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.

graphic novel

Book Review: Bingo Love by Tee Franklin and Jenn St-Onge

I think Bingo Love by Tee Franklin, Jenn St-Onge, Joy San, and Cardinal Rae (Inclusive Press, 2017) came to my TBR via a suggestion from a reading challenge that I’m no longer participating in, but it looked so sweet that I couldn’t pass it up! Plus I’m always up for a good love story, and in graphic novel form? LOVE IT. My library had a copy on the teen shelves, so I bustled on over and added it to my stack of books during my latest trip (the library is now open for regular browsing, though the number of people allowed in at one time is limited and you can only stay an hour. Not a problem for me, as I always go in with a list and am usually out by the time 30 minutes has passed).

Hazel Johnson’s life changes the day Mari McCray moves to town. Quickly becoming best friends, Hazel soon realizes she feels more than friendship for Mari, but it’s 1963 and these things just aren’t talked about, especially in their Black community. It doesn’t take long after their first shared kisses before their secret is discovered and their families tear them apart. Years later, after both women have spent a lifetime being married and raising families, a chance reunification brings them right back to the love they discovered years ago, forcing them and everyone they know to examine what they believe love really is.

SWEEEEEEEEEET story with an awful, awful lot of heartbreak in it. Bingo Love tells the story of (I believe) the authors’ grandmothers, how they found, lost, then found each other again. At 92 pages, it’s a quick read, but it’s the kind of story that sticks with you, of love that never forgets, never dies, no matter who tries to snuff it out. It’s the story of the kind of courage it takes to upend your life in order to be true to who you are and to live with conviction and purpose. It’s history, the kind that we’re, hopefully, beginning to move past, with the hope that Hazel and Mari’s pain doesn’t need to be repeated again and again among other couples. What should be repeated, however, is their joy in one another.

Utterly lovely read.

Follow Tee Franklin on Twitter and visit her website here.

Follow Jenn St-Onge on Twitter and visit her website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy by Masha Gessen

I was cooking dinner with NPR on the radio on the afternoon of April 15, 2013, when news began to come across about an explosion at the Boston Marathon. I chopped, sauteed, and stirred while listening, horrified, wondering what on earth was happening to the country that something like this was taking place. Like everyone else, I followed the story breathlessly until one of the accused bombers was captured after a massive manhunt that shut down Boston four days later (and yet, somehow, no one whined about their freedom and their right to roam the streets when they were asked to stay in their homes then…). The story was terrifying and strange, and I knew I needed to learn more about it when I learned of the existence of The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy by Masha Gessen (Penguin, 2015).

Ms. Gessen recounts the tumultuous family history of Tamerlan and Dhzokhar Tsarnaev, the two brothers accused (Dhzokhar convicted; Tamerlan was killed beforehand) of the Boston Marathon bombing. Their Chechen ancestry had their family constantly on the move between Russian federation countries, never feeling welcome, never finding the successful life they craved, until finally, they came to the United States, a country that didn’t necessarily work hard to welcome them and to which they had a difficult time adapting.

The brothers’ stories are nebulous. Upon learning that they were the accused whom the FBI was searching, friends were aghast, incredulous: there was no outward sign from either of the two young men that they were capable of or even interested in doing something like this. But apparently this is more akin to what a terrorist really looks like; the myth of the young man who has been radicalized by one or more sources doesn’t actually line up with what most terrorism experts have observed. The picture Ms. Gessen paints is one far more complex than what I ever caught on the bits and snippets on the radio, a story that is heavy, depressing, and full of more questions than answers.

To what extent should immigrant families assimilate? How should they go about doing so, and who makes the decisions about which traditions, which attitudes, which practices, to abandon? What is America’s responsibility to people who become citizens? Does a person’s birthplace determine their susceptibility to terrorism or crime? Should your ancestry place you on a watch list, and is it okay for the FBI to attempt to initiate entrapment with those people on that list? Who gets to write the warning signs that point out would-be terrorists, and which list of signs should be followed?

Ms. Gessen raises a lot of questions about corruption amongst the government agencies that followed the Tsarnaevs both before and after, which I knew little about before reading this. Like I said, this is obviously a deeply complex story, one which probably goes even deeper than the information available to the public from any source. The utter tragedy that was the Boston Marathon in 2013 extends further than I knew, goes back ages, has its roots in political struggles far outside the borders of the US, and is a stark example of the ripple effect of those struggles. It’s a depressing story, of lives damaged, ruined, and ended, none of which had to happen, and which maybe could have been prevented if humanity learned to work out their problems instead of taking them out on other humans.

