memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

I’m perpetually about ten years behind in my reading. I mean, pretty much every book in the world is on my TBR, so I’m never actually caught up, but if something is popular at a certain point in time, that basically ensures that I will ignore it for the next decade in favor of reading things people read ten years before now. Reader problems, amiright??? I never got around to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper, 2007) when it first came out, but I grabbed a copy at a used book sale last year, since I figured the price was right (man, I miss those book sales, but it’s giving me a chance to catch up on reading from my own shelves!), and this was what came on next on my by-the-TV shelf.

Author Barbara Kingsolver and her family moved from their home in Tucson to the farm property her husband owned in Virginia in search of a more authentic life in which they could grow their own food and eat more locally, taxing the earth’s resources less. They began a year-long experiment in growing their own food in sizeable gardens, raising chickens and turkeys (and doing the slaughtering themselves), and eschewing almost all food products that didn’t come within a hundred (or so) miles of their home. Starting in the spring, they realized they’d have to give up a few staples- no more bananas, fresh fruit was hard to come by at that time of year and they had to substitute with locally grown rhubarb, etc.- but they soon realized that almost everything they needed or wanted could be grown on their land, obtained from a local source, or foregone entirely. It wasn’t easy- it involved hard word, sacrifice, occasionally paying a little more or doing a lot of research to find a local source- but it changed the way her family saw their own abilities, their community, and the world.

Ms. Kingsolver is a master storyteller; The Poisonwood Bible is one of my favorite books, and I have a copy of The Bean Trees waiting for me on my downstairs shelves. The stories she tells in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle are lovely; they make me want to plow up my entire lawn and plant a massive garden (how is it that I always manage to read these books at the end of the season???), and it definitely got me thinking more about buying local products and paying attention to where my groceries come from. It doesn’t always make sense to purchase products that come from thousands of miles away when there might be a similarly-priced alternative that comes from our own area, that doesn’t have as much packaging and hasn’t used up so much fossil fuels to land on our doorstep (sometimes only to liquefy in the crisper bin, yikes!). Ms. Kingsolver makes a good point that we must do better eating locally; our climate and the future of our planet depends on it.

What I didn’t particularly care for were the sections on meat and her proclamation that vegetarians would totally chow down on meat if they could see the happy lives of the animals on the farms where she purchases her meat products. That felt dismissive and reductive; I stopped eating meat and cut way back on the animal products I consume in general after a bad cholesterol test a few years ago. I don’t sit around eating tofu burgers, as Ms. Kingsolver claims (and what little tofu I do consume comes from about twenty miles away anyway); my diet consists of legumes, vegetables, fruits, and grains (not much of the fancy stuff like quinoa, either, it’s usually outside our budget), and that wouldn’t change even if Happy Lamb Farm took their lambs to Disneyland every other week and bought them all Mickey Mouse shirts and balloons. I’m doing the best I can for what my body is telling me it needs, and I didn’t appreciate having my health concerns dismissed in this manner. It seemed a bit self-righteous and didn’t mesh well with the rest of the tone of the book.

The other bone I had to pick was about farmers’ markets. We have a lovely one here near us that sells a lot of really awesome local produce and locally made products; we haven’t been since last year, because it just gets SO crowded, but I really enjoy going. That said, Ms. Kingsolver seems to be attending different farmer’s markets than I do in terms of cost (as do the majority of people I’ve seen singing their praises). I do understand that local food is often going to cost more, but I can’t afford to pay six dollars for a pound of strawberries or tomatoes. So many of us are doing the best we can with our food budgets; a lot of Americans live life on the edge, paycheck to paycheck, and asking us to pay more for the food we eat isn’t always a tenable suggestion when you can either buy a pound of local strawberries, or apples and broccoli and a head of cabbage from the grocery store to feed your family for the week for that same price. It’s a terrible choice; we need those local farmers and their produce, but we also need full tummies and a varied diet. It’s frustrating to read that her experiment saved her money in some areas and her meals cost so little, when I’ve seen some of the prices of produce at our famer’s market and thought, “I could buy that and no other vegetable for the week.” Doing our best here, but there’s only so much we can do.

