nonfiction

Book Review: People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present by Dara Horn

A good title draws a reader in immediately. A provocative title makes the whole world sit up and take notice. And it was a provocative title that had me clicking the want-to-read button on Goodreads last week immediately, without even needing to learn more about the rest of the book. I’ve heard of Dara Horn before, but hadn’t read any of her writing before this. But when someone in one of my Facebook groups mentioned her latest book, People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present (W.W. Norton Company, 2021), I knew it would have to go on my list. Because that title…it’s true, isn’t it?

Dara Horn is a writer, professor, and scholar, often known for her essays on Judaism and Jewish-themed topics. But she came to the realization that she was always asked to write about dead Jews, never living ones. And this became the topic for her latest book: the world has a fascination with dead Jews, but rarely affords the same respect to living Jews. How many Holocaust novels are out there, often with a happy ending, often with a Gentile rescuer as the main character? How often do you think those happy endings happened in real life? How much do you know about the trauma suffered by survivors, the anger, the refusal of governments to help those who had lost everything, the many survivors who were murdered after leaving the camps? How many Jewish heritage sites exist around the world with no mention as to why there are no Jews living at those sites anymore? Why is The Merchant of Venice still one of Shakespeare’s most-performed plays, despite its blatant antiseminism (and what do you think that says to the Jews in your life)?

Our country’s education does a lot of things right, but it fails to instruct our students on so much of world history, and even when it does, it misses the mark in a big, big way. (Props to my daughter’s class, which is currently looking at various cultures around the world, and including a glimpse into both the history and the religions of those areas.) So many students are only exposed to the existence of Jews when they’re mass-murdered (as often happened throughout history, and continues to happen today), and they learn only what Hitler thought and taught about them- not what Jews actually are, what Jews actually do, what Jews have contributed to the many, many societies that have been home throughout the centuries. And that leads to people only appreciating and sometimes fetishizing dead Jews, and not appreciating live ones.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen, in one of my online book groups, someone mentioning that Holocaust fiction is a favorite genre. (I think I actually recoiled from the computer at the last post I saw. Their post and tone were so…cheery.) Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying books about the Holocaust shouldn’t be written. They should. The Shoah was a devastation that shouldn’t ever be forgotten, and writers should engage with it in order to demonstrate again and again, the horror of it all, and why such devastation and the attitudes that lead to it should be cut off before they begin. BUT. There’s definitely a trend of Holocaust rescuer books, of happy ending stories, of Nazi-guard-with-a-conscience stories. And those just aren’t reality. And we need to ask ourselves why we need those stories so badly as a society. What are we trying to convince ourselves of here? Whose stories are we leaving out when we pile on the ones with a lovely rainbow arc of redemption?

This is not an easy book to read- not for me, as a Jew; hopefully it won’t be for you, either- it’s not meant to be. It’s meant for people to take a hard look at why our world sets up Holocaust museums (which are absolutely necessary) but won’t deal with the growing wave of antisemitism spreading wider and wider. Why we’re so eager to blame Jews for their own demise, as Ms. Horn points out after yet another antisemitic murder; why newspaper articles on other murder victims don’t talk about the murderer’s frustration with Jews who had moved into the area (where the murderer didn’t even live. Imagine an article that said something like, “Understandably, Steve’s frustration only grew when his neighbor didn’t put away the dinner dishes away in her own house as quickly as he thought she should do. After a series of social media posts where he documented his unhappiness, police weren’t surprised to find her murdered body on the front lawn the next morning.” People would rage! But the article Ms. Horn quotes from, about murders at a kosher supermarket, isn’t much different).

People Love Dead Jews is a tough, thought-provoking read that is beautifully well-written (I wish I had half of Dara Horn’s brainpower). If you’ve ever looked forward to the release of a favorite author’s upcoming novel set during the Holocaust, or if this mass tragedy is the only Jewish history you’ve ever learned about, this is probably the book you need to read. (A good companion read would be Antisemitism: Here and Now by Deborah E. Lipstadt.)

Visit Dara Horn’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control by Steve Hassan

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you know I’m fascinated by cults. Not just the cults themselves, though; I’m also fascinated by the mindset that it takes to join and stay in a cult: the beliefs and ties to reality that followers must suspend, the excuses they need to make, and the misbehavior that must be dismissed in order to continue to defend and remain within the group. What makes all that happen? What kind of perfect storm has to take place in order for a single person to convince themselves that this group above all others has it right, despite glaring evidence to the contrary? In the past few years, we’ve been able to watch- and still watch- this play out on a massive scale in real time, and when I learned about The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control by Steve Hassan (Free Press, 2019), I was interested. I’d heard interviews with Steve Hassan before on the topic of cults, and I had long before made the connection between the many, many cults I’ve read about and the behavior of Donald Trump’s most ardent followers. Onto my list it went.