The Brothers paints the picture of a tragedy so twisted and tangled that it’s hard to sum it up in just a short review, and I’m sure the story will continue to unfold as the years roll on. My heart breaks for the people who were hurt or killed at the race, and for those who lost loved ones, and likewise, I’m saddened by the loss of potential of the two young men who could have used their lives in a positive way had so many circumstances been different.

Follow Masha Gessen on Twitter.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum

The 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge required me to find a book set in the 1920’s. Not my favorite decade to read about, and I’m really not sure why. The fiction choices on the list weren’t really appealing to me (a lot of them were more literary fiction, and I’m not really a fan), but one book finally caught my eye: The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum (Penguin Press, 2010). Nonfiction? Awesome. History?Awesome. Poison? WHOA. This sounded like a pretty cool book, and I dove right in.

In a nutshell, before, during, and slightly after the 1920’s in America, everything was made of poison, deadly poison of every sort was widely available for pennies, people constantly poisoned themselves, often to death, and if they weren’t doing it to themselves, their friendly neighborhood poisoner (often a family member) would do it to them. Add to that a medical examiner’s office whose corruption and cronyism resembled something ripped straight out of today’s headlines, and you had a major mess on your hands, along with a disturbing amount of murderers running free.

Enter chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler. Together they revolutionized the study of forensic medicine and revealed what poisons of all sorts do to the human body in every stage. They designed and ran experiments that not only helped to identify killers, they helped educate the public on the effects of the many poisonous substances that surrounded them so that they could exercise better care in what they were consuming and so that they would be familiar with the process of forensic medicine when it came time to serve on a jury and convict a murderer. This was no easy task; Norris fought his entire career for the New York government to take his lab seriously and fund it appropriately, but the advances he and Gettler made changed the face of science forever.

This is a seriously fascinating book that nearly reads like a novel. Did you realize that the United States government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition? And when people died, instead of, you know, NOT poisoning the alcohol, they just shrugged and said, “Eh, they shouldn’t have drank it, then,” and upped the amount of poison in it!!! And the US went through a radium craze- NO, SERIOUSLY- where radium was in a ton of different products, including RADIUM WATER THAT PEOPLE ACTUALLY DRANK. This worked out about as well as you might think. Like I said, basically everything was poison.

There are a lot of parallels between the society of this time period and today. Even though so much has changed, enough has stayed the same that chunks of this were really depressing. Like when men who worked in the plants that manufactured leaded gasoline began getting sick, going crazy, and dying, the owners of the plants blamed the men for not being able to handle the hard work (turns out it was the lead. Which they knew really early on). And most of us know the story of the Radium Girls who painted watch dials and died from radium poisoning after putting the tips of their paintbrushes in their mouths to make the brush pointy, a technique taught by their employers, who assured them that this was safe, then blamed the women when their jawbones and hipbones and femurs began crumbling. (It was all that promiscuous sex they were having, and not, you know, the fact that these women would glow in the dark when they went home.) There are a lot of stories like this in the book. It’s frightening, to be honest, because I kept wondering what’s being hidden from us today. (And I’m *not* a conspiracy theorist at all; there’s just enough disturbing historical content in here that it really freaked me out.)

There are so many interesting stories in this book, ones I didn’t know and never learned about in school. Deborah Blum has written a book that made the 1920’s come alive in a way they never have for me before. The Poisoner’s Handbook is information-dense, but it’s information everyone interested in American history or the creation of forensic medicine should know and understand. If you like true crime, this should probably be on your list as well, since it’ll give you a better understanding of what it took to get to today’s lab procedures that pin down whodunnit with chemistry.

SUPER cool book! I didn’t expect to enjoy this one as much as I did.

Visit Deborah Blum’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction · television

Book Review: Sunny Days: Sesame Street, Mister Rogers, and the Children’s Television Revolution by David Kamp

I’ve spoken here many times before about my love for Mister Rogers, but Sesame Street and its history are also pet subjects of mine. I love reading about how the show grew from nothing but a flash of an idea into the cultural institution that it has become. I love hearing the actors’ stories, how the songs came about, how the puppets were created and the sets decorated, and how it changed the lives of everyone who was not only involved with it but who watched it from the comfort of their living rooms. I needed a book with a bird on the cover for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge, and as I searched the Goodreads’ groups lists of books that fit this prompt, I was delighted to find that Sunny Days: Sesame Street, Mister Rogers, and the Children’s Television Revolution by David Kamp (Simon Schuster, 2020) fit the bill AND was on my TBR AND my library had the ebook! (I had to wait a few days for it, but that’s okay.)