But the rest of this book absolutely put me in a warmer state of mind, in lush gardens with sun-warmed soil, in steamy kitchens with pots of tomato sauce bubbling on the stovetop with sterilized glass jars glinting on the counter nearby. The weather is turning here; we’ve got rain in the forecast for most of this week and chilly temps in the 40’s and 50’s, so it was lovely to curl up on my reading chair and follow Barbara Kingsolver into her barn and kitchen as the rain streaked my living room window.

Visit Barbara Kingsolver’s website here.

Uncategorized · nonfiction

Book Review: Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis: How Jews Craft Resilience and Create Community by Jodi Eichler-Levine

I love it when a good title catches your eye, draws you in, and makes you go, “Ooh, what’s that about?” That’s how I felt when I saw the cover of Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis: How Jews Craft Resilience and Create Community by Jodi Eichler-Levine (University of North Carolina Press, 2020) on NetGalley this spring. “Is this about rabbis doing needlepoint?” I wondered, until I caught sight of the subtitle and went, “Ohhhhh, fascinating!” As an occasional crafter, I understand how important making things can be to one’s identity, and as my (Re)Introduction to Judaism class was winding down, I definitely wanted to keep reading and learning. And to my surprise, I was quickly approved for the book! Totally made my day.

Jodi Eichler-Levine has penned an academic deep-dive into the intersection of arts- and craft-work and Jewish identity, a study that spanned three years and included not only interviews but observation and research into online crafting communities (Pinterest, anyone?). Her focus is not necessarily on individual artists- although plenty of those are celebrated as well- but on what crafting means as a collective and for the collective. How do crafters express their Judaism and connect with it on a deeper level through the things they create? How does the process of creation help them connect with other Jews? What messages do their various forms of creation send when viewed through the lenses of Judaism? Her study answers all these questions and more in a way that artists and crafters will appreciate.

Horror vacui, the fear or dislike of leaving empty spaces, especially in an artistic composition, is discussed in terms of a crafter’s need to create and fill their friends’ and loved ones’ lives with the fruits of their hard work, as is the fact that creation, by necessity, also means consumption, something that I’ve been trying to come to terms with over the years. Keeping one’s supply stash under control and down to a manageable amount while still ensuring that you have what you need in a pinch (or a pandemic when the stores are closed!) is a never-ending battle for every crafter; do you overbuy and run the risk of never using those materials, or do you save money and not buy but potentially regret it later? “Things ground, though they can also overwhelm,” she states succinctly, something that I very much understood. Another quote summed it up perfectly:

“Acts of creation are never simple. They are not isolated from the act of consuming, and consuming in a hypercapitalist culture has itself taken on a religious valence. Those who can afford to do so revel in their possessions but are also possessed by them, leading to a sense of claustrophobia that sparked the latest minimalism purge.”

(And yes, Marie Kondo does earn several mentions!)

The sections that resonated the most with me were about parenting and how one’s identity as a crafter, an artist, a creator, is often dashed to the ground once the task of caring for tiny humans becomes front and center. Everything falls to the side, leaving parents, particularly mothers, feeling lost and like overworked automatons. She acknowledges that even as we celebrate these new lives, there is grief as we mourn for the loss of ourselves and the identities that kept us afloat Before Parenting. Ms. Eicher-Levine’s analysis of Heather Stolz’s work, Hanging By A Thread (viewed here in Ms. Stoltz’s Kveller article, Being Jewish Kind of Sucks Now That I’m a Mom), very much hit home for me. Her piece has to do with the difficulties of finding a connection to her Judaism when her more immediate responsibilities are to ensuring the safety and well-being of her children, but it’s something to which most moms will be able to relate. I know it took my breath away. A quote from another crafter echoed another familiar, sobering realization:

“I tried to embroider a Hebrew wall hanging for my son when he was born. That was before I realized that having children would end, for a while at least, my embroidery career.”

This is the circle of women I needed when I first began having children, but I’m grateful that a new generation will have Ms. Eicher-Levine’s words to reassure them that these feelings are normal.

Stories of craftivism; of religious restrictions on creation during Shabbat and how artists deal with that; the juxtaposition of two craft movements that seem to be, on the surface, different, but have more in common than they first appear; Ms. Eichler-Levine covers so many different topics in this book with a scholarly look, but one that has heart. One of the most poignant sections deals with Jewish crafting in the wake of the Holocaust and the urgency to fill the void of having no family heirlooms, and whether there’s a deeper meaning to it. That wasn’t an aspect of the Holocaust that I’d ever really considered, so I especially appreciated her work making me aware of that.

