Book Review: Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books by Mark Glickman

I can’t actually remember how Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books by Mark Glickman (The Jewish Publication Society, 2015) ended up on my TBR; likely a mention by one of the many Jewish pages I follow on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Books and reading have always been an important part of being Jewish (we are the People of the Book!), and so learning about and understanding what happened to Jewish books during and after World War II was something that piqued my interest. Boy, did I learn a LOT from this book!

So, almost everyone knows that the Nazi burned books. Most of us have seen pictures of people throwing books onto a huge bonfire, and we use Nazi book burning as a metaphor for the dangers of censorship. But most of us probably don’t know that their book burning phase didn’t last very long; they quickly moved on to collecting books. That’s right. The Nazis stole, then collected Jewish writings even as they mowed down the Jewish people during World War II. They planned to study the writings of the culture they had wiped out. Fortunately, they lost, and afterwards, one of the many questions to be answered at war’s end became, “Now what do we do with all these millions of books?”

In order to help the reader understand the importance of this question, Rabbi Mark Glickman begins the book with a fascinating look at the history of Jewish texts and the emphasis on reading and study that has always been central to Judaism. The second section segues into the many heartbreaking ways the Nazis stole and desecrated our texts; the third, how so many people worked for years to return said texts to their rightful owners, or, barring the ability to do that, to send the texts to the places they would again be loved and cherished. This was obviously a massive amount of work; millions upon millions of books and papers had been stolen and hidden away, or stored in places that ranged from caves to castles. Moving these books involved multiple organizations working tirelessly for years.

This is an incredible book that tells a story I hadn’t heard before. I had no idea about the Nazis stealing books; even with all the reading I’ve done about history, World War II, and the Shoah, I had been under the impression that they burned books and nothing else. I had no clue about the massive troves of Jewish literature that lay hidden after the war, nor of the incredible effort of so many people to return these books to communities and organizations that would recognize them for the treasures that they are. This book presented a brand-new understanding of history to me, and I’m grateful to Rabbi Glickman for having penned such an interested, eye-opening work. I always appreciate being able to be better informed about anything, but especially Judaism and Jewish history.

books about books · nonfiction

Book Review: Library Lin’s Curated Collection of Superlative Nonfiction by Linda Maxie

Books about books. Truly one of the best genres out there, right? We all love books, and so a book about books is just about as good as it gets. If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you know I veer heavily towards nonfiction (and depressing nonfiction, at that!). There are many reasons for this, but a big one is that I just love learning, and so when Linda Maxie reached out to me to offer up her book, Library Lin’s Curated Collection of Superlative Nonfiction (Spoon Creek Press, 2022), for review, I absolutely leapt at the chance. A book all about nonfiction? COUNT. ME. IN.

In this wonderful book set up exactly like a library, Linda Maxie takes the nonfiction lover on a stroll through the shelves, organized Dewey Decimal System-style (and not without a discussion about the pros and cons of said system, and the cons of its creator – major high five to Ms. Maxie for bringing that up! It’s something I learned of only in the past year or so, so I’m pleased that it’s getting more attention), with suggestions for each category, ranging from 001 (Knowledge) to 996 (Polynesia and Pacific Ocean Islands). In between is the whole library and a world of reading possibilities.

Each book suggestion has a few lines of description, enough to either intrigue the potential reader or let them know this book isn’t for them. The introduction encourages the reader to take notes in the wide margins (AND I DID!!!), make lists, and gain a better understanding of how the library works and what kind of books are available in each category. If you’re not a huge wanderer of the shelves, this would be a fabulous introduction to what you’ve been missing.

I had so much fun going through this book. I made lists of the books I wanted to read (it’s, uh, a LOT), and I kept track of the books mentioned that I had already read (fifty-one, baby!). I tend to read mostly from my TBR, so this was a great reintroduction to what belongs where on the library shelves and what I’ve been missing out on by sticking to specific sections. Ms. Maxie’s suggestions, compiled from lists of award winners and nominees and other best-of type-lists, tend toward more recently published books (though there are some older ones whose information and/or subjects are still relevant), which I very much appreciated; it’s a bummer to find a nonfiction book that sounds fascinating but whose publication date makes you realize everything between the covers will be out-of-date. Not a problem at all with this book!

