memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

The United States may call itself a country of immigrants, but it’s not a country that’s known to be kind to immigrants. Not in the past, and not now; not by our government, nor by our citizens. Obviously there are major exceptions; there are a ton of organizations out there fighting really hard to make this country a safe and welcoming place for our newcomers (I’ve volunteered teaching English as a second or other language in the past with one of these great organizations!), and I don’t want to discount their hard work and amazing contributions. But as a whole, the crazies tend to shout incredibly loud and drown out the voices of the helpers; we make it as difficult as possible to come here legally (unless you’ve got plenty of money, and then the rules don’t count); and it’s difficult to start a new life here when you have nothing, because we offer so little in terms of help. One of the people speaking up about how difficult it is for immigrants is Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, an undocumented writer (she’s on DACA) of undocumented parents. Her book, The Undocumented Americans (One World, 2020), is an eye-opening gut-punch that examines the difficulties of living in the United States without legal status.

How much do you know about undocumented immigrants? You’ve probably read the stories of people smuggled in on trucks or making dangerous journeys across the desert with coyotes (people paid to smuggle others into the US), and seen the tragic photos of families drowned in the Rio Grande. What happens to the people who make it here? They pick your fruits and vegetables. They clean your office buildings. They build your houses. They package your food. They cook the food you eat in restaurants, they clean up after natural disasters, they rushed in after the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001 to sift through the debris that gave them cancer in order to get New York up and running again. They serve and give. They do all of this without health care, often at massive personal expense, with zero protection- if their boss doesn’t pay them that week, there’s nothing they can do. And so they suffer. And Karla Cornejo Villavicencio wants you to understand exactly how much, and what that does to not only them, but to their families. Their children. Their communities.

There are other books that will illuminate the reasons people come here illegally- desperate for safety after their lives have been threatened, searching for a way to make more than $50 per week at a full-time job, etc.- but Ms. Cornejo Villavicencio is more interested in explaining the emotional and physical damage her people have suffered. Are suffering. Will suffer. She’s angry- rightfully so, because for all that a large faction of our country likes to talk about respecting life, we certainly have no problem using the lives of these people- taking what we need when we want restaurant food, clean offices, help after natural disasters- and then throwing them away once they’ve served their purpose. Their pain is fresh and raw, and what they suffer is passed down the line to their children. The Undocumented Americans is heavy proof that we as a society are shirking our responsibilities to humanity.

This is a sad, heavy book about a group of people who have suffered a lot even before arriving here, and who continue to suffer after they arrive. Ms. Cornejo Villavicencio floods each page with raw emotion, anger, desperation. She’s a Harvard graduate and a current PhD candidate at Yale, but she makes the case that so often, when we hear of undocumented immigrants, we hear of stories like hers, the brilliant kid who climbed higher than anyone could have possibly imagined, and don’t they deserve citizenship for their brilliance? But what about the other people- the ones who came here out of desperation, seeking safety, the opportunity for their kids to simply go to school, who work two or three jobs (or more) at a time in order to make sure their children would have paper and pencils and whose services and lives and abilities we Americans take advantage of every day of our lives? Are people only worth it to us when they contribute massively to capitalism? Are human lives only worth as much as their financial potential?

We’re so willing to dismiss this group of people, and this book will show you exactly what we’re looking past every day. I can hear the arguments now- “Well, they came here illegally, so it’s their own fault that-” and I want to scream. They’re human beings. They’re people. Why are we so hell-bent on making people suffer for such stupid, arbitrary rules? Why can’t we take care of people in a way that makes them more able to participate in society? Why are we so willing to throw so many people away, simply because they had the audacity to be born somewhere else?

This is a book that will make you cry, if you’re at all a decent person. I’ll continue to vote for people who want to be part of a compassionate solution, and to do what I can so that the people Karla Cornejo Villavicencio writes about have better, safer, healthier lives and more opportunities than just breaking their bodies down piece by piece and dying young because of it. Because they’re people, and they deserve so much better than the cast-off scraps we deign enough for them. This book was truly amazing and heartfelt.

nonfiction

Book Review: Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II by Svetlana Alexievich

Piggybacking off my last book, I grabbed a copy of Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II by Svetlana Alexievich (Random House, 2019) from the library. I had read Ms. Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl in 2019, and while writing my review for that, I checked out her other books, and that’s how this one ended up on my list. Most books about World War II center around European nations: Germany, Poland, England, France. I hadn’t read anything before that focused on the Soviet Union, and definitely not anything from the perspective of the children who survived the horrors. I don’t know that the perspective of Soviet Children was a perspective I ever considered, and there was certainly a lot in this book I hadn’t known about.