Steve Hassan had once been a member of the Moonies, the colloquial name for members of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. His family recognized early on that he had been pressured into a cult; it took him several years to leave (with the help of his family, who were not members; it’s obviously much, much harder for people raised in these movements to extract themselves), and he went on to become a mental health expert who specializes in treating people who leave high-control groups. He’s well aware now of the tactics that the Moonies and other groups use in order to pressure people to join and stay in their movements, and he recognized early on that Donald Trump and his entourage have engaged in all of the same tactics in order to build their own movement.

Step by step, Steve Hassan breaks down how Donald Trump engages in the same mind control techniques that cults use, using specific examples not just from Trump and his entourage, but showing how those same techniques played out in other high-control groups (such as NXIVM, Jonestown, Waco, etc). (And this isn’t mind control like in cartoons, where people’s eyes spin around; these are psychological tactics designed to manipulate how a person thinks, to break ties with a person’s prior life and beliefs and instill new, mostly fear-based beliefs that encourage the potential convert to join the group, because the group or the group’s leader alone can fix this. Sound familiar?). The parallels are disturbing.

I enjoyed a lot of the content here. Seeing the tactics used by various cults and the Trump campaign broken down step-by-step is definitely eerie, especially seeing it all in one place. Mr. Hassan isn’t the only one to notice this; the podcast Behind the Bastards has noted this in multiple episodes, and if you’ve ever listened to the podcast Cults on Parcast, you’ll recognize the same patterns of behavior and control over and over again, used throughout all the various groups. There’s no doubt that the Trump campaign used and continues to use these unfortunately effective tactics. They work, yes, but they work by manipulation and fear. If you can’t convince people of your message without manipulation and fear, your message isn’t worth propagating.

The book did get a little dry for me at times, and there were several instances where the text veered into speculation. “Many people believe…” “Some people think…” I didn’t care for that and felt that it weakened his argument. In a book that is making such big claims (claims which I think are unfortunately accurate), I want every claim to be backed up with hard evidence. There’s no room for conjecture when you’re penning nonfiction about a presidential administration that engaged in devastating acts, and God knows there’s enough hard material to base these claims on. The speculation turned me off quite a bit, and I felt that it lessened the effectiveness of the rest of the book. It also strayed into straight-up political discussion more than I expected; I was looking for more of hard look at the Trump administration’s cult-like tactics in engaging its followers and keeping them coming back for more despite this often not being in their best interests (something we’re still seeing today throughout this pandemic, though there are definitely signs that the monster he created is beyond his control, what with his encouraging his rallygoers to get vaccinated, only to have them boo him). While it did contain some of that, it wasn’t as much as I had expected when I put this book on my list.

It’s definitely an interesting perspective, but not as in-depth of an examination as I had hoped for.

Visit Steve Hassan’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past by Jennifer Teege and Nikola Sellmair, translated by Carolin Sommer

My library sends out a quarterly newsletter to everyone within its service area, informing the community about scheduled programs, updates on the new library building currently under construction (completion scheduled for late fall of next year!), book clubs, activities for kids (still lots of virtual storytimes and take-and-go-crafts), and new services they’re offering. I look forward to this newsletter at the dawn of each new season. I learned about My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past by Jennifer Teege and Nikola Sellmair, translated by Carolin Sommer (The Experiment, 2013) from one of these newsletters, as it was a book club pick. While I wasn’t able to make the book club discussion centered around this book, I still wanted to read it, and onto my list it went.

Jennifer Teege, a German woman of mixed-race descent, grew up as the adopted child of a white family. She spent the first three years of her life in an orphanage, with her biological mother visiting her on occasion, and spending time with her maternal grandmother. At age three, she became the foster child of the family who eventually formally adopted her at age seven- and after the adoption, as was the norm for the time, all contact with her biological family ended. Jennifer struggled with feelings of abandonment and trauma; trust wasn’t easy for her. And in her late 30’s, she happened upon a book about a woman grappling with her father being Amon Goeth (as it’s spelled in the book), one of the most vicious Nazis and head of the  Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp. That woman was Monika Goeth, Jennifer’s biological mother.

