memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: What We Will Become: A Mother, a Son, and a Journey of Transformation by Mimi Lemay

I think I discovered What We Will Become: A Mother, a Son, and a Journey of Transformation by Mimi Lemay (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019) from a book list last year. A letter she had written (and published) to her transgender son on his fifth birthday had gone viral, and this is the book that sprang out of that experience. I don’t remember seeing her letter when everyone was talking about it, but I knew that I had to read her and her family’s story once I read the premise of this book.

What We Will Become skips back and forth in time, detailing the struggles of parenting Em, Ms. Lemay’s middle child, and detailing her own life journey, growing up in a strict Orthodox home with an emotionally distant mother. Em is difficult to parent almost from the beginning, moody and temperamental, unhappy in her own skin. She’s two when she begins to insist she’s a boy; Mimi and husband Joe aren’t sure what to make of it, but they do their best to work with and around the challenges Em presents. Mimi’s childhood provides a similar story of struggle, of desperately trying to fit into a world who only had one role for her, of never feeling enough for her school or her mother.

As Em’s difficulties compound, Mimi realizes the meaning of everything she’s gone through in the past, of all the problems she’s dealt with and faced down, and how they’ve all lead her here, to be this child’s mother, to be the mother this child needs. And thus a boy named Jacob is born, confident where he never used to be, happy and giggly and authentically himself. It’s a story of transformation born from struggle, but one where everyone ends up exactly where they’re meant to.

This is a truly beautiful and extremely honest story of listening to your heart to know where you belong, and using the skills learned from there to listen to others’ hearts as well. It’s bravery, a story of having the courage to know when to walk away and when to stand and fight. Ms. Lemay took what she learned from her childhood- about the kind of person she wanted to be and the kind of parent she needed but didn’t have, and turned that into the kind of parent her son needed her to be. That’s extraordinary.

Her story of growing up fascinated me. Her mother was extremely emotionally distant and very religious; Mimi did her best to fit in and succeeded for a while as a teenager but then realized there wasn’t a place for her in that world. She left, wounded by her relationship with her mother, but with enough tools to carve herself a place in the outside world, one where she’s built a beautiful life for herself and her children. This is a story of transformation, of parents and children, and what not to do, but how to learn and grow from that until you figure out what TO do. I admire Ms. Lemay so much for that.

Such a beautiful book and a testament to how children can grow and thrive, as Jacob has done, when allowed to be who they are. May we continue to bend and shape the world into one that will always love him as fully as his parents do.

Follow Mimi Lemay on Facebook here.

Follow her on Instagram here.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman

I’ve seen My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman (Harry N. Abrams, 2013) around on various book lists, and so it’s been sitting on my TBR for a bit. Not too long, but long enough that I was getting antsy. I’m always on the lookout for Jewish-themed books geared toward any age, and it’s an extra bonus when the main character is Jewish and; in this case, Jewish and Indian. And that cover- the designs, the colors, the super-adorable model! My library didn’t have a physical copy, but they did have an ebook- all the better for me right now, since the library is only open for pickups of previously ordered material. I’m planning on doing a lot of tackling of the ebooks on my TBR (which is exactly why I’ve been saving those, and why I read so many physical copies while the library was open!).

Tara Feinstein is the daughter of a Jewish-by-birth dad and an Indian-by-birth-and-Jewish-by-choice mother. She’s coming up on her bat mitzvah and has made the decision to go through with the ceremony, only to find out that it wasn’t actually all that much of a choice to begin with. Hmph. Things are a little complicated for Tara right now. She’s questioning a lot of things- her beliefs and what they mean, what being of mixed heritage means, her friendships with Rebecca and Ben-o (who may want to be more than friends, but Tara’s not sure), her enemies…middle school is full of changes.

As her ceremony draws nearer, Tara learns to navigate her family and friend relationships with maturity and grace, occasionally making foibles, but coming out stronger in the end. It’s all about balance, and there’s room for all of her heritage on the bimah.

There’s a lot to like in this book. Tara is sweet, and both sides of her lively family made for an interesting read. I loved the multicultural aspects and the blending of the two families and cultures (and man, I wish there were recipes!). I love that there’s another option on the shelves for young Jews of color to see themselves represented (more of this, please!). And there were a few issues briefly touched on that introduced some serious subjects to a younger crowd in a way that wasn’t too intense (no spoilers here, sorry!).