There is some discussion of infertility in the book, and how that affects one’s artwork and identity. Infertility can be a painful subject to read about for many people, while others find comfort in seeing they’re not alone in their struggles and feelings. Be kind to yourself and never feel ashamed about waiting until you feel ready to read subjects that may be difficult for you.

While the book is more academic than literary, it’s definitely enjoyable if you’re interested in how artistry and crafting intersect with identity- Jewish identity specifically, but if needlework or painting or quilting is a part of who you are, you may find much with which to identify in these pages regardless of your connection to Judaism. Terms with which the non-Jewish or non-Jewishly educated reader may not be familiar are defined, making this book accessible for readers of every background.

Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis is a lovely take on how what Jewish women (and some men!) create furthers their Jewish identity. Maybe it’ll inspire you to pick up or continue your own work! It absolutely did for me. I’d been working on this blanket for a while and had put it down after getting close to finishing it. But reading this book put me in the crafting mood again, and I finished the last few rows and the border. The blanket, laid out on the floor, takes up half my living room! Thanks for the inspiration, Ms. Eicher-Levine!

Much thanks to NetGalley and the University of North Carolina Press for allowing me to read an early copy of this.

Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis: How Jews Craft Resilience and Create Community by Jodi Eichler-Levine is due out on October 19, 2020. Order your copy here (not an affiliate link), or from your local bookstore.

Read a bio of Jodi Eichler-Levine here, and then join me in wishing I could take every single class she offers.

memoir · nonfiction

Home Sweet Anywhere: How We Sold Our House, Created a New Life, and Saw the World by Lynne Martin

And here we go! I’m a few books behind in reading books off my own shelf, so this is the first in a few. I believe I picked up Home Sweet Anywhere: How We Sold Our House, Created a New Life, and Saw the World by Lynne Martin (Sourcebooks, 2014) from a thrift store a few years ago, but it *may* have come from a used book sale. Either way, I know I saw it and thought, “Huh, I bet that’s an interesting story!” Wellllllllllllll…

Lynne Martin and her husband Tim decided that instead of becoming stodgy retirees, they’d sell their California home and instead spend their retirement traipsing around the world, spending varying amounts of time living in rented apartments in various countries around the world. Though their initial arrangements failed to take the Schengen Agreement into consideration, they were soon on the road, leaving behind family and friends for a life of adventure. What could be better than traveling the world?

While there were aspects of this that I enjoyed, a lot of it irritated me. I’m sure Lynne Martin is a lovely person, but this book occasionally has her coming off as an obnoxious American, especially in the chapter where they ‘live’ in Argentina (‘live’ because they’re still tourists, not residents). Her complaints about the language (which she doesn’t speak) and culture being difficult to understand grated on me, as did her constant referral to everything as ‘foreign,’ such as this quote:

By week four, we definitely needed an American fix- something familiar to orient us in this foreign place where we were floundering.

The use of the word foreign here bothered me; you’re IN the country. It may be different than what you’re used to, but if you’re going to ‘live’ there, as she claimed, referring to it as ‘foreign’ as you’re standing on its soil seems a bit disrespectful to me. Not every place will agree with every person, but her complaints about Argentina seemed a bit over-the-top, especially since this was something they willingly chose. Comments like this one didn’t help, either:

No wonder [Argentinians] seem to be a confused, melancholy people!

Yiiiiiiiiiiiikes. Another one that grated on my nerves:

When we arrived at the famous Topkapi Palace that afternoon, we ran into a long, slow-moving ticket line. That put us off immediately. Call us impatient, but waiting is agony for us, and the microscopic inspection of every site does not interest us too much. We are really not very good tourists.

So much privilege, so little desire to acknowledge it, or take advantage of so many aspects of it. They’re older, in their 70’s, but still- all this ability to see the world and you complain about needing to stand in line to see it? (MAN, I wish I could stand in line- literally! Some days I have trouble physically standing in line at the grocery store, thanks to my garbage back.) I was also bothered by her constant assessment of people’s levels of English. She is, like most Americans, functionally monolingual, and yet so many of the people she comes across are described in terms of their ability to speak- or not speak- English. I don’t know if this is a quirk of her writing style or a sign of her general attitude, but I get irritated to no end by people who have never put in any true effort to learn another language getting fussy or being critical in any way about the language skills of someone who is on their second, third, fourth language. I don’t expect travelers to be fluent, but a respectful attitude goes a long way, and that didn’t come through here for me at all.