If you love books about books but have always wished the authors would include more nonfiction on those lists, you will absolutely love Library Lin’s Curated Collection of Superlative Nonfiction by Linda Maxie. And if you’ve got a nonfiction lover in your life, pick a copy up for them, because this would make a great gift!

Thanks to Linda Maxie for the opportunity to read and review this book. I truly enjoyed it!

Visit Linda Maxie’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.


Book Review: Unmask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World’s Most Notorious Diaries by Rick Emerson

If you’re of a certain age like me, you likely read Go Ask Alice when you were a teenager. This book purported to be the real diary of a real teenager who fell victim to drugs and who ultimately died due to her addiction. This book used to be everywhere (and still is; I actually saw a copy of it at a used book sale this weekend!). I’m not sure I knew of many people who didn’t read it. I was probably around 12 when I first read it; I don’t remember too much of my reactions to it, but I’ve always been aware of its prevalence in American literary and pop culture. So when I saw Unmask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World’s Most Notorious Diaries by Rick Emerson (BenBella Books, 2022) up for offer on NetGalley, I. Was. IN. As someone who had looked into the story of the woman behind Alice before, I knew this book was going make some waves. And now, having read it, I’m even more certain that this book is going to be huge.

In the 1970s, the war on drugs began to rage, and parents were terrified. What could they do? How could they even begin to talk to their children about the dangers of drugs and how easily their lives could be ruined? Suddenly, a book appeared on the scene that answered all their questions: a diary, written by a real-life teenager, whose life was destroyed and ultimately ended by drugs. Teenagers saw themselves in it. Adults saw their children in it. Go Ask Alice was impossible to keep on the shelves (whether due to selling out or due to panicked legislators banning it), but it opened pathways to communication between parents and children.

The only problem: it wasn’t true. None of it was. Go Ask Alice was the creation of a con artist, a Utah housewife named Beatrice Sparks who claimed to be a psychotherapist who worked with teenagers, but who, in reality, had been desperately trying to reinvent herself for years. And while her lies about young Alice may have lead to some positives, her next offering, Jay’s Journal, quite literally destroyed lives in a multitude of ways.

Rick Emerson has penned a well-researched eye-opener about a cultural icon whose effects are still being felt today, both the positives and the negatives. Beatrice Sparks was a scammer of the highest order, in multitudes of ways that would be much easier to verify these days, but back in the 70s, information wasn’t quite so easy to come by. Her religious housewife façade allowed her to ooze through the cracks and cause incredible harm to grieving families, along with setting the stage for what would eventually become the Satanic Panic of the 80s (and which would ultimately lead to people wrongfully convicted of various crimes and spending decades of their lives in prison). With humor, pathos, and empathy, Rick Emerson tells the story of a book that so many of us grew up with, but about which we never really knew the truth.

Whew. This is an absolute page-turner, and an incredible story. I absolutely flew through this book, because the story spreads so far and wide, and I was absolutely incredulous that one woman’s scamming had so many devastating consequences. I hadn’t known that Art Linkletter’s daughter’s suicide had set the stage for Alice to be published in the first place; I had no idea that Jay’s Journal (which I read in 2005 and immediately pinpointed as a whole entire load of horse dung) set the Satanic Panic into motion (the story behind this book is absolutely heartbreaking). It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Beatrice Sparks had some sort of diagnosable condition, such as narcissism or sociopathy; she had absolutely zero empathy and hurt people with wild abandon. Monsters come in all shapes and sizes.