Already suffering from depression and struggling to define her life, Jennifer was thrown into the depths of despair. Who was she, if that’s what she came from? What did this mean for her life, for her two sons, for her relationship with her adoptive family, for her relationship with her Israeli friends? How much of ourselves can we assign to those who came before us? Jennifer struggles terribly with the implications of this discovery, and it takes a lot of work, soul-searching, therapy, and thousands of miles of travel and years of research to come to terms with who her biological grandfather was.

Whew. This is obviously a heavy topic and a compelling story, likely an adoptee’s worst nightmare. Jennifer is legitimately distressed, as would most people be. Her biological grandfather was a horrible, horrible person, responsible for the murder of thousands; her biological grandmother, whom she absolutely loved, was far more supportive of him than Jennifer would have expected, and this also caused her a great deal of strain. As someone who is a dedicated traveler, who spent years living in Israel and who is fluent in Hebrew, being a woman of mixed-race, she’s completely certain that her grandfather wouldn’t have treated her any different than the Jews he shot from his balcony at the camp he presided over.

I had some issues with this book. While it’s an intriguing story, I disagreed a lot with how the author handled some of the situations she found herself in. She obviously had very fond memories of her maternal grandmother, who had never been anything but kind and loving to her. Even after learning about her grandmother’s romance with and lifelong support of and defending of Amon Goeth, she still chooses to cling to those memories and defend her grandmother. That is absolutely not the choice I would have made. People who are nice to you but not nice to people who are different from you…are not nice people. People who defend bad people are not nice people. I could have respected if she had said, “I have very fond memories of my grandmother, but it disturbs me greatly to learn of her support for this Nazi murderer and I cannot look at her the same way anymore.” I realize I’m seeing this in a more black-and-white fashion, but something things ARE black and white, and defending Nazis is one of them.

I also really struggled with the way she treated and referred to her adoptive family (some of this may be due to social and cultural differences; adoption was looked at very differently back then. And there may also be translation issues as well- not with content, but more along the terms of differences between how Germans refer to adoption and how it’s talked about here). It seemed almost as if the moment Jennifer learned about her Nazi grandfather, that biological family became her sole family and her adoptive family ceased to exist, ceased to matter to her. This may be due to her underlying trauma that hadn’t yet been addressed, but there were a lot of places here that made me feel really bad for her adoptive family in terms of how she spoke about them (and I’m absolutely NOT of the mindset that adopted kids need to be grateful their whole lives to the family who chose them. Eff outta here with that gross BS; we’re the lucky ones for those kids being in our lives and we need to honor the trauma they’ve experienced by losing their biological family). I’m definitely willing to cut her a lot of slack in regards to this, especially as she does write about having a better relationship with her family these days, but I wish that would have been covered a little more. So this book is a wild ride that has a lot of issues. I felt terrible for Jennifer throughout quite a bit of it; she was very obviously deeply distressed on learning such shocking information. I hope she’s since figured out she’s not responsible for her grandfather’s crimes, and just because she shares a few segments of DNA with him doesn’t mean…anything, basically. We get to be our own people; we don’t have to be anything at all like the people who came before us, if we don’t want to be. That’s the beauty of it all. 🙂

nonfiction

Book Review: Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham

I was too young to remember anything about Chernobyl, only being five at the time of the accident, and information was slow to leak out in the days after the explosion (and news didn’t move as fast back then, anyway). But it’s become something that fascinates me as an adult. I read Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich in 2019, but I realized I really didn’t know much of the specifics of what happened, and in order to more fully understand, I would need to read on. A friend mentioned Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higganbotham (Simon & Schuster, 2019) after I’d read Voices, and so onto my list it went. I held back from reading it for a while, intimidated by the 538 pages, but fear not; a lot of that is footnotes, and the text in my ebook copy ended at around 50%. It’s not actually *that* huge of a book.

Adam Higginbotham has created a masterpiece here, weaving a story of incompetence, shame, national pride, and suffering that takes the reader back to the early days of Soviet nuclear innovation, where anything was possible and the USSR was large and in charge (if only in its own propaganda). The desperation of the Soviet Union to appear as a major force in nuclear power on the world stage required its architects, builders, and engineers to cut corners at every turn in order to keep up with the pace demanded by its leaders. What happened at Chernobyl was inevitable, caused by a major design flaw; if it hadn’t happened there, it would have eventually happened at another Soviet nuclear plant.

At every turn, Mr. Higginbotham shows how the wrong decision was made that cost lives and increased human suffering and environmental damage to the extreme. The truth was hidden for ages as unsuspecting citizens were exposed to massive amounts of radiation. Those in charge were loath to admit that mistakes had been made (by themselves or anyone else); what mattered more was how the Soviet Union appeared in the eyes of the rest of the world. The dangers of nationalism and pride are illustrated on every page of this remarkable book about a disaster that opened the public’s eyes to the dangers of nuclear power plants.