I don’t know that I was the proper audience for this book; it seems to be more written for upper-class people with money to burn, who are physically capable of traveling anywhere with no concerns as to their health or accessibility. My husband and I have never taken a vacation other than our honeymoon in 13 years of marriage, and I’d have to do a *lot* of planning, including discussing some just-in-case prescriptions with my doctor, in order for travel like this to be possible for me. And to read Ms. Martin’s casual complaints about her trip to Argentina, where she didn’t need to plan for these kinds of things, and seemed irritated about the language and dialect and cultural differences, irritated me. I ended up hearing a *lot* of this book in my head as being read by the character of Moira Rose from Schitt’s Creek.

So while I normally enjoy travel memoirs, this one felt, to me, replete with unacknowledged privilege and upper-class dismissal of opportunity. Your mileage may vary, though; not every book is for every reader!

I am saddened to learn that her husband and travel companion Tim passed away last year. May his memory be a blessing.  

Visit Lynne Martin’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction · YA

Book Review: The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe, translated by Lilit Thwaites

I hesitated for a really long time before putting The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe, translated by Lilit Thwaites (Henry Holt, 2017) on my TBR. Books about the Holocaust are increasingly difficult for me to read; reading isn’t exactly easy right now anyway; and reading a difficult subject right now? Oof. But this was on my list, it was in at the library, and I decided to finally take the plunge. This book is historical fiction based on a real-life story, and these stories deserve to be told and read.

The Librarian of Auschwitz is told by multiple narrators, but its main focus is Dita Kraus, a young teenager who survived the ghetto of Theresienstadt, only to be sent to Auschwitz and, later on, Bergen-Belsen. In Auschwitz, she worked to protect and distribute the eight illegal books prisoners had managed to smuggle in, handing them out to teachers in the family camp’s secret school, repairing them when necessary, getting lost in the pages of several of the books as an escape from the brutal conditions around her.

Surviving each day is a miracle in and of itself, and Dita and her fellow prisoners struggle against impossible odds, watching their friends, family, and neighbors disappear in clouds of ash that flutter down upon the survivors like a devastating snow. The books keep the children learning, they give Dita a sense of purpose and a reason to go on, as the world descends further and further into madness. Fear, hunger, and devastation rule, but Dita carries on, her courage and determination a stark reminder of what it takes to retain our humanity even as the forces of evil remain desperate to choke it out of us.

What a devastating, heartbreaking book. There’s triumph as well, but at such terrible cost. It pained me to read this, to read how casually human life was treated, how easily it was thrown away, especially in light of everything going on in the world today. We’re still ready to throw people away, just in different ways (…mostly…). There’s a scene where, after a selection, ash rains down on the survivors, who recognize that their friends and family who were murdered by the Nazi soldiers will remain forever in Auschwitz, and…It’s a hard read. This whole book is a hard read.

But it’s necessary, and this is a book I recommend picking up when you’re able to handle it. We’re losing Holocaust survivors every day, and soon there won’t be any first-generation survivors left to tell their stories. Even fictional stories that recount the manmade horrors and suffering are important.

The Librarian of Auschwitz is a story of devastation and courage, and it will gut you if you let it- and you should. Only by reading these stories and understanding the devastation of hatred will we be able to recognize its presence in our own times and fight to end it.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Pointe by Brandy Colbert

I usually remember where the books on my TBR come from, but as for Pointe by Brandy Colbert (Penguin, 2014), I’m not entirely sure. A fellow blogger? A recommendation on Twitter? A book list? I really don’t know, but that’s okay! I’m glad it ended up on there.

Theo may look like her struggles with anorexia have gotten better, but in this case, looks are definitely deceiving. They were better, and then the news broke: Donovan has been found. Donovan, Theo’s childhood best friend, was abducted four years ago, leaving Theo and everyone in their community traumatized and afraid. What’s worse: when his abductor is identified, Theo realizes she knows him- it’s Chris, the man who was her boyfriend, the one who told her he was 18 to her (at the time) 13, the one who is actually in his 30’s.