However, I did feel like the story lacked a bit of direction and occasionally went all over the place. There are a lot of plot lines about friendships and friend drama and family drama with various family members and school drama and enemy drama and boy drama and clothing drama, and after a while it got a little exhausting. I feel like the story would’ve been stronger if there had been less drama and more focus on the bat mitzvah and Tara incorporating both sides of her heritage into this tradition. With so many issues, the story felt scattered and not as tight as it could be. Sarah Darer Littman’s Confessions of a Closet Catholic is a good example of a middle-grade novel that addresses faith but maintains focus better and doesn’t get bogged down by trying to be too much at once.

I did enjoy this, but I had hoped to love it, and only ended up liking it. I did, however, walk away with a craving for all of the food mentioned in the book, especially the souped-up matzoh ball soup mentioned late in the book!

Visit Paula J. Freedman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Dear Martin by Nic Stone (Crown Books for Young Readers, 2017) has been on my radar for years, but I just hadn’t gotten to it yet. And it made its way into my home and onto my bookshelf last summer (thank you again, awesome used book sale), but I still hadn’t gotten to it- see the importance of reading the books you own? Those books don’t do us any good if they just sit there serving as décor. I picked it up as my third book of the year and finished it on the third day of the year. It’s a fast read that packs a major emotional wallop.

Justyce is one of the few Black kids at his private prep school. He’s been watching as more and more Black men and teenagers are shot by police officers around the country, and things are tense at his own school, where his white classmates insist that racism died out long ago. Justyce, who knows that’s not true after his own brush with police, begins writing a series of letters to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., trying to work out his feelings and figure out how to be like him.

But things escalate faster than Justyce could have ever imagined, and suddenly his best friend is dead in an incident that mirrors those he’s seen splashed across the headlines. The spotlights are on him, blaming him, digging up everything in his past that could possibly be construed as thug-like, and Justyce needs to figure out who he is, what he believes in, and who he wants to be, in a world that seems determined to decide all of that for him.

What a devastating book. There’s a lot in here that should enrage you- racism, both casual and blatant; massive miscarriages of justice, murder- and the rest will leave you feeling…sad. Depressed. Hopeful that change is still possible, but incredulous that there are still so many people out there who don’t get it, don’t want to get it, and who are actively opposed to anyone else getting it. I see this every day in the comments sections of social media pages in my very white hometown, populated by people who have never lived anywhere other than blindingly white areas and who haven’t bothered to expand their worldview beyond that one tiny midwestern town. These people scare the crap out of me and I know it’s on me to reach them, but I don’t know how to reach people so determined to hate. I’ll keep trying.

Ms. Stone raises a lot of excellent questions in this book, questions to live by that came up in Marra B. Gad’s The Color of Love: if nothing were to change, what kind of person would you want to be? We don’t have to be in perfect circumstances to still live in a way that brings honor to ourselves and the world around us- even to a world that doesn’t deserve it, because we still do. Heavy questions here with answers that will be different for everyone and that will probably change throughout our lives.

I feel like this is a book I’ll be processing for a long time, that I’ll return to in my mind when yet another Black person’s life becomes a hashtag and a headline. When the pandemic is over, there’s a local group I’m planning on getting involved with that is working to address these issues, and this novel has only furthered my commitment to that. Would that one day, these books that tell the stories of tragedies that didn’t have to be will no longer be necessary.

If you’ve been on the fence about reading Dear Martin, this is your sign to pick the book up. It’s painful and deeply upsetting, but that’s the reality of where we are as a society in the US, and it’s not something any of us should look away from. Read it, feel every last bit of it, and then do what you can to be part of the solution every day of your life.

Visit Nic Stone’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson

As soon as I read the Goodreads blurb for Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson (Katherine Tegen Books, 2020) this past summer, I. Was. In. I smashed the want-to-read button so fast, I nearly slammed a hole in my computer. The storyline, that cover…it all called to me. I knew it would be a tough read, emotionally speaking, and it was. The content warning right at the beginning- sexual abuse, rape, assault, child abuse, kidnapping, and addiction- lets you know that. But what a masterpiece and a multifaceted social commentary Ms. Jackson has written.