This book is a LOT. A lot of history with which I wasn’t familiar (I was born in 1980; I vaguely remember learning bits and pieces about the USSR when I was growing up, but I very much remember having a class discussion after the USSR fell and what that meant), a lot of explanation about the science behind nuclear power that I will admit flew right over my head, a lot of Russian names I struggled to keep straight (part of this is due to the fact that I read it as an ebook; I have a harder time reading nonfiction on my kindle. There IS a handy guide to who’s who in the front of the book, and I would really have liked to have been able to flip back to that!), a lot of anxiety-inducing scenes where the radiation levels were off the charts, and days upon days where leaders failed to evacuate anyone and instead let them marinate in radiation in order to save their own stupid pride. While I couldn’t explain anything about nuclear physics or engineering, I definitely have a better sense of the story of Chernobyl: what happened, what was covered up and lied about, and why.

This has all left me with a massive disdain for nuclear power, although Mr. Higginbotham is clear that things have gotten safer since then, with better design and different sources of power that are much less likely to melt down. But that’s still not zero danger, as Fukushima has shown us, and I’m not sure I’ll ever feel totally relaxed when it comes to the subject of nuclear power plants at all. I’m definitely glad I read this, though, because I absolutely feel better informed about the disaster and tragedy that was Chernobyl.

Visit Adam Higginbotham’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

Sometime late last winter or early last spring, one of my online friends posted an article discussing A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling (Public Affairs, 2020). The premise sounded wild, and I added it to my list, and there it was at the library on my latest trip. I only have forty-some books left on my TBR that are available at my local library branch, so it’s less mood-reading these days and more reading-what’s-available-at-this-particular-moment in terms of my list. Which is usually fine (although there are certain things I know I can’t handle at the moment, so those sit a little longer on my list).

The town of Grafton, New Hampshire became the focus of a group of Libertarians (an American political party that emphasizes freedom above all, oftentimes without the corresponding responsibilities. Wikipedia article on Libertarianism here). They chose this town as the site they were going to ‘liberate’ from the tyranny of taxes (I hope you can hear my eyeroll) and began to move there in sizeable droves. They liberated a lot of things, including the town from fire protection, road repair, and wildlife management.

Bears began to become a huge menace in the town, aided by certain residents actively feeding them. Bear attacks, uncommon even in the worst of times, took place on several occasions, including bears coming into people’s homes (many townspeople looked for any reason to blame the victim; apparently, cutting up meat in your own kitchen makes you responsible for being mauled by a bear). Houses burned down because the fire department had been so gutted. Roads crumbled. The library suffered, both in terms of the hours it was able to operate and the building itself. The libertarians fought amongst themselves, and the town continued to suffer. To only certain people’s surprise, a higher-taxed town not too far away continued to thrive and grow, while Grafton crumbled and its population shrank.

While nothing in this book was surprising, in terms of outcome, it still made for an interesting, if occasionally slightly dry (more due to subject than the writing style, I think; I don’t necessarily find Libertarianism all that interesting and definitely not appealing, since the thought processes of its adherents is just a whole lot of cringe for me. The book intrigue me because of the strong consequences of seeing this line of thinking through). Mr. Hongoltz-Hetling does a good job of digging down into the essence of the psyches of the libertarians who took over the town, showing their goals and thought patterns and their expectations for Grafton’s eventual tax-free utopian status under libertarian rule. A rule-less (or nearly rule-less) society depends heavily on its citizens always making the morally correct choices, and as this book shows (and common sense dictates), that’s just not something that happens. People are people; they quite often make terrible decisions that are entirely against even their own self-interest, not the mention the interest of the community around them (see: pandemic), and in case after case, this is illustrated throughout this book.

This is a fairly entertaining, occasionally amusing, and often face-palm-inducing read that I think serves as interesting reading material to readers who understand that this particular philosophy makes for a great ideal, but that put into action, the outcome will never match up with its prior vision. Will it convince anyone already married to the ideals of Libertarianism? Having known a few people that prescribe to that particular philosophy, I doubt it; I think they’d be more along the lines of assuming that the Grafton crowd made mistakes that they wouldn’t, that “That wouldn’t possibly happen to me because REASONS,” entirely discounting the fact that living without regard to the society around you makes for a very dangerous society altogether (see: pandemic).