No one knew about Theo’s relationship with Chris except for Donovan, and he’s not talking. Theo’s alone with her secret and she’s not sure what to do: continue to keep the secret and maybe her life will remain unchanged and she’ll make that summer ballet intensive with no issues, or tell the truth, change everyone’s idea of who she is, and maybe have to let her dreams of professional dance go? The more she struggles with this dilemma, the more she fights to control her body, the one thing she can control, until Theo’s forced to make a decision, the only one she truly can.

Theo is the kind of character who’s so deeply wounded, yet who tries so hard to hide it, that I just wanted to scoop her up and hug her and cry through the whole book. She’s carrying so much pain, from being victimized by Chris (and she doesn’t yet realize that she’s been victimized), to the guilt she feels over Donovan’s disappearance, to the many secrets she’s kept for so long. Dancing helps dull the pain, but it comes out in the many poor decisions she makes- there’s some drinking and drug use here (not a lot, but enough that it was stressing me out worrying about the effects on her health and her dance career), the choice she makes to begin restricting her food intake again, and the relationship she strikes up with Hosea, the drug-dealing bad boy musician, who has a girlfriend whom he refuses to break up with. Ms. Colbert has created a marvelously complex character in Theo, one who remains sympathetic and deserving of the reader’s care even as she spirals under the weight of her stress.

She’s got a fantastic group of friends- Sarah-Kate and Phil are absolute dreams. Even as they disagree with Theo’s choices, they still support and love her. Ruthie, Theo’s main competition at dance class, pulls out a Hail Mary moment that plants the seed that ends up saving Theo, and she comes close to tying for my favorite character of the whole book. Hosea…ehhhhhh, not so much. He had wayyyyyyyyyyy too many red flags right from the beginning for me, and I was so sad for Theo that she fell so hard for him when he was obviously so undeserving of her.

 There are obvious content warnings here for sexual content including rape, drug and underage alcohol use, and disordered eating. Hold off on this one if reading it right now is too much for you; we’re all doing the best we can, but sometimes certain subjects are just too difficult at that point in time, and that’s okay.

Pointe is a heavy story of pain and loss, but it’s also one of strength, of bending but not breaking. It’s a story that will hit you right in the heart.

Visit Brandy Colbert’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

graphic novel · memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker

On my last trip to the library for books for me, I had grabbed all the books from my list, and then I turned around and caught sight of a display of books behind the teen hangout part of the library. And there in that stack of books was the graphic novel They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker (Top Shelf Productions, 2019). It was obvious that this book told of George Takei’s family’s unjust incarceration in the Japanese internment camps during World War II, and despite already clutching a stack of books, I added it to my pile. I knew I couldn’t miss this one.

George wasn’t even in kindergarten yet when his family was rounded up with all the other Americans of Japanese descent after the attack on Pearl Harbor. They were sent to live in an American concentration camp (remember, concentration camps and death camps aren’t the same thing; technically, the US did have its own concentration camps). You can see a map of these camps here; he and his family were first sent to Rohwer, then later Tule Lake. His parents worked hard to keep the horrors of the situation from affecting George and his siblings too much, but occasionally the racism, the food shortages, and the injustice of being incarcerated for simply having the wrong ethnic background crept in. George spent years processing the injustices visited upon his family and community and is still working today to right the wrongs the United States committed and speaking out about the atrocities the United States still continues to commit against Mexicans, South Americans, Muslims, and various other populations.

The art is simple, in black and white, which adds to the stark horror of the US incarcerating its own citizens (and those to whom they refused citizenship outright) because of their genetics. George has some fond memories of the time in the camps, simply because his parents worked so hard to make that true and also because children are remarkably adaptable and will find ways to be children even as their countries incarcerate them in concentration camps. His experiences are slightly less stark than those illustrated in Farewell to Manzanar: A True Story of Japanese American Experience During and After the World War II Internment by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston. Ms. Wakatsuki Houston goes into greater detail about the terrible conditions and lack of food in the camps she was forced into, and the terrible reality of leaving the camps- having nowhere to go, with former neighbors having stolen all of the possessions the family had been forced to leave behind. George Takei does go into the family’s post-camp experience; they were homeless for a time and had to rebuild their lives from absolutely nothing.