Enchanted Jones is an aspiring singer, struggling to find her place in the world as one of the few non-white students at her private school in the suburbs. Her family’s financial situation has been tight ever since they moved from the city and she’s needed at home when she’s not busting her butt at school, making waves in the pool for swim team, or struggling to fit in with the other upper-class Black kids in Will and Willow, the social group her parents made her and her younger sister join.  When she gets the chance to audition for a singing competition, Enchanted jumps at it, even if it means fibbing a little to her mother, and she catches the eye of Korey Fields, world-famous singer, who immediately takes her under his wing and promises to make her famous.

What he promises and what he delivers are two very, very different things. Before long, Enchanted’s starry-eyed devotion has turned to fear, and she’s increasingly more desperate to navigate Korey’s moods and fists. She’s trapped, addicted, and being used, and unsure of how to escape when Korey’s entire world is built to ensure that he gets what he wants, whenever he wants, in order to continue making powerful people a whole lot of money. And it only gets darker from there…

While there are parallels with R. Kelly’s story, Ms. Jackson is clear to state that this isn’t about him. This is about a society we’ve created that disbelieves women, and in particular, Black women, whenever they use their voice to speak of how they’ve been harmed. This is a story about how multiple industries will turn a blind eye to abuse, pain, and crime in order to ensure that their bank accounts continue to fill. It’s a scathing story and one that I hope is read and discussed widely. Things need to change, and talking about it, shouting about it the way this book does, is how it starts.

Ms. Jackson portrays Enchanted as someone whose home life is good but who feels just enough of a squeeze to be looking for outside validation, and that provides a perfect entrance for Korey, an R. Kelly-like character who is well aware of what to look for when it comes to his latest victim. Enchanted is a hard worker and just enough of a people-pleaser to prove to be fertile ground for exploitation. Hers is so much of a story of wrong place, wrong time; it’s hard to imagine things not going the way they did, because Korey preyed on her so expertly. I’m obviously not the target audience, but reading this as an adult was just heartbreaking and devastating. Enchanted’s raw emotions are out there on every page- adoration, adulation, confusion, pain…fear. Guilt. Terror. It’s all here, presented in a way that the reader can’t and shouldn’t look away. Ms. Jackson’s writing style is just this side of sparse, no flourishes or excessive description (perfect for me!), which provides an even sharper edge to this story. I tore through this book in less than a day and I might’ve bitten anyone who tried to take it from me. It’s that compelling.

The difference between books about child trafficking and exploitation from when I was a teenager to now are remarkable. While there are, of course, people trying to pin Enchanted’s exploitation on her, instead of the grown man who exploited her (because what’s new), the message here is that she’s the victim in this, that this is something that was done to her by someone who knew better but chose to harm her anyway, and this is such a breath of fresh air in comparison to some of the books I grew up with. I’m remembering very distinctly a book called Steffie Can’t Come Out to Play by Fran Arrick, which I read when I was a young teenager and which details the story of a fourteen year-old who runs away from home and is immediately picked up by a pimp and turned out on the streets a few days later. Instead of showing Steffie as a victim, she’s portrayed more as someone who makes a single terrible decision and so of course bad things happen to her. “Don’t run away from home, kids, or you’ll be turning tricks out on the street within days!” seemed to be the takeaway message, but Grown and its contradictory title (or is it?) shows just how easy it is, even for girls from regular families, to get pulled into situations by master manipulators.

Such a heart wrenching, devastating novel that I hope spreads awareness, both of the issue of child and teen exploitation, and of Tiffany D. Jackson’s massive, massive writing talent. Read this, and for God’s sake, listen to and believe Black women.

Visit Tiffany D. Jackson’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book Review: The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy

Another book from my own shelves, the last read of 2020. I don’t read a ton of thrillers, but I don’t mind them when they’re more at ‘constant low level of unease’ versus ‘people chasing each other with knives and various other weapons through scary landscapes in the dark of night.’ I don’t want to be on the edge of my seat, but I do like trying to figure out what happened (and I’m really terrible at this!). The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy (Harper, 2018) seemed to fit those parameters, or at least it did at the two-summers-ago book sale where I tossed it into my paper bag with all my other literary treasures for seven bucks. Either way, that makes it a win for me!