Children are uniquely traumatized by war, and World War II was devastating for millions of children, for a million different reasons. The children of the Soviet Union suffered in a multitude of ways, most of them horrific and brutal. Each small chapter in this book is a transcript of an interview with a person who was a child during the war, who witnessed terrible things no human being should ever witness, but who have shared their stories, at great personal cost, so that the world will remember what it took from them.

There is deep, scarring pain on every page of this book. Most children lose their fathers; many of them watch their fathers being murdered, and many of them watch their mothers murdered as well. Some are forced to bury their parents. Others watch as their siblings die or are murdered in front of them. They starve. They’re beaten by soldiers. They witness their neighbors slaughtered by German soldiers. They eat grass and dogs and cats in order to survive. They dig graves and hide in the forests in winter. They flee their houses that the soldiers set on fire. They’re damaged for life from all that they’ve seen and suffered.

How did I make it to 41 years old without knowing all of this? My schooling barely touched on war on the Soviet front. All I remember learning is about how the German army went to the USSR and froze; I was never taught about the nightmare the Germans foisted upon the Soviet people, and definitely not the way they murdered their way through so many of the towns. I learned about how the Nazi soldiers occupied towns in France and Denmark; how they bombed England and how tough rationing was; never once was I taught about how they raped grandmothers and left parents hanging from ropes in trees in the USSR. Did other schools teach this? I had a really good education and I’m usually pretty pleased with all that I learned in the schools I attended, but this was absolutely never covered even once.

Needless to say, this is a dark, dark read from a horrible period of history that I’m actively embarrassed I knew so little about. If you have the mental and emotional space for it, I highly recommend it, because these are stories that need to be heard and understood, and Svetlana Alexievich has compiled an incredible collection of stories that illustrate the deep abyss of pain Nazi soldiers wrought upon Soviet children and their families.

nonfiction

Book Review: The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt

Finally! It’s Infrastructure Week!

Or at least it was Infrastructure Weekend, since this past weekend was spent reading The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt (Mariner Books, 2020). I have zero flair for any kind of design myself: not the stylish, not the practical, not the functional. But I’ve long been fascinated by all the secrets of functional city design, so when I learned of the existence of this book around its publication date, I knew I had to read it. Apparently so did everyone else at my library, but there it was on the shelf during my last visit, and into my bag it went. It’s a surprisingly heavy book!

If you’ve ever been out and about and wondered, “What is that thing on that building? Why did they build the light poles on those weird bases? Do all manhole covers look like that? Is that really a house, or is a front for something else? What’s the deal with all those wires, and how did my city get all these squirrels in the first place?”, you’ve got exactly the right curiosity to dive into a copy of Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt’s book on the design secrets of city infrastructure (and a little more!).

Stemming from the podcast, 99% Invisible, the book takes a deeper look at the elements that make up our cities, from the streets to the buildings, the sewers to the skyline, how those designs came to be, and why. Complete with charming illustrations depicting the design concepts covered in the text, this is a book that will have you looking up, down, and all around to discover the hidden magic that makes your town or city home.

What a truly fun book! It starts off with a bang, discussing the colors of the spray paint that workers use to mark the ground and what each color means (FASCINATING!!! I actually copied the list down in my reading binder, because who doesn’t like being privy to what these markings mean? I feel a little like I know a secret code now!), and then keeps going with light poles and- something of personal interest to me- electrical substations that look like houses. I had never heard of this before, hadn’t known it was a thing, but there’s a house in town on our main drag that looks…just a little suspicious. Not *quite* like a normal, everyday house that someone lives in. The doors don’t look right. No one is ever there. The driveway is weird. And, as this book informs me, the likelihood is high that the building is (or was once used as) a hidden electrical substation. Building these to look like houses was apparently a thing for quite some time throughout the US. Some are still in use; others are empty, or have been cleared out and renovated to be actual houses. Always nice to have my suspicions confirmed.

I also really enjoyed the section on city animals, how to live with them, and how they got there in the first place. Apparently squirrels weren’t always such a huge presence in cities; at one point, Philadelphia (I believe it was) only had three in the entire city! But with nature comes problems, and Mars and Kohlstedt are quick to point out that one out of five power outages are caused by squirrels. As someone whose high school was once dismissed early because a squirrel chewed through the power lines and left us in the cold and dark, I’m not really surprised to learn that this statistic is so high!

The 99% Invisible City is a really fun book that will keep you interested in where you live and have you asking plenty of questions. I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, but you can be sure I have it bookmarked for the future!