David Kamp has written a beautiful book that covers the glory days of early children’s television, from its first anemic offerings, to the slightly better Captain Kangaroo, to the powerhouses that were Sesame Street, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, The Electric Company, Schoolhouse Rock, Zoom, Free to Be…You and Me, and a few others that ran on more local channels. In a vibrant, upbeat manner, he chronicles how the shows came about, from conception to either today (in the case of Sesame Street) or completion, how the teams worked together (so many of the shows’ creators either didn’t have children or weren’t particularly interested in children or children’s programming, which I find fascinating, but which probably contributed heavily to these shows’ never talking down to kids), and how the political climate at the time was ripe for the creation of educational television for kids, something that would be extremely unlikely to happen today.

This is an utterly joyful read. While my parents assure me I watched The Electric Company, I have no memories of the show; I do, however, have a brain full of memories of early 80’s Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (including a song I’d forgotten about but that came right back to me when the book mentioned it: I in the Sky. Such a great song), and reading interviews with the actors, musicians, and creators that grew these shows from the ground up fascinated me to no end. There’s so much planning and hard work that went into these shows, and it doesn’t seem like anyone working on them got rich, but to be part of such cultural monoliths must have made all of it worth it.

It’s never overt, but Mr. Kamp illustrates over and over again how such innovative children’s programming would never be possible in today’s political climate, and that’s something that hurt my heart as I read. Too many people have dismissed the need for the government to get involved in helping to create quality educational programming, especially for the preschool set, in our hyper-individualistic society, dismissing the idea that we are a society and we can’t fully function unless all of us are able to participate. And when there’s a skill gap starting in kindergarten that only grows wider over time, we’re effectively kneecapping a large portion of society (and then blaming those people instead of working out solutions to solve this problem). Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood sought to be solutions, and in a time when most people were on board with the government helping to fund that, they achieved it. In an age when I’ve heard multiple politicians (local and national) support closing public schools entirely (“Parents should be entirely responsible for fully educating their children! Don’t have them if you can’t teach them entirely at home!” was something I heard often when we lived in the south), that this ever even happened at all seems almost magical.

Such a lovely book of a time when people worked together to achieve a common goal. Would that we could return to such an age.

If you’re interested in Sesame Street and early PBS programming, other books that might catch your fancy (which I’ve read and can vouch for!) are as follows:

Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street by Michael Davis

Sesame Street Unpaved: Scripts, Stories, Secrets, and Songs by David Borgenicht et al

Sesame Street: A Celebration of 40 Years of Life On the Street by Louise Gikow

If it’s Mister Rogers you’re interested in, check out these books:

I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers by Tim Madigan

The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King

Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers by Michael G. Long

Do you have any great memories of PBS programming from your childhood?

Visit David Kamp’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction

The Lost Girls of Paris- Pam Jenoff

This month’s pick for the library book discussion group (which will be tacked on to whenever we meet next, whenever that is!). The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff (Park Row, 2019) isn’t something I would have picked up on my own. There’s something about it that just didn’t really appeal to me based on the premise, but I like the group and I’ll read anything they’re going to discuss. Plus you know how I feel about stretching and growing as a reader. ๐Ÿ™‚

Told in multiple viewpoints, The Lost Girls of Paris is the action-packed story, based on a true story, of a group of women who worked as undercover radio transmitters in enemy territory during World War II, the woman who headed their unit, and the civilian widow trying to piece together the story of this group after the war has ended. After taking photographs from an abandoned suitcase she found in a train station, Grace is intrigued by them and sets out to find who these women in the photos are. To her shock, she learns the owner of the suitcase was the woman killed in an accident that waylaid her the day before, and suddenly she feels a certain responsibility to both that woman and the women in the photographs. Who were they? Why was the owner of the suitcase in New York City?

Eleanor Trigg has been placed in charge of a group of women she’s recruited to act as spies in dangerous enemy territory. Marie is one of her recruits, a single mother who’s accepted this job for financial reasons, along with a sense of duty. With the clock ticking and the Nazis closing in, terrible discoveries about the recruits’ expendability will be discovered. War truly is hell.