The May Moms are a new mom group, meeting first online and then in a park near their Brooklyn residences. It’s been a year of changes for them- pregnancies, work adjustments, moves, the addition of these helpless new creatures who have upended every part of their lives- and they’re leaning on each other for support. A night out for some of them leads to an unthinkable tragedy, and when the media descends, several of the moms are left questioning exactly how things happened that night. Where is their member’s missing son? How can they all possibly cope with this? And what exactly makes a good mother these days?

I’ve been a part of an online mom group- two, in fact- since my 18-year-old son was a newborn. I understand the quick camaraderie that comes from desperately begging a group of internet strangers what this rash could possibly be or asking how you can get this kid to sleep because you’re about to lose your mind. Aimee Molloy captures the support, the gossipy cattiness, and the tentative new connections forged during this tense time of life quite well, and she’s absolute magic at painting the full picture of new motherhood- leaking breasts (and the intense worry that you’re breastfeeding incorrectly and your kid is starving to death), your body feeling nothing like the body you’ve lived in your whole life, the exhaustion that pervades everything, the constant renegotiations of other relationships in your life (including your marriage/romantic partnership)… The new mothers’ desperation and exhaustion was so blatant and real on the page that it started to make me feel a little panicky from time to time. I do NOT miss those days at all!

I had a little bit of a difficult time keeping the characters straight. The POV switches back and forth and I did have to stop and keep going, “Wait, which is this one?”, but the rest of the story holds up well enough that this didn’t throw me off too much (and to be honest, this is probably more a me thing; I will occasionally read an entire book and can recount the plot with no problem, but I’ll be entirely unable to tell you a single character’s name). The story of baby Midas’s disappearance, the fear surrounding it, the media sensationalizing it and demanding to know why these mothers were out on their own and not at home caring for their babies (because as we all know, babies will DIE DIE DIE the second their mothers step away to do anything selfish like eat or shower, and definitely if they want a few hours to themselves to be their own people and not just infant servants. Ugh), it’s all so very modern and ripped-from-the-headlines. I’d never heard of this book before (not even 50,000 Goodreads ratings), but I feel like it should have gotten more attention, because it’s basically a layman’s Law & Order episode in book form.

The Perfect Mother is gripping, but in a gentle way. It’ll keep you turning pages to find out what happened, but it’s not that uncomfortable-on-every-page kind of unease that generally keeps me away from thrillers. This was definitely worth my time.

Visit Aimee Molloy’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Come Back to Me by Mila Gray

Remember used book sales? (Heck, remember going anywhere? To anything? In person? EVER??? HAHAHAHAHAHA *sob*) Last year I managed to stop by quite a few, one of the really great kinds where you cram as much as you can into a paper bag for one low price (I wrote about one here, the one where I purchased this particular book). I’m desperately hoping that the women’s education group that puts these on will go back to it once the pandemic is done, because those book sales are something I look forward to for months, and they’re always crammed full of people (so, uh, this definitely needs to be over before then!). But one of those sales is where I picked up a copy of Come Back to Me by Mila Gray (Pan Macmillan, 2014). The cover looked enticing, so into the bag it went, and since I paid only seven bucks for the entire bag, I could afford to take the chance. Man, I miss those book sales.

Jessa’s life is ruled by her military father and his PTSD-fueled moods. She and her mother walk on eggshells around him, she’s changed her entire college and career plans in order to suit his iron-fisted control, and she never, ever dates. Not that she doesn’t have feelings- big ones- for her brother Riley’s best friend Kit. Kit and Riley joined the Marines a few years ago and Jessa’s been pining away for Kit ever since the last time he was home on leave. And now that he’s back again, she can’t keep those feelings at bay.

Kit has had it bad for his best friend’s sister for a while, but being deployed to Sudan has made it easy to do nothing about it. Being home on leave for four weeks ups the ante, though, and suddenly things are exactly where he always dreamed of them being for the two of them. She’s everything to him, and it doesn’t matter that her dad hates his guts. They’ll figure out a way to make their long-distance relationship work.

But this is a military romance novel, and when tragedy strikes, both Jessa and Kit have some reckoning to do with their pasts and their futures. Can they move beyond the pain to find their way back to one another?

This is a solid New Adult romance with solid writing and a good, if not slightly predictable, romance. It’s sweet and flows well, which makes it an easy, enjoyable read. Jessa and Kit work well together, and as someone who has been in a military relationship-turned-married (turned divorce, turned vowing to never get involved with anyone in the military ever again, turned falling love with a longtime friend who was finishing up a deployment with the National Guard so maybe don’t trust me on this one here, haha), Ms. Gray nails all the turmoil that comes with that. It’s constant stress and worry, being alone more than being together, waiting for that phone call or email or letter (or text/video chat these days, you lucky ducks!), and counting down the days until you see each other again. Stress, stress, stress. I don’t miss those days one bit.

