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.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

I was scrolling through an email from Jewish Women’s Archive about upcoming Book Talks and nearly fell out of my chair to see that Brandy Colbert would be making an appearance at an upcoming talk. I read her Pointe last year and enjoyed it, and it’s always so fantastic when an author you know and have previously enjoyed shows up anywhere you can get to, right???  She’ll be discussing her book, Little and Lion (Little, Brown, 2017), and, wanting to be as prepared as possible, I immediately put the book on my TBR and picked it up on my next library trip. Success! I’m ready! Bring on the book talk!

Suzette is a Black Jewish teen girl who has made her way back to her California home after spending a year at a New England boarding school, and all is not well on either coast. She’s running from a relationship with her female roommate that ended- or didn’t quite end- not exactly in the way that Suzette had wanted. She has a lot of complicated feelings about this. But things are complicated at home, too. The whole reason Suzette had been sent out east in the first place was because of trouble with her stepbrother, Lionel. Lionel had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder before she left, something that had turned everyone’s world upside down. Unsure of how to relate to her brother, who seems to want to push everyone away, and unsure of how to deal with her sexual identity- especially now that she’s home and hello, Emil, childhood friend who has suddenly become super hot, along with Rafaela, the plant shop girl who is on the periphery of Suzette’s friend group- Suzette has a lot on her plate.

Soon after she arrives back home, Lionel confides in Suzette a dangerous secret. Keeping it means maintaining Lionel’s trust, but it also means that things could go bad, quickly, for a lot of people. Love, sexuality, religion, trust, mental health, Ms. Colbert explores how all these intersect to form teenage identity, and how delicate the balancing act is for Suzette, who will have to make a series of difficult decisions in order to decide what kind of person she is, and who she wants to be.

This book felt incredibly real. There are so many things going on at once, so many major problems that so many teenagers face- sexual identity (and the need, or not, to label what we are), relationships (romantic, family, friendships), mental health, trust between friends and family, planning for the future, religious identity…There’s a lot going on in this book, but Ms. Colbert manages to weave everything together so seamlessly that one issue melts right into the next, just as it happens in real life. Suzette is put in several terrible positions, the most jarring by her stepbrother, and while the answer to her dilemma is crystal-clear as an adult, it’s incredibly easy to see why it would be so difficult to keep Lionel’s secret as a teenager. I was deeply able to emphasize with her struggle over this.

This is a novel of the search and struggle for identity, but it also asks a lot of questions. Why do we insist on putting our identities into so many separate boxes? We shouldn’t have to be this but not that, when by now we should all realize that we can be this AND that, simultaneously, and that the overlap is beautiful and brings so much to the table. And why do we insist on concrete identities, when we’re all really works in progress? Why can’t we be this at one stage, until we grow and mature and realize that we’ve blossomed into that– maybe with a little of this coloring the edges? Little & Lion explores all of this; Suzette’s journey encourages brave exploration but also deep contemplation and full acceptance of the all things that make us who we are.

There are so many places where this book could have gone off the rails or gone too far, and it just never did. It’s a gorgeous tapestry of the search for self, of what it takes to forge a connection with someone who is struggling and how far we should let that go, of who we are and the kind of person we want to be. I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that I thought often of Marra B. Gad’s The Color of Love: The Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl multiple times, since her memoir dealt with identity and intersection of a similar-yet-different type (and was also an amazing book that is never far from my mind).

There are content warnings for descriptions of untreated mental illness and a forced outing of sexual orientation; if these are uncomfortable subjects for you at this time, be kind to yourself and wait until you’re ready.

I’m so excited for JWA’s Book Talk featuring Ms. Colbert, and I can’t wait to hear what she has to say about this book (and, well, about everything, honestly!). Suzette and Lionel had such a deep friendship, and I felt Suzette’s distress as Lionel pulled away from her, and her urgency to cling to what they once had. I’m so looking forward to hearing about her thought processes as she wrote this, and hearing what’s next for her. What a fabulous book.