Follow Roman Mars on Twitter here.

Follow Kurt Kohlstedt on Twitter here.

Check out 99% Invisible: The Podcast’s website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy by Talia Lavin

I wanted to read Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy by Talia Lavin (Legacy Lit, 2020) from the moment I first heard about it. Homegrown terrorism, nationalism, and white supremacy has been a huge and growing problem in recent years, as witnessed by constant news reports of attacks, bomb threats, shootings, mass shootings, synagogue and mosque threats and attacks, and plots against various political organizations. It’s been terrible watching all of this, and I knew I needed to learn more about who these people are.

Talia Lavin is an outspoken feminist Jewish journalist. All that would have made her a target online as it is, but she began investigating the far right and its online activities, and that made her even more of a target (to the point where she’s had to hire security to protect her family, because these people are so disgusting). Her investigations led her to visit some incredibly dark places on the web, where alt-right reading materials are passed around, groups develop new slurs for the people they hate (if you’re not straight, white, Christian, male, and deeply conservative in your political beliefs, they hate you and would rather see you dead), and plots to murder are planned out. These aren’t just people living in tin-can shacks far out in the woods. These are your neighbors, the people you pass by in the city every day. Biotech employees, working professionals, educated people. People who appear to be normal, but who are hellbent on the destruction of everyone not like them.

This disturbing exposé is tempered by Ms. Lavin’s self-deprecating humor and bolstered by her strong writing skills and quick-witted intellect. Oftentimes, I reread a particularly well-crafted sentence twice, just to admire it. But the content is difficult to consume; she’s reporting on the true dregs of society here, dregs that span the globe and show up in multiple countries and on multiple continents. The hatred of the people she writes about runs deep: Muslims and Jews feature heavily (being Jewish herself, Ms. Lavin brings personal history and expertise to the narrative), but women are also a major target, especially when she delves into the incel movement (short for involuntary celibate, this is an internet movement of men that has turned their inability to develop a decent and attractive personality into a rage-filled hatefest of women, because of course they’re owed women’s time and attention simply because they exist. *eyeroll* Men affiliated with this movement have engaged in assault, murder, and mass shootings).

Culture Warlords is an emotionally taxing book to read, but it’s an important one. If you’ve never heard of any of the content Ms. Lavin covers here, you’ve likely been in a coma for a very long time, or you’re not one of the groups targeted by the people she infiltrated (and in that case, you very much need to read this book and understand what life is like when you become a target). White supremacist groups are a major problem; I truly hope that this book shines some light on the danger they present and help us as a society take the necessary steps to stamp out such disgusting hatred.

Jewish Women’s Archive hosted a great talk with Talia Lavin about this book in February of 2020; you can view that video here. It’s worth the watch.

Follow Talia Lavin on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present by Dara Horn

A good title draws a reader in immediately. A provocative title makes the whole world sit up and take notice. And it was a provocative title that had me clicking the want-to-read button on Goodreads last week immediately, without even needing to learn more about the rest of the book. I’ve heard of Dara Horn before, but hadn’t read any of her writing before this. But when someone in one of my Facebook groups mentioned her latest book, People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present (W.W. Norton Company, 2021), I knew it would have to go on my list. Because that title…it’s true, isn’t it?

Dara Horn is a writer, professor, and scholar, often known for her essays on Judaism and Jewish-themed topics. But she came to the realization that she was always asked to write about dead Jews, never living ones. And this became the topic for her latest book: the world has a fascination with dead Jews, but rarely affords the same respect to living Jews. How many Holocaust novels are out there, often with a happy ending, often with a Gentile rescuer as the main character? How often do you think those happy endings happened in real life? How much do you know about the trauma suffered by survivors, the anger, the refusal of governments to help those who had lost everything, the many survivors who were murdered after leaving the camps? How many Jewish heritage sites exist around the world with no mention as to why there are no Jews living at those sites anymore? Why is The Merchant of Venice still one of Shakespeare’s most-performed plays, despite its blatant antiseminism (and what do you think that says to the Jews in your life)?