I enjoyed this, and while I assume that it was at least partly written to serve as a warning, I think it’s more of a warning for people to be on guard against these ideals from taking hold and destroying their communities. Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling has painted a picture of a community turned into a pretty bleak place to live; it should serve as a warning to everyone who doesn’t want to end up being mauled by a bear in their own kitchen, and struggling to call for help afterwards due to collapsed town services.

Visit Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir

Book Review: Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb

I’m not one to go out and read bestsellers and books that are super popular just because everyone else does. It’s usually pretty rare for me to run out and get something that was just published; I’m much more of a ‘comfortably wading through the backlist’ kind of a reader (a lot of this comes from reading off my TBR, but I’ve never been one to check the bestseller lists for new reading choices. End-of-the-year lists, however, are a massive weakness!). But sometimes I read things for a certain purpose, and occasionally those reads have a deadline to them- book clubs, for one, and author talks, like this one. Our local parent education group announced this past summer that Lori Gottlieb, author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed (Mariner Books, 2019), would be appearing virtually with their program this year, and I was like “Nice! Guess this means I’ll have to read that book of hers that I’ve been seeing all over the place.” It always looked interesting, but again, my TBR beckoned. Her visit later this month, however, has forced my hand, and I picked up a copy from a library display of staff picks two weeks ago.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Lori’s boyfriend up and dumps her, stating that he doesn’t want to live with a kid for the next ten years (a major problem, since Lori’s son is only eight). This causes somewhat of an existential crisis for Lori, and as a therapist herself, she needs to get things figured out and get back on her feet, in an emotional sense. In between her own sessions with clients struggling with various things in their lives, from facing their own death, to the death of a child, and how to rebuild a life in the twilight years, Lori sits on Wendell’s couch and tries to make sense of what went wrong with her boyfriend.

As a therapist, Lori seems deeply insightful and is able to pinpoint just the right question to ask to make her clients think. As a client, she even recognizes her own problem patterns but can’t seem to step outside of them without Wendell’s help. She recounts her own journeys through life while describing those of her clients (no HIPAA violations here, though!), picking apart the intricacies of human behavior with wisdom, understanding, and deep sympathy. Every story in the book wraps up with a decently neat little bow- obviously not how therapy always works, both for the client and the therapist- but it makes for some satisfying reading and provides a deeper look into what great therapy can be and should entail.

This is really a lovely read with an awful lot of insight. Lori reminds us that suffering isn’t a competition; just because someone else has a problem that seems bigger doesn’t mean that yours is nothing or insignificant, and that’s something I think we all need a reminder of (especially thanks to the barrage of those gross social media memes that portray someone suffering from a terrible illness or a major loss, and then it says something like, “Your problems don’t seem so bad now, do they?” STOP THAT. Stop trying to make everyone compete in the Suffering Olympics). Her ability to connect with her clients is remarkable, especially with the client she refers to as John, an arrogant, self-centered narcissist who uses barbs and sarcasm to deflect from the grief and pain he’s been carrying around for years. It would be easy to write him off completely and immediately, but Lori keeps trying until she’s able to find the way to getting John to open up. I don’t know that I would have the patience.

This is a moving story, full of other moving stories. Heads up for a lot of references to death, including death of a child and its entailing grief, and death from terminal illness, and learning to let go. Thinking about all the painful stories therapists listen to makes me wonder how any of them do such an intense job, and how busy they’re all going to be listening to healthcare providers process the trauma they’ve endured throughout this pandemic. The academic community is going to be researching, writing, and developing new methods of trauma treatment for decades to come after this.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is both intense and gentle at the same time; it’s a memoir that reads like a novel, but you’ll also learn a lot about what it takes to become a therapist, and a few important lessons about human nature as well.

I’ve been through a few therapists myself in the past; the best one I ever had was also named Lori, and I still hear her voice in my head quite often, despite leaving her office for the last time in 2004. I looked her up after finishing this book, wondering what she was up to, only to find that she passed away in 2017 after a bout with leukemia. May her memory be for a blessing.

Visit Lori Gottlieb’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction · true crime

Book Review: The Family Next Door: The Heartbreaking Imprisonment of the Thirteen Turpin Siblings and Their Extraordinary Rescue by John Glatt

Do you ever look back and wonder how you missed out on major news stories? I’m old enough to remember the Challenger explosion, but I have no memories of it. I’m not sure if that’s because my parents shielded me from the awfulness of it, or because it wasn’t much on their radar, but nope, I don’t remember it at all. The more recent story of the Turpin family is similar for me. I vaguely knew who they were- a mega-family who had at least some sort of Christian trappings who ended up abusing the kids terribly- but somehow the details of this story remained off my radar. But someone on a messageboard where I lurk suggested The Family Next Door: The Heartbreaking Imprisonment of the Thirteen Turpin Siblings and Their Extraordinary Rescue by John Glatt (St. Martin’s Press, 2019), and I knew I needed to read it in order to fill in the gaps (I think things were so crazy politically at the time that all my attention was going to other things, and that’s how this one slipped by me. We can’t pay attention to everything…)