Visit Brandy Colbert’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit Eric Weiner’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Life’s Too Short (The Friend Zone #3) by Abby Jimenez

My wish was granted, my wish was granted! I’ve never actually wished for a book on Netgalley before, but I adore Abby Jimenez so very much that I decided to take a chance on her Life’s Too Short (Forever, 2021), the latest installment in her The Friend Zone series. I loved the first two books so very much that I wanted to sink my claws into this book as soon as possible, and to my massive surprise, the publisher granted my wish. Thanks, Forever and Netgalley. If you’ve loved Abby Jimenez’s other books in the series, get ready to fall even harder…or, if you’re looking for a new author to swoon over, Abby Jimenez is one you cannot miss. Life’s Too Short is amazing.

Vanessa Price, well-known YouTube travel vlogger, has been sidelined by the unexpected. Her addict sister has abandoned her newborn with her, and Vanessa is struggling (hey, newborns are tough!). Her bedroom wall apartment neighbor, hot workaholic Adrian, steps in to help her out one morning at 4 am, and the rest is history. The two start up a symbiotic friendship: Vanessa gets some help with the baby, Adrian finally gets to experience a life outside of work, and, despite vowing to remain just friends, the two of them inch closer to a five-alarm blaze of a relationship.

But things are complicated. Vanessa might be dying. The women in her family are cursed with a familial gene that triggers early-onset ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Both her mother and her sister died with/from it, and Vanessa’s chances are about 50% of having it, too. It’s why she became a travel vlogger, determined to see as much of the world and squeeze as much out of life as possible before dying young. Adrian doesn’t quite understand how dire things are for her, and when he does learn the truth, it’s nearly too much for him to handle. Can Adrian find a way to live life- however much is left of it- on Vanessa’s terms?

This. Was. Adorable. Despite the heavy subject matter- death and dying are always looming in the background, whether it’s the memories of Vanessa’s mother and sister, or Vanessa’s potential demise- Abby Jimenez manages to keep this a light, optimistic read. Her characters are vibrant, brimming with life and energy, bursting off the page in a manner that puts her writing on my list of insta-buy authors. Vanessa is determined, buoyant despite her circumstances, and yet not so optimistic that she seems unbelievable. Her odds of dying from ALS have forced her to define in exact terms what she wants out of life and the direct route to getting it. She doesn’t have time to beat around the bush; her directness and persistence, rather than making her brash, portray her as confident and courageous. She’s someone the reader immediately wants to spend time with- whatever time she has.

Adrian is a fabulous hero. He’s capable and confident, a little gun-shy from having been burned by his recent ex, but not so damaged that his heart isn’t open to Vanessa. But- and this is HUGE- he doesn’t pursue her, because early on, she tells him she doesn’t date, and he respects that. SWOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON. As if a hot lawyer who takes charge and figures out why your baby is screaming and takes over so you can go shower for the first time in days isn’t already amazing enough! Hello, I’d like to order one of those, please! He’s not without his flaws, big ones that will eventually put him and Vanessa at what initially appears to be insurmountable odds, but…love finds a way. Or at least it does in romance novels like this, and that’s more than enough for me.

I loved this. I love this series, I love this author. Abby Jimenez has a way of creating characters who, for the most part, don’t need to worry about money (because that can bog a story down, so giving characters financially lucrative careers is definitely a nice tactic for an author to get that out of the way) but who don’t seem unrealistic, and who don’t let their financial status define them. Even though her stories often deal with tough subjects (infertility, grief, death), she approaches each topic in a way that breaks it down enough to seem manageable, greeting every theme with a can-do attitude and a supportive cast of characters that make even the unfathomable seem not so bad. If I could have any author pen my life story, I’d want Abby Jimenez on the job.

Huge thanks to Forever and NetGalley for providing me with an early copy of this book. Life’s Too Short is available on April 6, 2021, and I highly suggest you check it out. While it’s part of a series, it would read just as well as a stand-alone, but really, you want to read the other books in the series as well. They’re just as fabulous.

Visit Abby Jimenez’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Miriam’s Kitchen by Elizabeth Ehrlich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit Sharon Astyk’s website.