I’m glad this graphic novel exists. They Called Us Enemy and Farewell to Manzanar are the only two books I’ve read on the internment of Americans of Japanese descent, and I know I need to read more (I welcome your recommendations in the comments, as always). I wish this were better taught in schools- my school did a surprisingly good job when it came to teaching about things like race and injustice, but while these concentration camps were mentioned, the subject was kind of glossed over, and I feel like I wasn’t properly educated on this when I was younger. It’s something I’ll make sure that my daughter knows about more fully as she grows; it’s shameful and disgusting that this even happened, but it’s worse that we apparently learned nothing from it and continue to perpetuate similar horrors.

They Called Us Enemy is a quick read, but it’ll stay with you, and hopefully it’ll inspire you to speak out against injustice. We’re not obligated to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it.

Visit George Takei’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Broken Faith: Broken Faith: Inside the Word of Faith Fellowship, One of America’s Most Dangerous Cults by Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr

Cults! Cults, cults, cults! This is probably my longest-running fascination. I put in for Broken Faith: Inside the Word of Faith Fellowship, One of America’s Most Dangerous Cults by Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr (Hanover Square Press, 2020) on NetGalley but was rejected (no biggie; you win some, you lose some!), but it went onto my TBR anyway. I hadn’t heard of Word of Faith Fellowship before, so immediately I was deeply intrigued and neeeeeeeeeeeeeeded to know more!

Journalist Mitch Weiss has written a stunning exposé on the Word of Faith Fellowship, a church out of Spindale, North Carolina, that consumes every last moment of its members’ lives. You can’t just show up for a church service; you have to be invited (that alone should tip people off). WOFF is run by Jane Whaley, a charismatic, power-hungry woman who seeks to control the lives of her church members and live high on the hog on their tithes, while they struggle to give more and more. Church tactics include screaming in the faces of and beating members, even infants and small children, to release all the demons that plague them, tying them to chairs, locking them away for months at a time in what amounts to prisons on the church property, stealing members’ children, and making it nearly impossible for members to leave.

What’s worse is the local government is fully involved in protecting the church and has, for decades, turned a blind eye to the abuse of the children in the cult. Members have tried for years to get justice for the many, many ways the cult has wronged them, only to be given the runaround by the police and the local court system. Hopefully with the publication of this book, more people will be aware of the shocking manipulations of this cult and the way it controls its members and the county it’s located in.

This is an absolutely shocking book. Mitch Weiss interviewed over 100 former church members to construct this narrative, as well as seeking out court documents, including a 300+ page document that had never before been released prior to his research. Despite damning evidence of the abuse of the members children (including sexual abuse- the mentions are brief, but they’re in here, so be alert if this is a difficult subject for you to read about), the county opted to tie the hands of social services and leave the children there to be further abused. I’m not going to lie; reading this is chilling. It’s yet another account of how cheap life is here in the United States and how little the lives of everyday people matter. The odds are stacked against us all, and if you’ve got money, you’re free to do as much harm as you want to anyone you want, because money is power.

Multiple times, Weiss and Mohr illustrate, usually through the words of authorities, how difficult it is for former cult members to receive justice: cults keep such tight control over their members that when they do manage to escape, they’re often ill-prepared to live in the outside world, plagued with anxiety and PTSD, and they end up homeless and addicted to various substances as a means of coping- rending them, in the eyes of legal authorities and juries, unreliable as witnesses. And thus cults such as WOFF are allowed to carry on their dangerous, abusive tactics. Members of the church have been convicted of various forms of fraud on the church’s behalf (including unemployment fraud and mail fraud), but Jane Whaley has never been brought up on charges herself.

If reading about cults interests you, you won’t want to miss this. Jane Whaley and her sycophants are dangerous and I’m glad the floodlights are being turned onto the church. I hope this helps its victims receive justice and that more people are sympathetic to what they’ve suffered at the hands of this evil, evil institution.