In early 2018, a 17 year-old girl, whose physical appearance made her appear closer to ten years of age, secretly dialed 911 to report that her parents were abusing her and her twelve siblings, several of whom had been chained to their beds for months. When the police arrived at the house, what they found was nearly beyond belief. Children from the ages of two to their late twenties who hadn’t bathed or changed clothing in over a year, in various stages of starvation, cachexia, and psychosocial dwarfism.  None of them had ever visited a dentist; doctor visits had rarely happened. Most of them displayed severe signs of abuse. None of the neighbors realized there were that many kids living in the house, because most of the children never left. The oldest had been pulled out of third grade in public school; they had all been ‘homeschooled’ since, but most of them had less than a first-grade education, even the adults (the daughter who had called 911 had even misspelled her own last name).

The kids were taken and hospitalized; the parents were sent to jail to await trial. The children, even the adults, were badly stunted in physical and social development; educationally, they were all years behind (with the exception of the two-year-old, who was, while still not perfect, in better shape than anyone else). The younger children eventually went to (I believe) a foster home; the adult children went to a secret home to begin focusing on all the things they needed to learn to function as adults, since none of them were even remotely able to care for themselves. The parents were eventually convicted and sentenced to twenty-five years to life in prison; the children will be battling the effects of the torture their parents afflicted upon them forever (at least two of the girls are unlikely to be able to have children themselves, so extensive was the damage they’ve suffered).

If you followed the case as it unfolded, there probably isn’t anything new here, but if you’re like me and missed this, it’s a good primer as to what happened. I hadn’t really known any of the details, so it was a worthwhile (if horrifying) read. My heart broke over and over again for the damage these kids have suffered (I refer to them as kids, but the oldest is in her early 30’s by now; the youngest is maybe 5 or 6). Their parents stunted their entire lives; whatever they go on to do, it’ll be in spite of their parents, not because of them, and though they may heal, even in the best-case scenario, there will still be massive, massive scars. I’m so sad for all of them.

There are several fundamentalist mega-families on my radar (not the Duggars; we already know what a mess they’ve made…) that have exhibited strong Turpin-esque qualities. One has stated she’s not worried about her homeschooled kids obtaining ‘worldly knowledge;’ in a recent video the mom posted, her oldest kids (somewhere around 11 or 12) didn’t know what year it was or who the President was (both questions my seven-year-old answered immediately with no help). The other family’s kids are very obviously malnourished and the quality of their ‘homeschooling’ has looked pretty poor as well. (I’m a former homeschooling parent; even when I was actively homeschooling, I wished there were better oversight. If you’re doing what you need to be doing, a yearly check-in to make sure your kid is on track is no big deal, and I made my kiddo WORK. Better oversight would have prevented the Turpins from ruining their kids, and it would keep those other families I’m thinking of from inflicting potentially irreversible damage on their children. It’s incredibly difficult to become a functional adult when you were denied the skills it takes to be one throughout your entire childhood.)

The writing in this book isn’t anything special; it’s a really fast read, though a depressing one. You’ll be horrified and disgusted and heartbroken through the whole thing. I pray those kids are able to repair what their parents worked so hard to destroy, and to create beautiful, functional lives for themselves, and that this world makes a safe, patient space for all of them.

Visit John Glatt’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Equal America by Carol Anderson

This review will look a little different than my usual reviews.

A few years ago, I read White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson. It’s American history with a spotlight on how deeply and violently racist this country has always been to Black people, and while I knew of many of the stories Ms. Anderson recounted, the details she included and the stories I hadn’t known about were shocking. I was appalled, and this has since become one of the books I recommend the most, because it’s history that everyone needs to know about and understand. Because of that well-written, beautifully researched, and eye-opening book, everything Carol Anderson has ever written is on my TBR- though I’m spacing them out; they’re a lot to handle, but they’re such important books- and next up was The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021).

