fresh air. How often do we hear about men’s feelings on anything? Men in our society- in most societies, sadly- are taught to not feel things, hide whatever they do feel, and never, ever discuss it, especially not in public. Hearing these men talk about having their hearts broken, about crying after being dumped by a girlfriend or the fear they felt over a loved one’s frightening medical diagnosis was a balm to my soul. (Are you listening, men? MORE OF THIS, PLEASE.)

The authors vary by background: many have ancestral roots in Africa, the Middle East, or south Asia (and many of these authors are first generation Americans); others are white converts who grew up Christian or Jewish and found a home in Islam, but often struggled to find a spouse. Several are bi- or multi-racial. It’s a beautiful mixture of people and places, and their stories had me wishing for more when I turned the final page.

I can’t recommend these books enough, and if you read one, you definitely need to read the other. I’m so glad to have a better understanding on some of the many Muslim American perspectives on relationships.

Reading these two companion books reminded me how much I enjoy essay collections, whether by a single author or multiple authors like these. If you have a favorite collection of essays, I’d love to hear about it!

(In writing this out, I discovered a few typos on my post of Love, InshAllah, namely, my failure to capitalize the A, and a misspelling of Nura Maznavi’s last name. I apologize greatly for these errors and have corrected them.)

Follow Love InshAllah on Twitter.

Nura Maznavi’s tweets are protected (and given the climate on Twitter some/most days, I can’t blame her).

Follow Ayesha Mattu.

anthology

Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing- A PEN American Center Prize Anthology, edited by Bell Gale Chevigny

Reading a book full of writing penned in prison wasn’t exactly on my mind at the start of the year, but when I took up Book Riot’s 2019 Read Harder Challenge in late February, this was one of the tasks on the list, and Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing- A PEN American Center Prize Anthology, edited by Bell Gale Chevigny (Arcade Publishing, 1999), was the only suggestion I could easily get my hands on (I always go for what my library offers first, before resorting to interlibrary loan. Saves the library money that way!). Incarceration has always been a subject that has interested me, so I figured this wouldn’t be a difficult part of the challenge.

What I wasn’t counting on was reading 20 pages and then getting struck down by the stomach virus from Hades, so what should’ve been a book that lasted two or three days ended up lasting almost a week. Anyhoodle.

Doing Time is a collection of prison writing- essays, poetry, and fiction- by various inmates incarcerated in various places around America, the country that boasts the highest incarceration rate in the world. There’s no doubt that we have problems with crime in this country (for many, many reasons, too numerous to get into here), but this book helped me to put into words something that’s irritated me for a long time. One of the best predictors for successfully avoiding a return trip to prison is a higher level of education. Educate your prisoners and it’ll cut the recidivism rate. But unfortunately, in this country where prison is big business (a good look at this terrible truth is Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation by Joseph T. Hallinan), we cut educational programs for prisoners- sometimes entirely- and focus on punishing, rather than rehabilitating, which in turn makes it more likely that the prisoner will reoffend and wind up back in prison. This is a process that not only creates repeat offenders, it creates more victims. Furthermore, education in prison is shown to affect the prisoners’ behavior: inmates who participate in education programs are calmer and provide a calming effect on the rest of the prison population, which in turn keeps the guards and prison staff safer. So the next time you hear a politician talk about how he or she is ‘tough on crime,’ ask yourself what ‘tough on crime’ really means, and how that person’s proposed policies match up with what actually lowers crime, because punishment alone makes harder criminals and leads to more violence both in and out of prisons.

This is a book that alternately made me angry, and then sad. Some of the writers admit to what they had done that landed them in prison; some never mention it. That’s neither here nor there, though, in the grand scheme of the book. Some of the writing here is remarkable. There are stories and poems based on things the authors experienced within prison walls, essays on prison riots and the drug problem in the US, poems about the grief of incarceration and a life thrown away. It struck me again while reading this what a deep shame it is that the US doesn’t focus on rehabilitation, because by not doing so, we are wasting so much potential. People who could, with a bit of time and work, be helped and be trained to make meaningful contributions to society are instead thrown away like trash, their lives wasted and humanity all the poorer for it. This book is a testament to that point; Jimmy Santiago Baca (poet and author; a movie based on his memoir, titled A Place to Stand, was released in 2014; find him on Goodreads) and the author Richard Stratton are two of the writers, are featured within its pages. These men were, through education, able to work their way into becoming model citizens- Baca was even illiterate when first incarcerated. The editor does mention that most of the inmates whose writing appears in this book are those lucky enough to receive higher or continuing education while incarcerated, and the short bios in back of the book advertise several people who became professionals such as college professors and business owners. Isn’t that a better outcome than a seven in ten chance of ending up back in prison (the current recidivism rate)?

The writing in this book isn’t pretty in content. It’s gritty and painful and desperate at times; even the hopeful stories are tinged with an edge of sadness. How could they not be? But they’re eye-opening, a glimpse at a world where (hopefully!) I’ll never have to travel, and a world that’s greatly in need of deep reform if ever we want to realize the true potential of people who have made a few wrong turns in life.

Learn more about PEN America by visiting their website here.