Follow Mitch Weiss on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness by Nathanael Johnson

How often do you notice the nature outside your window, in your own backyard, or right next to your feet? It’s easy to tune out the squirrels, the insects, the birds, the trees and plants, but there are good reasons to look around you and notice. I’m not exactly a huge outdoors person, but I enjoy learning about the world around me, and when my friend Sandy mentioned she was reading (and enjoying!) Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness by Nathanael Johnson (Rodale Books, 2016), I knew I had to read it, too. I get so many great book suggestions from Sandy; she’s dangerous for my TBR, but that’s the best kind of friend to have! I don’t think I would have read most of the books I’ve read about nature (with the exception of foraging; I got into that subject all on my own) without her. Find yourself a Sandy. 😉

Nathanael Johnson never really paid all that much attention to the nature around him in San Francisco until his daughter started asking him to name everything around him. He realized that what she was pointing to had a name beyond just ‘tree,’ or ‘bird,’ or ‘plant,’ and he set about learning in order to provide her with more answers. As he inhaled more and more information, the world around him came into deeper focus and he began noticing things that had been in front of him, but unseen, the whole time. Why are pigeons’ feet like that? What is that plant, and can I eat it? What exactly are those ants doing, and what kind are they?

Becoming familiar with the world around you- the stuff you usually dismiss as background noise- helps you to respect nature more fully (thus working harder to protect it!) and helps you live more fully, he argues. You don’t have to get deeply involved with every single aspect of the natural world; if you find you’re more interested in birds than plants, then go with that, but find one subject that draws your fascination and go with it, because if you’re involved and invested in your surroundings, you’ll live a fuller, more engaged life.

There’s a section on invasive species here that helped me breathe a sigh of relief (for more on this subject, you *really* need to read Eating Aliens: One Man’s Adventures Hunting Invasive Animal Species by Jackson Landers), and I found his chapter on pigeons really engaging. We don’t have pigeons here in my town (or at least not by my house, and let’s face it, I haven’t been much of anywhere else for seven months now…), but I’ve always kind of been intrigued by them when I’ve seen them elsewhere. I *did* wish his chapter on plant life in the city was longer, but that’s just because I find the subject of urban/suburban foraging so fascinating. I was happy to see him give a hat tip to Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons; most writers who even so much as briefly mention foraging end up including something about Gibbons’s work, which I cannot recommend highly enough. I read it two years ago and still think of it often. Don’t let the fact that it was published in 1962 deter you; Stalking the Wild Asparagus reads as though it could have been written yesterday, and it’s fun, and funny, and it’ll have you examining the plants in your backyard in a different way.

I really enjoyed Unseen City. Most of the urban foraging/urban nature books I’ve read have been set in either California or New York; I’d love to see one of these books that deal with the Midwest and all our flora and fauna here. But Nathanael Johnson is as entertaining (and funny!) as he is educational when it comes to illustrating the benefits of developing a deep fascination with the world around us. Read this if you’re interested in taking a deeper look at the things you usually tune out.

Visit Nathanael Johnson’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, and One Unexpected Adventure by Rachel Friedman

And here we go, book fans! The first book off of my own shelf as per my resolution to read more of the books that I own. I picked up this copy of The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, and One Unexpected Adventure by Rachel Friedman (Bantam, 2011) either from my favorite local thrift store or from a used book sale (the books on that shelf came from a mix of those two places). I’ve always been a big fan of travel memoirs, and what better time to read one than when you can’t travel at all? (At least if you’re American. Sigh.)

Rachel Friedman, the girl who always followed the rules and the plan, graduated from college without any kind of plan whatsoever, and she surprised everyone in her life by buying a plane ticket to Ireland and applying for a student visa so she could work as a waitress to earn money to fund her travels there. She’d never traveled on her own before, never traveled without exact travel plans or a plan for the future, so all of this was definitely an adventure.

In Ireland, Rachel is bitten by the travel bug, aided by her wanderlusty roommate Carly, an Australian who hasn’t yet finished college and isn’t sure what she wants to do outside of traveling the world. When her time in Ireland runs out, Rachel’s next stop is Australia, and then on to South America. Deadly animals, blazing sun and chilly mountain air, experiences that scare the crap out of her, living out of a single backpack, Rachel’s experiences will have you longing for the days where you had no responsibility and could just pick up and go.