There are some content warnings here: death (one of which is described as it happens, though not in graphic detail); emotional abuse; PTSD; brief discussions of suicide, and sexual assault. Jessa’s dad is a piece of work. His story wraps up a little too nicely for me; I worry that readers may get the wrong idea of the ease of tackling long-term PTSD. The story isn’t focused on him, though, which may account for Ms. Gray’s choice to sum up his story a little more swiftly than his own novel would call for.

I was mildly irritated by a few things in the novel, specifically the cardinal sin-lines of how Jessa’s ‘not like other girls,’ and ‘Kit isn’t like normal guys.’ I admit to scrunching up my face when I read both of those lines. No, no, no. Editors everywhere need to have their red pens at the ready for any versions of those. Unless Jessa has three arms and Kit is missing his entire face and has a functional tail, yeah, they’re both like every other person out there and there’s no need to slam other girls and other guys by demeaning them in order to prop your main characters up. There was also a throwaway line about how Kit lost his virginity at age 14 to the babysitter, but since his sister was older than him, I’m unsure of whom the babysitter was babysitting, and this unnecessary line creeped me way, waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay out. Forget these lines, though, and the rest of the book is perfectly solid.

I don’t know that I want to read more of this series- like I said, I’ve been through my own military romances and don’t necessarily feel the pull to relive them, but I’d definitely read Mila Gray again.

Mila Gray is the pen name of author Sarah Alderson. Visit her website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Meet You Under the Stars (A Morgan’s Grove Novel #2) by Traci Borum

Back in the spring, author Traci Borum contacted me to read the first romance novel in a new series that she’d penned, Love Starts Here. I enjoyed it and was happy to read and review the second in the series as well, Meet You Under the Stars (Red Adept Publishing, 2020). Who couldn’t use more sweet, cozy romance in their life right now??? And after a heavy nonfiction as my last read, I definitely needed the literary equivalent of a soft fuzzy blanket to wrap myself up in!

Chaynie Mayfield came back to her hometown of charming Morgan’s Grove to help her mother after her father died, and although she enjoys it there, her life seems a bit…stagnant. Her job as a librarian technician is great, but it’s got no room for growth, so it’s application time and she’s putting out feelers all over the country. Her boyfriend dumped her last Valentine’s Day and there are zero prospects on the line. Life just is…until her boss assigns her the gargantuan task of putting together a Valentine’s Day event for the library. The historic building, home of many of Chaynie’s fondest childhood memories, is also beginning to undergo extensive renovations, headed by none other than local architect Greg Peterson, a guy she only vaguely remembers from high school but who looks really, really good to her today.

Working together to plan both the Valentine’s Day Movie Night and a children’s alcove renovation, Chaynie and Greg slowly grow closer, though Chaynie is hesitant. What about her plans to leave Morgan’s Grove? Greg couldn’t possibly be into her, anyway, they’re just friends…right? It’s a case of everyone else seeing first what Chaynie’s unsure of, and she’ll have some major decisions to make. Hopefully she’ll remember to listen to her heart…

What a sweet book. Morgan’s Grove is small-town life as we all dream it could be (definitely not like the small town I grew up in. A guy I went to high school with and who never left town is currently in prison for murder, so… *laughs nervously*), and it’s a lovely place to take a literary tour of when we’re all stuck in our homes. A charming town square, local businesses that aren’t in constant danger of going under, locals who care deeply about the community and want to participate in town activities, a library in a historic building (with donated funds enough to do the proper renovations! Don’t get me started on how this played out in my community! *snarls*). What a dream town Ms. Borum has created. I loved coming back here.

Chaynie is delightful as a main character, penning a children’s book while her artist mother creates the illustrations in their spare time. She grows in confidence as the story moves forward, learning to take chances and realizing that it’s okay if things don’t always go the way she’d hoped, finally realizing what she has right in front of her and taking full advantage of it. Greg as a hero speaks more through his actions than his words (and there are a few scenes where the romance is in what’s left unsaid! I love that kind of tension!), something that speaks deeply to me, and I appreciated his dedication (and his long game. You’ll see what I mean when you read the book. Go, Greg!).