The Second Amendment, which gives Americans the right to bear arms, has never been applied equally. We’ve seen that play out time and time again, when Black people (usually men, though not always) who are legally in possession of a weapon and are acting in a responsible manner with it are shot and killed (whereas white men who have murdered people as part of an active shooter situation are taken into custody alive and unharmed). Think of Philando Castile or Tamir Rice, both now dead- one had a legally registered gun, which he had informed the police about; the other had a toy gun. Both are now dead. Compare that with all the perpetrators of mass shootings we’ve seen in the US that have been taken into custody alive, even after murdering people. There is a history to all of this, unfair rules that were harshly applied to the Black community, who were never allowed to defend themselves against anything or anyone, and Ms. Anderson meticulously documents it all in the pages of this book.

The Second isn’t a long book (there are a lot of footnotes; her research is meticulous, and I ended up flipping to the back quite often out of curiosity as to what sources she was using, and also because I wrote down a few quotes and wanted the original sources), but there’s a lot to digest here, a lot to wrap your brain around, and I had to keep stopping and rereading passages to make sure I understood them. American history as we’re taught in school is usually about brave patriots who stood up to tyrants; they leave out how often we were the tyrants ourselves. We leave out how racist our founding fathers were; we leave out most of the laws and court rulings that told Black people in no uncertain terms that they weren’t human beings, that their lives were worthless, that they weren’t entitled to self-defense or the rights of citizenship. Carol Anderson doesn’t leave these things out; she’s the education you should have gotten before, but likely didn’t. I was actually lucky and had a few grade school teachers that didn’t hold back when it came to speaking truth about American history; even so, there have still been many things I missed, and I’m grateful to Ms. Anderson and other writers like her to help fill in the gaps and help me understand exactly how deep the injustice in this country runs.

This review is more to make readers aware that this book exists- I’m not a historian and can’t review it as such, but the history she relates is heartbreaking and infuriating- and that Ms. Anderson’s writings are important and deserve your attention and consideration. The US has a lot of work to do to clean up the messes it’s made. To be honest, I’m not sure we have the willpower to do it; there are a frightening number of people out there who seem to revel in being as cruel as possible to as many groups as possible. But the decent people among us know that it’s a fight worth fighting, no matter what the odds, and the first step is being aware of exactly how much work there is to be done. Books like The Second and White Rage are excellent places to start.

Visit Carol Anderson’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book Review: Majesty (American Royals #2) by Katharine McGee

When I finished American Royals by Katharine McGee, I immediately put its sequel, Majesty (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2020) on my TBR, because I enjoyed it so much. The entire premise- what the country would look like if George Washington had been made king instead of president, and his line carried on- is so creative, and the series centers on the young adult royals who are set to take over and run the country. I was actually surprised when Majesty was available the first time I checked- it’s a bit past its original publication date, so there’s probably not a massive stampede for it, but I still felt like I got really, really lucky!

This review will contain some spoilers, so don’t read on if you’re wanting to read American Royals but haven’t gotten to it yet.

Majesty picks up where American Royals left off. The king has passed away, leaving Beatrice as America’s first queen. She’s young, she’s untested, and she’s not sure she can do the job. She’s engaged to a man she’s not sure she truly wants to marry, and the man who assisted her father his whole life is doing everything he can to make sure she feels as incompetent and powerless as possible. Sam, now the heir instead of just being the spare, still isn’t over her sister getting engaged to the guy she liked and takes up with a guy just as wild as she is from the west coast. Nina, heartbroken over her relationship with Jeff ending, falls into the arms of Ethan, his best friend, little knowing that this plot was orchestrated by Daphne, Jeff’s scheming, status-seeking ex-girlfriend.

There are a lot of suppressed emotions, social climbing, scheming, hard looks at the racism that still persist in the US (especially as an outcome of the poor decisions this country made throughout its past), and a lot of really fun and creative imaginings of what American royalty would look like. Beatrice’s grief over losing her father (and being promoted immediately into the role of America’s first queen) is palpable and may be tough to read if you’re also deep in grief, so take care with that. Her confidence grows as the novel goes on, which was lovely to see, although I really wished she had booted her father’s advisor immediately, as it was obvious what a trashbag that dude was.

I had a little bit of a tough time getting into this at the beginning; I don’t know if that’s because it started off slower (or because of me; that’s always a possibility!), or because it’s been a while since I read the first book in the series. I’m an impatient reader and don’t read a lot of series books solely because I don’t like waiting, especially since I don’t remember fiction as well and tend to forget the details while I wait for the next book to come out. I did feel like Nina got a little shortchanged in this book; I really liked her storyline in American Royals, but it felt like her storyline was less developed here. I did like her relationship with Ethan, however! Beatrice was as lovely as ever; Sam, her impulsive younger sister, began to come into her own in this book, which was nice to see.

