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: 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.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism by Katherine Stewart

My fascination with strict, cult-like (or straight up cult) religious movements extends to the Christian Nationalist religious right that has taken over much of American politics (and boy, is there a lot of overlap between the cultier groups and this political movement), so I was excited in a kind of want-to-read-it-but-dreading-it-at-the-same-time kind of way to learn about Katherine Stewart’s latest offering, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020). Along the same vein, I deeply enjoyed her The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children and highly recommend that one as well. I had to wait to read this one, though, until I was in a better place, mentally-speaking. It’s difficult to read about the power-seeking people who think my friends and I are close to the pinnacle of evil and everything wrong about this country, especially when these people are the ones in charge.

Katherine Stewart has once again penned a deep dive into the members of the far religious right who want nothing more than power, power that includes the ability to force everyone to live the way they think is right, according to their extremist interpretation of their religious scriptures. It doesn’t matter if you’re a different religion or of no religion at all; you still need to follow their precepts because that’s what their religion says, and according to their interpretation, they and no one else should be in charge of the government.

Her calm, measured style exposes the lengths to which they’ll go in order to achieve their goals; nearly everything they do is based on lies- easily disproven ones about the founding of the United States and the goals of the Founding Fathers, but they’ve twisted the meanings of these original sources to fit their warped ideas of how American society should function. Women should have little to no place in public life. Gay people should be executed, rape and slavery are totally cool (to be fair, these views are somewhat more of a fringe belief even in their groups, but I’m well acquainted, through my years of cult-watching, with the awfulness of one of the men who has publicly stated these things. He was ousted from his now-defunct ministry after being sexually inappropriate with a nanny. So Christlike and God-fearing, amirite?). Our nation has become ‘pussified,’ as one of these pastors has claimed, and he goes on to say that when Jesus returns, his sword will be an AR-15. I wish I were making this up, but it’s all in the book, and all documented.

The content in this book is deeply disturbing, but it’s important that people realize what’s been going on in this country, what these groups have been working towards, and how much progress they’ve already made. I don’t want my daughter’s only option for a future to be a wife and mother (and I say that as someone who is a full-time wife and mother and have been for pretty much the entirety of my adult life). I hope my son, should he choose to get married, can marry someone who has been raised to be a full partner in marriage. I don’t think everyone marching in lockstep in terms of beliefs, ideals, and actions is ever a good thing, and I fully believe that, should these people ever manage to force our society into the one they want, the infighting would start immediately, with certain denominations who helped them achieve their goals getting thrown under the bus right from the start (they team up with certain factions of Catholics when it comes to things like banning abortion, but as soon as they got into power, the Catholics- whom they don’t see as real Christians- would be one of their targets. I was raised Catholic and ran into some of this as a teenager; it took me a few years to discover exactly why that woman treated me the way she did). It would be messy and not at all the complete restructuring they want to imagine it would be; with so much power at stake, I can’t help but believe that these people would begin tearing each other down in order to grab as much power for themselves as possible.

I was pleased to see Ms. Stewart’s takedown of David Barton, who remains a champion of the Christian Nationalist movement even as his work has been debunked time and time again by nearly every history department who has taken up the task. If the only way you can make your point is by lying (which goes directly against those Ten Commandments they claim to live by), you don’t have a point, and David Barton seems like the biggest liar of all.

This is a great book, but it’s dense and packed full of information, so read it when your 2020 brain isn’t too exhausted to handle it all.

Visit Katherine Stewart’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Nazi Wives: The Women at the Top of Hitler’s Germany by James Wyllie

Sometimes you’re just in the mood for nonfiction. I was in that kind of mood the day I began combing the new releases over on NetGalley. When I stumbled across Nazi Wives: The Women at the Top of Hitler’s Germany by James Wyllie (St. Martin’s Press, 2020, I knew I needed to read that. How could they? Why would these women support something so heinous? What was wrong with them that they were all in on such devastation? My request was accepted, and, with some trepidation, I began reading. This is *not* an easy subject to read, and James Wyllie pulls no punches in laying it all out there. He’s never gratuitous and there are only a few sections where he goes into any graphic detail, but brace yourself, because this is a tough read.

The last names of Hitler’s most loyal followers are known to those who are familiar with the history of World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust, but those last names also belonged to the wives of those monsters. Emmy Goering, Magda Goebbels, Gerda Bormann, Lina Heydrich, Margarete Himmler, these were the women married to the men who perpetrated untold horrors upon their fellow man, and most of the wives were fierce antisemites before marrying their husbands. They were all in on their own, zero convincing necessary, a thought that will chill you throughout the book.

Because this book is chilling. Knowing the outcome of their attitudes makes Nazi Wives an emotionally difficult read, but what makes it even harder is Mr. Wyllie’s pairing of the horror with the wives’ more blasé complaints about the disappointments and difficulties of such mundane things as their husbands’ work schedules and their marital struggles- things for which readers might have had sympathy if not for the untold deaths stemming from their husbands’ blind allegiance to Hitler. At least some of these women knew what their husbands were doing and how Jewish people were being slaughtered; that Mr. Wyllie is able to contrast so effectively the wives’ selfishness with their inability to view the humanity of the people suffering around them, makes the book that more gut-wrenching. The one wife who seems to have some tattered shreds of humanity remaining is shown to be dismissive and cavalier at the book’s end; there are no heroes in this story.

There’s also not a lot of hope to it. None of the surviving wives (the ones who survived past the war and who gave interviews and wrote memoirs) seemed to grow past their attitudes that got them married to such awful people. There’s also not a lot of information on what led them down such disgusting paths to begin with (understandable due to a lack of sources other than their personal diaries and whatever writing and interviews they left when they died), although Mr. Wyllie does state that several of them were products of their time and fully bought into the antisemitism of the day, rather than arriving at it on their own. Because of this, Nazi Wives is very much a cautionary tale. Check your attitudes, check your biases. Are your thoughts, attitudes, biases, and beliefs hateful? Could they lead to violence against other people, groups that are different from you? Could stating them out loud inspire others to commit violence? If so, you need to participate in some heavy self-reflection and decide if that’s really the person you want to be- again, there are no heroes in this story, and it ends in a lot of death and destruction for everyone.

If you’re looking for nonfiction that reads like a novel, Nazi Wives isn’t *quite* there, but Wyllie’s literary treatment of unfathomably horrible people is engaging- though stomach-turning- for the average reader who’s looking to expand their knowledge on the history behind the monsters responsible for World War II and the Holocaust. You’ll want to send your copy of the book flying across the room multiple times per chapter because the stories inside are just so awful, but you’ll walk away with a clearer picture of who these monsters were, and a sense of dread for what we’re once again facing as fascism rises again around the world.

Nazi Wives: The Women at the Top of Hitler’s Germany was originally released in 2019, but it’s up for a re-release on November 3, 2020.

Huge thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a review copy!

graphic novel · memoir · nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit George Takei’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

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.