Our country’s education does a lot of things right, but it fails to instruct our students on so much of world history, and even when it does, it misses the mark in a big, big way. (Props to my daughter’s class, which is currently looking at various cultures around the world, and including a glimpse into both the history and the religions of those areas.) So many students are only exposed to the existence of Jews when they’re mass-murdered (as often happened throughout history, and continues to happen today), and they learn only what Hitler thought and taught about them- not what Jews actually are, what Jews actually do, what Jews have contributed to the many, many societies that have been home throughout the centuries. And that leads to people only appreciating and sometimes fetishizing dead Jews, and not appreciating live ones.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen, in one of my online book groups, someone mentioning that Holocaust fiction is a favorite genre. (I think I actually recoiled from the computer at the last post I saw. Their post and tone were so…cheery.) Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying books about the Holocaust shouldn’t be written. They should. The Shoah was a devastation that shouldn’t ever be forgotten, and writers should engage with it in order to demonstrate again and again, the horror of it all, and why such devastation and the attitudes that lead to it should be cut off before they begin. BUT. There’s definitely a trend of Holocaust rescuer books, of happy ending stories, of Nazi-guard-with-a-conscience stories. And those just aren’t reality. And we need to ask ourselves why we need those stories so badly as a society. What are we trying to convince ourselves of here? Whose stories are we leaving out when we pile on the ones with a lovely rainbow arc of redemption?

This is not an easy book to read- not for me, as a Jew; hopefully it won’t be for you, either- it’s not meant to be. It’s meant for people to take a hard look at why our world sets up Holocaust museums (which are absolutely necessary) but won’t deal with the growing wave of antisemitism spreading wider and wider. Why we’re so eager to blame Jews for their own demise, as Ms. Horn points out after yet another antisemitic murder; why newspaper articles on other murder victims don’t talk about the murderer’s frustration with Jews who had moved into the area (where the murderer didn’t even live. Imagine an article that said something like, “Understandably, Steve’s frustration only grew when his neighbor didn’t put away the dinner dishes away in her own house as quickly as he thought she should do. After a series of social media posts where he documented his unhappiness, police weren’t surprised to find her murdered body on the front lawn the next morning.” People would rage! But the article Ms. Horn quotes from, about murders at a kosher supermarket, isn’t much different).

People Love Dead Jews is a tough, thought-provoking read that is beautifully well-written (I wish I had half of Dara Horn’s brainpower). If you’ve ever looked forward to the release of a favorite author’s upcoming novel set during the Holocaust, or if this mass tragedy is the only Jewish history you’ve ever learned about, this is probably the book you need to read. (A good companion read would be Antisemitism: Here and Now by Deborah E. Lipstadt.)

Visit Dara Horn’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control by Steve Hassan

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you know I’m fascinated by cults. Not just the cults themselves, though; I’m also fascinated by the mindset that it takes to join and stay in a cult: the beliefs and ties to reality that followers must suspend, the excuses they need to make, and the misbehavior that must be dismissed in order to continue to defend and remain within the group. What makes all that happen? What kind of perfect storm has to take place in order for a single person to convince themselves that this group above all others has it right, despite glaring evidence to the contrary? In the past few years, we’ve been able to watch- and still watch- this play out on a massive scale in real time, and when I learned about The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control by Steve Hassan (Free Press, 2019), I was interested. I’d heard interviews with Steve Hassan before on the topic of cults, and I had long before made the connection between the many, many cults I’ve read about and the behavior of Donald Trump’s most ardent followers. Onto my list it went.

Steve Hassan had once been a member of the Moonies, the colloquial name for members of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. His family recognized early on that he had been pressured into a cult; it took him several years to leave (with the help of his family, who were not members; it’s obviously much, much harder for people raised in these movements to extract themselves), and he went on to become a mental health expert who specializes in treating people who leave high-control groups. He’s well aware now of the tactics that the Moonies and other groups use in order to pressure people to join and stay in their movements, and he recognized early on that Donald Trump and his entourage have engaged in all of the same tactics in order to build their own movement.

Step by step, Steve Hassan breaks down how Donald Trump engages in the same mind control techniques that cults use, using specific examples not just from Trump and his entourage, but showing how those same techniques played out in other high-control groups (such as NXIVM, Jonestown, Waco, etc). (And this isn’t mind control like in cartoons, where people’s eyes spin around; these are psychological tactics designed to manipulate how a person thinks, to break ties with a person’s prior life and beliefs and instill new, mostly fear-based beliefs that encourage the potential convert to join the group, because the group or the group’s leader alone can fix this. Sound familiar?). The parallels are disturbing.

I enjoyed a lot of the content here. Seeing the tactics used by various cults and the Trump campaign broken down step-by-step is definitely eerie, especially seeing it all in one place. Mr. Hassan isn’t the only one to notice this; the podcast Behind the Bastards has noted this in multiple episodes, and if you’ve ever listened to the podcast Cults on Parcast, you’ll recognize the same patterns of behavior and control over and over again, used throughout all the various groups. There’s no doubt that the Trump campaign used and continues to use these unfortunately effective tactics. They work, yes, but they work by manipulation and fear. If you can’t convince people of your message without manipulation and fear, your message isn’t worth propagating.