If you’re looking for five-alarm heat levels, this isn’t it; Meet You Under the Stars is a very sweet, slow-paced romance with the heat level of a cozy cup of tea and your favorite winter cardigan. It’s more of a cozy fireside story than a slow burn, but I’m here for all heat levels and watching Chaynie grow into the realization of her feelings for Greg made for a delightful winter evening read.

If you’re in the market for a slow-paced romance set in a modern-day Mayberry, Meet You Under the Stars is the trip you need to take- but don’t forget Love Starts Here first!

Visit Traci Borum’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–And Doesn’t by Stephen R. Prothero

I had the privilege of attending a Zoom webinar on continuing Holocaust education a few weeks ago, presented by a local university and given by professors, a rabbi, and Holocaust educators. It was fascinating and deeply moving, and one of the things that a Holocaust educator said struck me, about how in order to understand the Holocaust, one must be religiously literate, and she made the suggestion of reading Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t by Stephen R.Prothero (HarperOne, 2007). I put it on my list and grabbed it on my last library run (can you tell how slow my reading has been lately? My last library run was before Thanksgiving *sob*).

Stephen Prothero shines a light on America’s disturbing lack of religious literacy in this book. No, Jesus did not part the Red Sea. No, Joan of Arc wasn’t Noah’s wife. And if you can’t name any of the Five Pillars of Islam or describe the Eightfold Path of Buddhism, you’re not alone- most Americans can’t, either, and what’s even worse is that far too many people can’t describe most of the basic tenets of their own faith’s theology. This is especially true for Christianity, it being the dominant religion in the US, and Mr. Prothero provides many examples of this.

When exactly did we become so religiously literate? It goes much further back than the 1950s and 60s, and some of the history of how we lost our taste for in-depth religious knowledge- even of our own faiths- may surprise you. Stephen Prothero makes an excellent case for becoming religiously literate- we can’t truly call ourselves educated without understanding religion (and not just our own!)- even if we’re not believers ourselves. Religion permeates every aspect of our society, our literature, our history, and our politics, and religious literacy is a necessity for full participation in an educated society.

This book is more about shining a light on our problem of religious illiteracy and how it came to exist, rather than providing solutions (other than pointing out the need for classes in the basics of world religions for high schoolers). There’s a lot of history here, from America’s earliest days of Puritans and Deists, the Protestant/Catholic divide, religion’s role in such historical events as the abolitionist movement, Prohibition, the New Deal, and more. Mr. Prothero rightfully argues that American and world history cannot be understood without at least a basic grasp of religion. Imagine trying to study the Crusades without knowing what each side was fighting for. Imagine reading about the Spanish Inquisition without previous knowledge of the beliefs and history that led that society to that point. Imagine trying to read The Grapes of Wrath or Les Misérables without any knowledge of Christianity- the biblical allusions and allegories would go entirely over the reader’s head, and they would miss out on so much. Being religiously literate gives people a fuller, richer, more thorough understanding of nearly everything.

This book has really got me thinking. My husband prefers that our daughter be raised without religion, which is fine with me, but I do feel she needs to be religiously literate in order to be fully educated (I was raised Catholic, am in the process of converting to Judaism, and I have a decent grasp on both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, plus I’ve read books on various sects of Christianity and other religions, and I’ve taken a fantastic comparative religions class. I’m not worried about myself here!). I’ve read several books on world religions to her, and I point stuff out to her all the time, but I don’t necessarily feel like that’s enough, and I’m unsure of how to instruct her further in the cultural aspects (stories, practices) of religions I don’t follow, since most of the materials out there about religion that’s geared toward kids are for kids being raised in that religion. We’ve read books like A Faith Like Mine and One World, Many Religions: The Ways We Worship, both really great books that give overviews of the major world religions, but I’d like to go a little more in-depth, and I’m not sure more resources are out there on ‘this is what we believe and here are some of the stories in our scriptures’ without ‘This is why you should believe this, too!’ for kids. If you’re aware of any books that cover this kind of stuff- for any religion- that’s geared towards kids, leave a comment below, because this is definitely something I’m interested in learning about! When life goes back to normal, I’ll have a chat with our children’s librarians and see what they can come up with.