I hope to see more from Rick Emerson in the future. Beatrice Sparks’s story is both horrifying and fascinating, and his voice absolutely added to my enjoyment of this book. And this is the third book I’ve read in the past few years from BenBella Books that I’ve really enjoyed. They’re definitely a publisher I’m going to have to keep my eye on!

Visit Rick Emerson’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.


Book Review: Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books by Aaron Lansky

Right along with books, I’ve long been obsessed with languages. I learned a bunch of Japanese when I was in grade school, took four years of Spanish and of French and one of German in high school (our school schedule was structured in a way that made this possible), have been through Duolingo’s Norwegian tree five times now, and am currently picking up some Hebrew. The many different Jewish languages fascinate me as well (there are more than just Yiddish and Hebrew!). And where Jewish language and books meet is Aaron Lansky, founder of the Yiddish Book Center and author of Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books (Algonquin Books, 2005). I’ve known about Mr. Lansky since my son was very young and I read him a children’s book about how Mr. Lansky saved Yiddish books, so when I learned that he had written a book for adults, it immediately went onto my list (and my library had an ebook copy!).

As college students learning Yiddish, Aaron Lansky and his classmates had a difficult time finding reading material. New Yiddish books weren’t really being published, and most libraries didn’t have much, if anything, on their shelves. And then he learned the terrible fate of many of the Yiddish books in existence: they were being thrown out. When elderly Yiddish speakers died, their children, who often couldn’t speak or read the language, didn’t know what to do with the books and so they got tossed. Horrified, Mr. Lansky began collecting these books. As more and more books piled up when people learned that he wanted them, he opened the Yiddish Book Center and began racing against time (and weather, and terrible storage conditions) in order to preserve the literary traditions and history of a world that no longer exists.

It wasn’t an easy job. Funding was always an issue. Space was another problem. Vans that broke down, elderly folks who overfed Mr. Lansky and his crew while sharing the stories of their lives and their books (and putting them hours behind schedule!), people who didn’t seem to understand what he was trying to do, trips to pick up books that were downright dangerous, there were a lot of obstacles in the way, but things always seemed to work out, and today, the Yiddish Book Center is an amazing institution that has helped the modern-day study of Yiddish flourish.

This was such a great read. It’s right at the intersection of a bunch of things I care deeply about- books, languages, Judaism- and Mr. Lansky tells the story of his life in a truly engaging way. The Yiddish language has never been dead; it’s still in use today as a living language, though mainly among the more Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) groups, who, in general, don’t engage with the mainly secular literature in the books Mr. Lansky was trying to save (which is why it was so important he collected them; these books are history, culture, linguistics. They’re the legacy of a people who survived some terrible times, but who left behind a rich literary treasure trove). And Yiddish has seen a bit of a resurgence among this current generation of non-Haredi Jews (are there any non-Jews engaging with the language on a widespread basis? I don’t honestly know). There are Yiddish classes in the city near me; the University of Chicago also offers Yiddish courses (my kingdom for a winning lottery ticket so that I could afford to attend!). It makes me happy that non-native speakers are continuing to engage with this beautiful language (to me, it sounds a little like Norwegian, which I think is gorgeous!). (I really love parentheses, if you couldn’t tell. Eesh.)

The people who gave Mr. Lansky their books are deeply moving. So often, they had already lost far too much in their lives; they understood the importance of the books they loved, and they shared their lives and their stories (and their homecooked food!) with the Yiddish Book Center crew. Elderly as they were, many of them went on to help collect books for the Center. You’ll be moved by their stories, their pain, their joy, and their enthusiasm for and dedication to their book collections (seriously, as literary people, we ALL get how important books are! The thought of any books ending up in trash heaps, regardless of whether or not I can read them, makes me scream inside my heart!).

Outwitting History left me in awe of everything Aaron Lansky has accomplished. He saw a problem- a whole culture and history being erased- and dedicated his life to solving it. And in return, scholars of Yiddish visit and contact his center every day. The Center sends Yiddish books all around the world, and Yiddish literature was the first to be digitized. He has done the world a massive service by preserving so many books, and though I don’t speak the language (though at some point, I’d like to learn some!), I’m deeply grateful to him for the books he and his crew have rescued. Imagine what the world would have missed out on had all those books been lost forever.