This was…pretty grim, to be honest. I didn’t dislike it, but it wasn’t exactly an uplifting read, so don’t go in expecting a ton of happy endings (there is one, but a lot of the stories are pretty dark). There’s bravery and pluck, and a whole lot of grit from women who never saw themselves in a role like that before the war, but there’s also a lot of dismissal that leads to death (of which there’s also a lot of), and a lot of, “You’re women, why would you think you could do that?” attitude coming from the top. Historically accurate, but perhaps not the lightest read at a time like this.

Short review today; I’ve had this half-written on my computer for about a week and a half when crap started to hit the fan. We’re well-prepared here in my family and our state is on shelter-in-place orders starting tomorrow, which is basically the way we’ve been living for a week, but my time is spent mostly homeschooling my kindergartner, cooking everything we eat, and cleaning so that we don’t feel too stir-crazy in a cluttered home (seriously, clutter and mess is the #1 way for me to feel anxious and terrible, so keep your spaces tidy and this will all be a little more bearable!). I don’t know blogging will look like for me these next few months; I’ve barely had any time to read since I’m so focused on maintaining my daughter’s education, but I’ll do my best to pop in as I can!

Be well, all of you!

Visit Pam Jenoff’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl- Timothy Egan

Chalk up another book challenge win (and another book that I might not have picked up on my own. I definitely would have been interested, had I come across it without this challenge, but I probably would’ve thought, “That looks great, but I’ve got too many other things to read, and who knows, it might be boring…”). One of the prompts for Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge is to read a book about a natural disaster. As natural disasters tend to freak me out, I checked their list of suggestions first and figured I could handle The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan (Mariner Books, 2006), which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2006. In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck wrote about those who fled the Dust Bowl; Timothy Egan writes about those who stayed behind.

I read The Grapes of Wrath in high school and…loved it seems like a poor choice of words for a novel so bleak and full of suffering, but it was my introduction to Steinbeck and made me a lifelong fan. I don’t remember learning *that* much about the Dust Bowl, other than it was terrible and people starved, so The Worst Hard Time was a full-on education for me.

The American Dust Bowl was an area of the Great Plains that was stripped of most all vegetation and aggressively overfarmed; combined with what was later discovered to be a normal period of drought for the area, this led to massive dust storms that swept the area for years throughout the 1930’s. Nothing grew and livestock died; people choked and suffered from dust pneumonia; poverty was rampant and families starved. If anything, the suffering in The Grapes of Wrath isn’t painted grimly enough. Timothy Egan recounts one of the worst climate disasters in the US to date in this in-depth work of nonfiction.

The picture is stark. Babies and the elderly suffer and die in the dozens of dust storms that rage through the area each month. The dust, whipped by sixty mile-per-hour winds, blinds some folks permanently. Dust coats every surface, and cleaning just means things will need to be cleaned again hours later. Drifts of dust, parched topsoil depleted from areas farther away, pile up to the rooftops of some houses, and the dust travels all the way to Washington DC at times, coating that city with a mere taste of what the residents of the Dust Bowl experience daily. A worse situation could hardly be imagined.

Alongside the climatic devastation, the Great Depression was raging on and almost no one had an income. People bartered for what they could, made shoes out of tires and clothes out of onion bags and the stripped fabric from broken down cars. They pickled tumbleweed and canned rabbit meat. Hospitals had to postpone operations; their surgical rooms were impossible to keep clean. April 14th, 1935, a day known as Black Sunday, marked the biggest storm of all, two hundred miles wide with 300,000 tons of dirt- more than twice as much as had been dug out of the Panama Canal- whipping through the air.

However grim you’ve pictured the history of the Dust Bowl, it’s worse, and Timothy Egan pulls no punches in showing exactly how. Nor does he stray from showcasing the immense hubris on display by both government and civilians when it came to taking responsibility for and dealing with this crisis. Settlers refused to believe that this crisis was man-made (so, so much of this book parallels our current climate crisis that it’s almost chilling to read); Roosevelt is devastated to learn that the Homestead Act of 1862 was an abject failure and led directly to the creation of the Dust Bowl; many farmers scorned the new farming techniques taught to them in order to even have a slight chance of saving what was left of the soil (spoiler alert: the area never completely recovered). This book is a clear warning signal of how man can easily alter his environment to utterly devastating permanent effects.

While not a simple read, it’s an easy one; Mr. Egan’s writing style lends to his prose flowing as easily as any novel, though the subject matter often sounds nearly like something straight out of Stephen King. The Worst Hard Time is a great book to read if you’re looking for that Read Harder Challenge prompt, but it’s also great if you’re interested in history, in poverty and hunger (I was pleased to see this book recommended on the reading list at Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger), in climate or weather, or if you enjoy nonfiction in general. It’s an incredible read, a living history whose consequences we still live with today, and I’m glad it’s one I included in my reading life this year.