Daphne, the scheming social climber determined to get her claws into Jeff, really shines. She’s an absolute villain, and I usually hate characters like her, but she’s fantastic in this book; Katharine McGee really has a knack for writing the perfect bad girl. From time to time, we see a flicker of morality float to the surface, and then Daphne stomps it back down and sharpens her claws again. The ending to her storyline is cold and depressing in many different ways, but it’s fitting with her character and her ruthless ambition. She was my favorite part of this book, which surprised me.

Majesty is a fun follow-up, and this series really made me appreciate all the work that goes into creating alternate histories. This book is the conclusion and it doesn’t look like there will be any more in the series, so I’m sorry to say goodbye to such fun, well-written characters.

Visit Katharine McGee’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Live as TV’s Most Influential Guru Advises by Robyn Okrant

I love yearlong experiment books (AJ Jacobs, anyone?). There’s something that seriously fascinates me about committing to a project for a full calendar year, for taking on a project around which you wrap your entire life. That’s how I stumbled across Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Live as TV’s Most Influential Guru Advises by Robyn Okrant (Center Street, 2008). For so long, Oprah reigned as the queen of daytime talk. She was so universal that even my good friend- a guy!- watched her in high school and would come into work and school discussing what he had seen on the show. My mom subscribed to O! magazine- maybe she still does, I don’t actually know. And as readers, we all know about Oprah’s book club. So this book immediately sounded fascinating to me. I missed out on Ms. Okrant’s project when it was ongoing, but I wasn’t going to miss out on her write-up of it!

An artist, actress, writer, and Chicagoan, Robyn Okrant knew about how far-reaching Oprah Winfrey’s influence stretched. But what would following all of her advice do to a person’s life? Not just some of it; ALL of it- if Oprah said to do it or buy it, watch it or consider it, Robyn would comply. And that’s how her Living Oprah project came to life. For one full calendar year, Robyn would take all of Oprah’s suggestions to heart, buying the products and clothing that Oprah claimed everyone neeeeeeeeeeeded, regardless of how Robyn felt about them, participating in the activities Oprah pushed, including exercise, reading assignments and webinars, watching movies, and of course watching The Oprah Winfrey Show and reading O! magazine cover to cover- taking notes the whole time, of course.

Some things worked well. Some things didn’t. And some things got really, really awkward. But along the way, Robyn learned a lot- about herself, about the way society markets certain things to women by first ensuring that they feel unsatisfied with their lives, and about the power of one person’s influence.

This is a really fun, thoughtful book. Ms. Okrant’s project lives right at the intersection of one-year experiments, pop culture, psychology, self-help, celebrity worship, and feminism, and her lighthearted, occasionally self-deprecating tone keeps the narrative moving without ever getting too bogged down by what was occasionally a slog of activities. This wasn’t at all a simple project; so much of what Oprah directed her audience to do involves a lot of exhaustive self-reflection and inner examination that might not always be comfortable, nor is the constant focus on weight and improving or making changes to your body something that’s health for everyone (a topic that Ms. Okrant, a yoga instructor who suffers from scoliosis, returns to several times throughout the book). She’s not afraid to criticize Oprah- she doesn’t *love* doing it either, but her criticism is fair and even-handed, and she brings up a lot of good points that made me think about the little bits of Oprah I do remember seeing.

Much like AJ Jacobs’s long-suffering wife, Ms. Okrant’s husband is a decent sport- mostly-about the way Robyn’s Living Oprah project takes over their entire life, which added an interesting perspective to the narrative and makes you wonder about how this works in marriages where one of the partners really does get obsessive about following the advice of another celebrity guru. This project took over Ms. Okrant’s entire life and sucked up so much of her time (and even wormed its way into her diet, clothing choices, workout routines, and sex life!), and it’s always interesting to see how it affects the partners (and children, if applicable) of the people who take on such all-consuming routines.

I was never a huge Oprah-watcher, solely because I was either at school or asleep when she was on (I believe she used to be on at 9 am here in Central Time Zone, but in my defense, I also lived in the Eastern Time Zone for five of my adult years and my sleep schedule was REALLY messed up, so I was often awake most of the night and sleeping in the morning), but I did enjoy the shows I was able to watch. At least I did until she got into her Eckhart Tolle, self-help-your-way-to-a-more-perfect-you spiel. I have no particular issue with that sort of thing; it’s just not my thing. But Robyn Okrant’s account of living through a full year of diving deep into the Tao of Oprah completely and utterly fascinated me. She did the work that I wasn’t interested in doing- but reading her account of it all was a lot of fun, and I truly, truly enjoyed every last bit of this book.

Visit Robyn Okrant’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.