Visit the website of the Yiddish Book Center here.

books about books · nonfiction

Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of ’80s and ’90s Teen Fiction- Gabrielle Moss

This week, if the library were a compendium of internet memes, it would have whispered, “Hey girl…I hear you like books, so here are some books…about books.” Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of ’80s and ’90s Teen Fiction by Gabrielle Moss is not just a book about books, but a time machine back to the literary classics of my childhood.

Paperback Crush first appeared on my radar this past summer, and quite a few of us in a book discussion forum I’m part of freaked out. A book about all the books we devoured as tweens and teens? Bring. It. ON. We were stoked, and so when I was reminded of this book the other day, I looked it up and was overjoyed to discover that at that very moment, there was a copy waiting for me in the New Books section of my local library. Off we went.

Gabrielle Moss has painstakingly cataloged a just-shy-of-exhaustive history of those books you inhaled during the ’80s and ’90s, with photos of the covers splashed across the neon-colored pages. She details the popularity of series books in these decades, most of which I at least remembered, with the exception of the NEATE Series (published by Just Us Books; I hadn’t heard of them, but I enjoyed reading Ms. Moss’s write-up of the company’s history and mission and will be on the lookout for their books from now on). She also points out that many series books were written by authors who went on to bigger and better things, such as Candice Ransom, Eileen Goudge (I loved her in my early 20’s), Katherine Applegate (who would go on to win the Newbery award for The One and Only Ivan), and even Christopher Pike and R. L. Stine before their days as masters of teen horror (I had no idea Stine also wrote under the pen name Jovial Bob Stine; I owned one of his books as a kid).

These years were the decades of the series: romance series, series about sleepaway camp, sports-themed series (baseball! Horses!), horror/thriller series, chronic/terminal illness series (hellooooooooooo, Lurlene McDaniel!), boarding school series, and series about friend groups where each friend had one defining characteristic (the bossy one; the artsy one; the one whose personality was that she was originally from New York City or California, because of course). There’s a lot of rightful bagging on the Sweet Valley High series, which I was thrilled to read- I’d read so many of the Twins and High books as a kid and always thought Jessica was a Grade-A swamp witch as well, so I appreciated Ms Moss being able to see the Wakefield twins’ lives for what they were: a high-drama soap opera for teens in novel form.

This book also brought back authors I hadn’t thought of in years but who made up a formative part of my youth (Barthe DeClements, whose first name I’m still unsure of how to pronounce! Paula Danziger!), and books that I read that were probably entirely age inappropriate but I scarfed them down anyway (eleven probably wasn’t the best age to read and reread a novel about teen prostitution/trafficking, right? Steffie Can’t Come Out to Play by Fran Arrick, if you missed that one). And holy cow, I’d completely forgotten that Slam Book was written by Ann M. Martin (of the Babysitters Club fame). That was another one that I read and reread at probably ten or eleven, despite the gruesome depiction of a suicide. Cripes, no wonder I developed such fierce insomnia as a teenager. I especially appreciated the love she showed Norma Klein, who was one of my favorite authors for years. Klein was always overshadowed by Judy Blume, but her books were just as monumental in introducing topics such as sex and abortion into teen lit (which I read well before my teen years. Thank you, used bookstores!).

And I was surprised by the chapter on middle grade and YA horror; I hadn’t realized how much of that I read during those years, but nearly every cover on the pages was familiar to me. I haven’t read all that much horror as an adult, and I don’t care for thrillers, so I’m trying to figure out why I stopped reading that genre so much. Did I get my fill? Could no one take the place of Christopher Pike (whose real name is Kevin McFadden?!?!? I had no idea!)? I’m going to have to think about this some more, and maybe look into picking up a book or two with a more supernatural flair.