Visit Timothy Egan’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language- Arika Okrent

I was around eight or so when I got the bright idea that I was going to invent a language. I thought I was pretty darn clever until I opened the dictionary to A and started making up words, which I wrote down on a piece of paper. Halfway down the page, I realized that there were an awful lot of existing words that I never used, and to come up with new words for all of them- and memorize them!- would be…difficult. And not exactly fun, because what’s the point of making up a language that I wasn’t sure I could memorize? Chastened and humbled, I abandoned my language creation and went off to do whatever it was that eight year-old me did, probably play outside in the yard or (surprise) read a book. It was this memory that led me to select In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language by Arika Okrent (Spiegel & Grau, 2009) for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt for a book with a made-up language. Maybe I could figure out where my eight year-old self had gone wrong. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Languages are complicated; in all their quirks of grammar and pronunciation, their exceptions to the rules and bizarre, untranslatable idioms, they arise to meet the needs of their speakers. Modern eras have seen the rise of constructed languages- conlangs, as they’re known- or languages purposefully and non-naturally created by a single or multiple human beings. Throughout the book, Ms. Okrent takes the reader on a tour through many of the better known conlangs, such as Klingon, Loglan (and Lojban), Blissymbols, Lรกadan, and probably the most well-known and most successful (for what that’s worth) conlang, Esperanto.

While the book does occasionally wander into drier territory for readers who aren’t major linguistics nerds (and I say that with deep respect and affection for linguistic nerds, because language is frickin’ cool), where it really shines is in telling the human stories behind the invented languages. Language creators, as it turns out, are a messy bunch. Drama- so much drama- anger, romance, quarrels and bickering, lawsuits, there are veritable soap operas surrounding the creation of just about every conlang, and it’s obvious Ms. Okrent is just as into these personal stories as she is the languages themselves. I very much appreciated when she became part of the story, reporting on her experiences at Esperanto and Klingon conferences; never having attended one of these conferences myself, it was interesting to see what another language enthusiast found useful- and irritating!- about them.

To be honest, while I did enjoy this, I don’t know that I would have finished it if it weren’t for the challenge. It often got little more academic than I would have normally felt up to at this time in my life, but that’s just a personal thing and shouldn’t reflect on anyone else’s opinion of the book. My brain is just pretty full from other things right now. I am glad, however, that I did finish it. It answered a lot of questions I’ve always had about the how and why of the failure, for the most part, of that perfect invented universal language. If you’ve ever wondered why we can’t all just have one single language so we can all speak to each other and finally achieve world peace, give this book a try, because you might walk away with your curiosity finally satisfied as well. ๐Ÿ™‚

Have you ever thought about invented languages? Tried to learn one? Wished you could speak Klingon or Esperanto? (Duolingo has them both: Klingon, Esperanto) I admit to some curiosity towards Esperanto, but I’m kind of full up on languages right now…

Visit Arika Okrent’s website here.

memoir · nonfiction

The Survivors: A Story of War, Inheritance, and Healing- Adam P. Frankel

The New Books shelf strikes again! I’ve got a pile of reading challenge books waiting for me, but my library has a decorate-it-yourself felt snowman over by the New Books shelf, and so while I was waiting for my daughter to perfect her indoor Olaf, I foolishly turned around to examine the new books, and that’s when my eyes fell on The Survivors: A Story of War, Inheritance, and Healing by Adam P. Frankel (Harper, 2019). A quick scan of the inside flap let me know that the book was, as I had inspected, about a family’s grappling with trauma after the Holocaust, and that was all I needed for it to go into my pile.

I knew better than to keep looking at that shelf, though. That New Books shelf is dangerous to my reading load!

Every family has its own secrets, but Adam Frankel’s family always seemed to have more than most. His grandparents survived the Holocaust and came to live in America, but how much of their trauma did they pass on to their children? How much through genetics, how much through behavior patterns? And how much of that trauma has reached Adam in the third generation? Often raising more questions than answers, Adam, a former Obama speechwriter, goes searching for answers and finds more than he initially bargained for. Suddenly, Adam’s not only looking for answers about all those family secrets, he’s tasked with keeping them, too- big secrets, the kind that are difficult, maybe impossible, to forgive.