To sum it all up, Religious Literacy points out a major flaw in both the American educational system and in the way American religious institutions handle their deeper doctrinal and theological teachings. If you’re interested in religion in any manner (or education!), this is a great book. It’s information-dense, however, which is great for normal times when it’s quiet and you can focus, but makes for a slower read when, for example, you’ve got all of first grade blaring out of an iPad several feet in front of you. 😉

Visit Stephen R. Prothero’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness by Rebecca Lerner

Why is it that I always seem to read gardening and foraging books when it’s cold out? I think I’ve only ever had the sense to read one of these books when I could actually put the information I learned in it to use. Just seems to always work out that way, and on my last library trip before they closed to everything but curbside pickups, I grabbed a copy of Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness by Rebecca Lerner (Lyons Press, 2013). I’ve always been interested in urban foraging and have read plenty of books on the subject, but I haven’t really done much with what I’ve learned, other than make a lovely batch of dandelion jelly a few years ago, with dandelions collected from the surplus in my yard (and only in a year when we had so many, there were tons left over for the bees. My two cups of dandelions didn’t even make the tiniest of dents). The community college here offers walking tours of the prairie outside the school with an expert who points out edible native plants, so I’m hoping to take one of those tours when life goes back to normal. Until then, I read on!

Rebecca Lerner is an urban forager, hunting for edible, usable plants in Portland, Oregon, and the surrounding areas. She begins her story with an experiment, having been assigned an article where she lives solely off of items she’s foraged for a week. The experiment fails massively, since Rebecca is a novice, but she learns from her failure and is determined to improve her skills. Immediately, she pinpoints everything she’s done wrong and sets out to learn from friends and locals who are skilled foragers. She finds new greens, edible berries and nuts (even those that need a lot of work to be edible- like acorns), plants that serve as natural medicine and tea, and a way of living that suits her just fine.

This one was just okay for me. It started out fine; Ms. Lerner’s enthusiasm is admirable, and I appreciated her ability to showcase the mistakes she made- who hasn’t made enthusiastic-yet-massive screwups at the beginning of a new project? I enjoyed following her adventures in the streets and urban landscapes of Portland, the process of learning to cook these new-to-her foods, and her descriptions of their tastes. It was easy to feel as though I was right beside her, tramping through a neighbor’s yard, minding the spikes and thorns of these edible plants, and tasting the explosions of flavor of nature’s gatherable bounty.

Her enthusiasm for her homemade medicine cabinet alienated me a bit, however. I’m not against natural medicines, but she displays excitement for certain things that I 100% know have been debunked by peer-reviewed studies. And boasting that her homemade medicines helped people get over their colds in two to three days isn’t exactly the flex she wanted it to sound like (you know, the normal amount of time people would get over a cold?). Her explanation of why people stopped using these homemade medicines fell flat for me (husband is a molecular biologist; it’s all science, all the time here, and I’ve done a lot of reading in the past on the natural health and supplement industry. There’s no conspiracy or power-grab takeover; many of these natural cures simply don’t show any levels of effectiveness when put to rigorous scientific testing). The placebo affect is real and I’m all for using that to its full effect, but I dislike the more woo-based treatments being passed off as being as or more effective than evidence-based treatments.

This isn’t a bad book, despite my being turned off by her allegiance to her homemade medicines. It’s a fun story of learning to appreciate what the earth offers around us, learning to notice the bounty and learning to take advantage of it in a respectful way. It’s a fairly quick read if you’re into this subject.

Visit Rebecca Lerner’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: All the Young Men by Ruth Coker Burks with Kevin Carr O’Leary

Sometimes when you browse around on NetGalley, you find a book that calls out to you and that you know you have to read, whether you get approved for it or not, and fortunately, I was lucky enough to be approved for All the Young Men: A Memoir of Love, AIDS, and Chosen Family in the American South by Ruth Coker Burks with Kevin Carr O’Leary (Grove Press, 2020). I was born in 1980; AIDS and HIV were fully on my radar by the time I turned 10. Even in the Catholic school I attended, we watched videos and learned about the virus and the devastating effects it had on the human body and the gay community. In eighth grade, my class watched And the Band Played On. I remember our teachers being very emphatic about the ways you could and couldn’t catch the virus, and that it was okay to hug people who had it, touch them, take care of them. I’m part of the first generation for whom AIDS has always been a concern, for whom these stories have always been in the news, and, having heard the name Ruth Coker Burks before, I knew this was an important book that I needed to read.