Follow her on Facebook here.

nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit Benjamin Lorr’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit Chip Jones’s website here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Fix Her Up (Hot & Hammered #1) by Tessa Bailey

Time for a romance fix! I put Fix Her Up by Tessa Bailey (Avon, 2019) on my TBR after listening to some of the podcast that Tessa Bailey cohosts (Read Me Romance; warning: the heat levels are pretty intense in some of the novellas they read. If you’re more of a fade-to-black romance fan, this probably isn’t for you). I was curious as to what her books were like, and this was what my library had of hers. (I did ask a librarian this past month on their virtual chat feature, and they said that it’s totally fine to request books via interlibrary loan these days; it’s just taking longer, so I feel a little better about maybe requesting a few books from other libraries now! I was holding out because pandemic, and everyone’s stressed and I didn’t want to add to any of that at the library, but now…!!!) This book ended up being kind of a mixed bag for me, honestly.

Georgie Castle is the youngest Castle sibling, a clown (literally; she performs at children’s birthday parties), and practically still a kid at 23. Her parents, her older siblings, and everyone in the town still treat her like a child, and she’s pretty fed up with it. When her brother’s best friend and retired professional baseball star Travis Ford comes home for good after too many shoulder injuries permanently bench him, Georgie is dismayed to find that Travis- the object of her fantasies for a decade now- still sees her as her brother’s pesky little sister. Not for long, though. Georgie’s all grown up and Travis is starting to take notice.

Georgie’s faith in Travis is helping him grow into the man she always knew he could become, but he can’t move forward with his career without rehabbing his bad boy image. No worries; fake-dating Georgie should prove that he’s not the playboy he once was, right? They can mess around and still maintain some boundaries. But feelings run deeper than that on both sides, and Travis needs to reckon with his past before he’s able to make any sort of commitment…

Hmm. This wasn’t a terrible book; I liked it for the most part, but didn’t love it. I’m not a huge baseball fan, so that part didn’t do anything for me (hockey, sure; I enjoy a good hockey romance, but not really baseball or football). And the best friend’s sibling trope has always kind of felt icky to me. Sure, maybe that’s an issue when you’re still in high school, but by the time you’re all legal adults, no one should have any say over whom their sibling dates or sleeps with- that’s just weird, yo.

Georgie as a heroine was…just kind of okay. Nothing special. I’m no huge fan of clowns, so her clown business kind of freaked me out (and there was a line in there about performing for bat mitzvahs, which threw me off a little; I don’t know of many thirteen year-olds who would want a clown performing at their bat mitzvah, but okay…). She made her living doing children’s birthday parties and was able to purchase an inexpensive house by doing this, but the numbers there didn’t really add up for me. How did she pay for a car? Car insurance? Health insurance? Food, electricity, heat, water, those stupid expenses like a flat tire or the refrigerator dying unexpectedly? My brain always wants to know these kinds of little things when characters have non-traditional employment (health insurance is a big worry when it comes to self-employed characters for me!), and I didn’t feel like this was covered adequately. Exactly how much can one person make when solely performing as a clown at children’s birthday parties? This really threw me out of the story.

The female friendships in this book didn’t really gel for me. Bethany, Georgie’s older sister, is bossy and irritating; Rosie, another woman who joins their group, is passive and uninteresting (the next book in the series focuses on her and her husband, which surprised me; I didn’t find her intriguing enough to want to read an entire book about her). The women form a club to band together and support one another towards achieving their goals, which was a good idea, but the execution of it felt stiff and awkward, and there were some seriously weird scenes with their brother Stephen’s wife, Kristin. I had a hard time not skipping over some of this, to be honest.

Travis was…also just kind of okay. Hometown athlete/Lothario returns after injuries force him out of the game; every woman in town wants to hop on board; he feels like a failure. Lots of family issues going on here, but the focus is mostly on his father; what happened to his mother isn’t really mentioned, and I felt left hanging by this. His dirty talk goes from steamy to wait-wtf-did-you-just-say-ew and back again. There are scenes where he and Georgie defend each other, in front of both townsfolk and Georgie’s family, that felt kind of forced and ridiculous. He wasn’t anything swoonworthy, in my book, just…okay. Cocky athlete isn’t my type unless there’s more to him, and it didn’t help that Travis was just constantly held up as the high school sports hero made good. Yawn.

Fix Her Up was, as a friend of mine said, a nice distraction, but it wasn’t anything super special, and there were times where it struggled to hold my attention. I probably won’t continue on with this series, but the writing was okay enough that I’d give Tessa Bailey another chance with a different set of characters.

Visit Tessa Bailey’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.