Despite its absolutely heavy and often tragic storyline, The Survivors is a fascinating read, one that delves deeply into the question of epigenetics and what the effects of trauma are for subsequent generations. Were his grandparents’ experiences in concentration camps responsible for his mother’s mental illness or her inability to cope with stress? What do genetics really mean, anyway? I didn’t read the inside flap in its entirety and so the narrative took a turn I wasn’t expecting, one that brought to mind shades of Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance. Adam’s entire identity is brought into question, and his grappling with his sense of self and family history is intense, and intensely painful. That he was contending with so many issues while still successfully performing his duties as part of President Obama’s speechwriting team is impressive.

Fans of family sagas, family secrets, family history, and memoirs that wrestle with identity and the author’s place in the family story will find much to appreciate here. Although the tone is often heavy, Mr. Frankel’s writing style moves the story forward at a pace that never lingers too long on tragedy. This is a story of pain and secrets, of shining a light on that which has been hidden, and of having the bravery to ask questions and deal with the answers. I can’t imagine the amount of courage it took to not only write this story, but to put it out for the world to read. That’s a level of self-examination and honesty that I aspire to.

Beautifully written and well-researched, The Survivors would make an excellent book club selection, as there are so many layers to this story that it would encourage a great discussion (it feels a little terrible to say that, as this is someone’s life, but this is a book and a story that deserves to be read and remembered). There are mentions of violence and death- there are very few happy Holocaust memoirs, after all- and some mentions of sexual situations, but nothing is graphic, so this would be an appropriate and intriguing group read.

Memoirs that include revelations about paternity seem to be prevalent lately (this is my third in three months, along with Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance, as previously mentioned, and Sarah Valentine’s When I Was White); I don’t think that that’s a publishing trend so much as a coincidence and a sign of the times, with genetic testing kits being so readily available and trendy. I’m sure there will be more memoirs along these lines, but Adam Frankel’s traumatic family history and his writing talent, honed from years in the blood-stained battleground of modern-day politics, absolutely make this book stand out.

Visit Adam P. Frankel’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto- Suketu Mehta

Immigration has been a hot topic the past few years, and I think we’ve all seen how ugly that conversation can get. I’ve mentioned many times on this blog (I think…) that I’m married to an immigrant (who is also a citizen, and a veteran, thankyouverymuch); his family moved to this country when he was three, and I spend a lot of time thinking about how difficult a move this must have been on my mother-in-law. Three children, one of whom was a baby, a new language (that she’d studied in school, but the difference between learning in school and actual spoken language is pretty major), a husband who traveled more often than he was home, I’m not sure I could have managed all of that, but she did, and I’m in awe of her. I do my best to include marginalized voices in my reading, and that very much includes immigrant voices, so I knew I had to read This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto by Suketu Mehta (Vintage Digital, 2019) when I learned about it.

Bursting with pages upon pages of footnotes and sources to back up the argument that immigration is necessary and beneficial, This Land Is Our Land covers all facets of immigration: the who and the why (they’re here because we- our country- were most likely there, in their country, exploiting it until a living could no longer be made and its citizens were forced to leave in order to provide for their families), the many wheres and the how (and the dangers of that how). This is world history- England’s brutality in India, Belgian’s brutal, bloody rule over the Congo, the United States overthrowing the government in Guatemala and funding death squads in El Salvador (and, once again, they’re here because we were there. Mr. Mehta describes this as, “You break it, you buy it,” and I think that sums it up perfectly). There are stories that escaped my previous learning, such as Chiquita Brand’s (yes, the banana company) involvement in supporting paramilitary and drug trafficking groups in order to protect their workers, and stories that I’d learned about years ago (if you’ve never read anything about Belgium’s involvement in the Congo, I highly, highly recommend King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild). There’s a lot of heartbreaking, infuriating information in this book that will have you stopping to take a deep breath and wondering why and how we can continue to perpetuate such atrocities against our fellow man.

But this is also contains great beauty, offering statistics and anecdotes (more statistics than anecdotes) of how societies flourish when we open our doors and welcome the stranger. In almost every case and in every way, society is made stronger and more economically powerful when immigrants join us. The benefits are not always immediate, and there are instances where it’s a long-term investment, but the research is overwhelmingly clear: immigrants are beneficial to societies and we need more immigration, not less.

Despite the heavy subject and often painful examples of the horrific maltreatment of immigrants, this is a quick read that will present any native born citizen of any country with a more nuanced take on their immigrant neighbor than they may have had before. It would be nice to see this book appear as required reading in high schools, college classes, book clubs, and community reads, because frankly, we as a society and as a world have a lot to learn in the way of compassion for those who have left their homelands behind.

Visit Suketu Mehta’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.