Ruth Coker Burks was visiting a friend in the hospital in her home state of Arkansas on day in the early 80’s when she became intrigued as to why a door was covered in red and the nurses seemed afraid to go in. Upon learning that the patient had AIDS, Ruth went in anyway and proceed to sit with the man, holding his hand and staying with him until he died. Afterwards, she buried the man’s ashes in her family’s cemetery; his own family refused to take custody of his cremains. This event set Ruth down a path that would define her entire life, taking care of sick AIDS patients and being with them when they died, feeding the ones who were still alive, advocating for them to receive medical care, housing assistance, and disability pay. As they grew sicker, she upped her level of care, and she began a course of education, aiming to prevent the spread of the disease in the gay community around her hometown. In a time where no one else stepped up to the plate, Ruth Coker Burns recognized a need and saw her responsibility to be the solution.

Her life wasn’t an easy one. Her community, including her church, ostracized her. Work wasn’t easy to come by. Her former in-laws offered no help with or for their grandchild. Friends expressed disgust at what she was doing and dropped her. Displaying acts of courage that are rare these days, Ruth never gave up, creating a family and a loving community out of the men she was helping to live and die with dignity.

All the Young Men is a necessary story for any reading list. This is a gut-punch of a book that will introduce younger readers into the perversion of humanity that was the AIDS epidemic, where parents refused to have contact with their children, where patients were starved for human touch, where the friends that nursed a person through his last days were thrown out or barred from attending funerals by the family who had previously cast the ill person out. There are numerous painful moments throughout this book, for Ruth, for her guys, as she called them, for their friends. She bears so much pain with courage and grace, never once giving in to despair or turning someone away because it’s too much. If you need to restore your faith in humanity and in the idea that one person can indeed make a difference, Ruth Coker Burks’s story is one to read.

The writing style of All the Young Men is more ‘down home Arkansas’ than it is Shakespeare, but this doesn’t detract from the importance of the story at all. What Ruth Coker Burks has penned here is a stunning narrative of her own human decency, about which she never brags or boasts, in a time when the world was starved for it. She showed up when others refused. She held the hands of the dying when others wouldn’t even enter the room. There’s a quote from Frederick Douglass that says, “Praying for freedom never did me any good ’til I started praying with my feet.” While others sat in the pews on Sunday, listening to and agreeing with a pastor who condemned her, Ruth was praying with her feet.

All the Young Men is easy to read in style, but tough on emotions, as it should be. This isn’t a particularly fun time of history to revisit, but it’s important, especially these days, when we’re seeing record numbers of people disavow the humanity in others by refusing to protect them from Covid-19. It’s difficult to be confronted with the fact that we really haven’t come that far. But what makes the difference is that people like Ruth Coker Burks exist and are out there praying with their feet, caring, helping. ‘Look for the helpers,’ Mister Rogers taught us. Ruth Coker Burks is one of the best helpers, and this book, and her life, is a testament to that. Would that more people had her sense of compassion and duty.

All the Young Men is an introduction to the terrible realities that the gay community faced in the 80’s and 90’s as a virus was allowed to run unchecked through their numbers while the government sat back and twiddled its thumbs (sound familiar?). If you read this book and are interested in learning more, I’ve got two books for you that will give you a deeper understanding of why Ruth was left alone to care for the AIDS patients of her community.

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts is probably the number one book I recommend to people in real life (most recently, to someone in the grocery store!). It’s an in-depth history of the AIDS epidemic, and it’s heartbreaking in every sense of that word. Don’t be discouraged by the fact that the book is 656 pages; it reads like a novel and will not only have you in tears but will leave you with a sense of rage like you’ve never known before. Easily one of the best books I’ve ever read in my life.

Secondly, My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story by Abraham Verghese is the memoir of a doctor who stepped up and cared for AIDS patients in eastern Tennessee when no one else would touch them. Like Ruth Coker Burks, he greets his patients with compassion and allows them to retain their dignity when no one else would, helping to destroy the stigma around AIDS patients and reminding the public that these were people, not just a diagnosis.

Huge thanks to NetGalley and Grove Press for allowing me an early copy of All the Young Men to read and review.

Visit Ruth Coker Burks’s website here.