This was a lovely armchair vacation for me. Rachel’s experiences are so far from what my own were at her age that it was nice to read how very different her life was. I did understand her what-do-I-do-with-my-life stress, along with some of her travel anxiety; I applaud her for pushing her boundaries so much. I’m still working on working out my social anxiety (NOT EASY THESE DAYS), and I’m a massive wreck when I travel, so it’s good for me to read stories of people who do things that scare them simply because it scares them. There are a lot of reviews talking about how self-entitled and privileged Rachel is; I felt as though she does acknowledge her privilege in the book and how lucky she was that her parents had paid for her college and thus she didn’t have to immediately begin working off her student loan debt. She mentions that multiple times, and I see no problem enjoying someone else’s experiences even if they’re not struggling in the same way I do.

Reading this also made me a little sad. Rachel and Carly met each other during their travels; Rachel eventually meets her husband while traveling. How many friendships aren’t beginning right now that would have if the US and a few other countries had handled this pandemic better? How many travelers are stuck at home not broadening their horizons and experiencing the world? How many relationships and marriages will never happen because we’re not allowed to travel due to our own stupidity? Here in the US, our world has gotten so much smaller- even beyond the reason of Covid-19- and that just breaks my heart.

But reading about Rachel Friedman’s boundary-pushing journey made for a pleasant Sunday out on the porch swing. If you can’t travel right now, taking a book vacation is the next best thing, and I enjoyed seeing the world through Ms. Friedman’s eyes.  

Visit Rachel Friedman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

history · nonfiction

Book Review: Overground Railroad: The Green Book & Roots of Black Travel in America by Candacy A. Taylor

I want to say that I learned about Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America by Candacy A. Taylor (Harry N. Abrams, 2020) from one of the emails Book Riot sends out, maybe the one about nonfiction books? I might be wrong about that, though. But I do know that reading the description of the book had me flying to put it on my TBR. I’d never heard of the Green Book before, and that seemed like a pretty big gap in my historical knowledge. I will admit to being a little intimidated when I picked this up in the library; it’s a thick, heavy book (lots of pictures, though!), and I worried about my ability to absorb so much information right now (pandemic brain is real, y’all), but I figured I could try it, and I’m *so* glad I did!

The Green Book, originally known as The Negro Motorist Green Book, was a travel guide for Black Americans, alerting them to businesses where it was safe to stop for gas, food, lodgings, and sightseeing and entertainment opportunities. Due to America’s fierce racism during the Jim Crow era and post-Jim Crow era (and now…) and the existence of sundown towns, Black travelers weren’t assured of receiving anything they might need on the road (not even roadside assistance), and thus the Green Book came into existence in order to help them travel across the country and eventually across the world.

It’s both wonderful that the Green Book existed and a tragedy that it had to. Ms. Taylor has traveled to and photographed many of the former Green Book sights. Many of them have been abandoned or are run down, but some are still up and running; all make for wonderful photographs. Interspersed throughout the text and photos are scans of actual pages from the various editions of the Green Book so that readers can see what the writing and advertisements looked like.

This is history. It’s inspiring, it’s shameful, it’s painful, it’s difficult but necessary read. There was a lot of new information for me in this book. I knew about sundown towns; I didn’t know how many of them existed in my own state, or that a guy I dated in high school lived in one. I knew that many businesses required Black customers to use a separate entrance; I hadn’t known that some business even required their Black customers to use a SEPARATE EMERGENCY EXIT ARE YOU EFFING KIDDING ME. Before learning about the existence of the Green Books, I hadn’t considered the discrimination faced by Black people as they traveled (it made sense as soon as I read the description of the book; it was just another aspect of racism creeping into all parts of life that, because of my privilege, I had never needed to consider). Like the book states, I’ll never look at travel the same way again.

There’s a section on Route 66 that discusses why Black travelers had such a difficult time on this road and why they don’t find it iconic as so many white Americans do. It’s eye-opening for the white reader, and saddening as well. We very obviously have multiple versions of the United States, and which version you have access to depends heavily on, and has always depended heavily on, your skin color. I hadn’t known much about this history of the road (I don’t know all that much about it anyway, although it ran through that high school boyfriend’s sundown town…), so this was pretty interesting to me. It’ll definitely change the way I look at those Route 66 signs people have…

This is an amazing book, and I can’t sing its praises highly enough. Ms. Taylor’s voice is educational and informative, but it’s never dry. It’s engaging in a way that will have you wishing you could sit in her classroom, sign up for her master class, and hang on her every word. I’m so very glad I read this book, because it clued me into a whole different experience of travel that I never knew about.

Visit Candacy A. Taylor’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.