The only criticism I have for this book is that it ended fairly abruptly, and that it ended at all. I would’ve loved for this book to continue on endlessly, drowning me in wave after wave of nostalgia for the long days of my childhood where I never had to worry about dishes or scrubbing out the toilet or chronic pain, and where a trip to Waldenbooks meant coming home to spend the rest of the day holed up in my room, nose stuffed in the latest offerings of whatever author was my current favorite. If you’re around my age (I’m 38) and you spent your youth guzzling books like I did, you absolutely cannot miss this book. Beg, borrow…maybe not steal, but find yourself a copy, because this book is an utter delight.

Side note: I don’t often make note of publishers, but I did notice Paperback Crush is published by Quirk Books, whom I’ve loved ever since I reviewed an ARC of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith for them years ago (and laughed until I was sobbing in the McDonald’s PlayPlace while my son played). They’ve consistently come out with awesome stuff, and Paperback Crush is yet another example.

Check out Gabrielle Moss’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

books about books · nonfiction

Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks- Annie Spence

It’s winter. It’s ridiculously cold, we’re all stuck in the house, and I’ve been thinking I need to get out more, since I currently get out pretty much not at all ever, unless I’m taking the kids somewhere. A quick glance at my library’s website informed me that next week’s book discussion group would be covering Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks by Annie Spence. All their copies were checked out (not surprising), but a neighboring library had one, so I picked it up the next morning. ‘I hope I can finish it before next Wednesday,’ I thought, as I settled down to read.

I finished it that night.

Annie Spence isn’t your stereotypical librarian. For one, she’s got a swear-word vocabulary that rivals even the bawdiest drunken pirate crew (or my seventh-grade classmates at Catholic school, or the online moms group I’ve belonged to since 2002; take your pick). And she writes letters in her head to the books she encounters at work. Books she loves, books she’s hated, books she’s never read, and books she’s weeding. With a wicked sense of humor and a deep love for literature, Ms. Spence shines a spotlight on each book’s features and flaws, praising when due, tearing to shreds when earned (and hoooo boy, are there some real winners in the ‘weed’ pile!).

Ms. Spence is Not Your Mother’s Librarian, and what stood out to me the most, besides the ridiculous amount of times I burst out laughing while reading this, was how never-ending a job weeding the library collection is, much like the constant search for rotten fruit and vegetables in a produce department. Books that haven’t been checked out in fifteen years, books that are woefully out of date or out of touch with the population they were written to reach, books that haven’t aged well, they all have to go. If you’re familiar with the site Awful Library Books, you’ll have an idea of what gets weeded and why; if you’re not familiar, check them out. They’ve long been a favorite of mine.

I did enjoy the letters more than the chapters with book recommendations, but that’s solely because I hadn’t picked up the book looking for that, so that’s on me (I did write down one author to check out, and one title that intrigued me, which hilariously also came up later in the day on the episode of the All the Books podcast I’ve started listening to). This is a fun, fast read, and it may have you eyeing your local librarian a little closer (is she as funny as Annie Spence? Could we be friends? Wait, what’s her favorite book?).

I have to say, this book did strike a pang of jealousy in my heart. In a perfect world, I’d love to go back to school to become a librarian, but alas, due to a multitude of circumstances (finances, the unpredictability of my back being good enough for me to be able to work and pay off loans, children who need pesky things like to be taken and picked up from school, etc), it’s not possible. Instead, I’ll forge ahead with my goal of reading everything the library has to offer, and next week, attending their book discussion.

Do you enjoy books about books? I’m plowing through another one right now; unsurprisingly, it’s one of my favorite genres. Do you attend your library’s book clubs or book discussion groups? This will be my first and I’m curious as to what I should be expecting.

And lastly, my favorite quote from the book:

Basically, if you’ve spoken to me in the presence of a bookshelf in the past decade, I wasn’t paying attention.

Solidarity, sister.

Visit Annie Spence’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.