The book did get a little dry for me at times, and there were several instances where the text veered into speculation. “Many people believe…” “Some people think…” I didn’t care for that and felt that it weakened his argument. In a book that is making such big claims (claims which I think are unfortunately accurate), I want every claim to be backed up with hard evidence. There’s no room for conjecture when you’re penning nonfiction about a presidential administration that engaged in devastating acts, and God knows there’s enough hard material to base these claims on. The speculation turned me off quite a bit, and I felt that it lessened the effectiveness of the rest of the book. It also strayed into straight-up political discussion more than I expected; I was looking for more of hard look at the Trump administration’s cult-like tactics in engaging its followers and keeping them coming back for more despite this often not being in their best interests (something we’re still seeing today throughout this pandemic, though there are definitely signs that the monster he created is beyond his control, what with his encouraging his rallygoers to get vaccinated, only to have them boo him). While it did contain some of that, it wasn’t as much as I had expected when I put this book on my list.

It’s definitely an interesting perspective, but not as in-depth of an examination as I had hoped for.

Visit Steve Hassan’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction · true crime

Book Review: Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession by Sarah Weinman

A few years ago, I read The Real Lolita: The Kidnaping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World by Sarah Weinman, which only made sense thanks to my earlier reading of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. It (the first book!) was a fascinating and compelling read, and it put Sarah Weinman on my radar. So when I learned about her new true crime anthology, Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession (Ecco, 2020), I slapped that bad boy onto my list.

I went into this anthology expecting the book to continue as it starts, with stories that recap true crime tales like a finely-tuned episode of Dateline (which I occasionally listen to as a podcast). The anthology starts out strong, only to get even better. Beyond delving into stories of murder and deception, this book also takes a hard look at the true crime genre as a whole. Whose stories are told- and whose aren’t, and why? What does it mean that we as a society are so fascinated by these real-life stories of terrible, violent death? What happens in the aftermath of these stories? And what does cleanup look like after someone picks up a gun?

This is a lot more than whodunnit, than a voyeuristic peek into blood-spattered rooms and chilled interrogation chambers. This is intriguing reporting that asks hard questions and demands that we ask ourselves hard questions. What are we getting out of this ethically dubious genre? Look harder at the aftermath of these crimes, at the broken families plagued by grief and the unknowns, at the hospitals struggling to keep up with the trauma victims and the survivors whose wounds stay with them long after the gun stops smoking and the knife is cleaned off. Think a little harder; examine what pulls you so strongly to this genre and why, and what you can take from it in order to make our society a more just place for everyone.

My goodness, this was incredible. There’s some powerful writing in this book, both in terms of narrative ability, and in terms of straight-up journalism that strikes all the right chords. There’s an article about a trauma surgeon tasked with repairing gunshot victims; you may be surprised at how not-linear their recoveries often are. A piece on the impact of the band Soul Train’s early 90’s video for their hit song ‘Runaway Train’ is deeply moving; I had actually read this article before but appreciated coming back to it, as the song and its accompanying videos (plural) of missing and exploited kids, still tugs at my heart. And a story of a murdered mother who turned out not to be who she said she was fascinated me- it’s near the beginning, and I bet it’ll pull you in as well.

If you enjoy the true crime genre, this is truly an anthology you cannot miss. I blew through the whole book in one afternoon and am sorry that there aren’t 23748324032 other volumes to accompany it. This was phenomenal.

Visit Sarah Weinman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past by Jennifer Teege and Nikola Sellmair, translated by Carolin Sommer

My library sends out a quarterly newsletter to everyone within its service area, informing the community about scheduled programs, updates on the new library building currently under construction (completion scheduled for late fall of next year!), book clubs, activities for kids (still lots of virtual storytimes and take-and-go-crafts), and new services they’re offering. I look forward to this newsletter at the dawn of each new season. I learned about My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past by Jennifer Teege and Nikola Sellmair, translated by Carolin Sommer (The Experiment, 2013) from one of these newsletters, as it was a book club pick. While I wasn’t able to make the book club discussion centered around this book, I still wanted to read it, and onto my list it went.

Jennifer Teege, a German woman of mixed-race descent, grew up as the adopted child of a white family. She spent the first three years of her life in an orphanage, with her biological mother visiting her on occasion, and spending time with her maternal grandmother. At age three, she became the foster child of the family who eventually formally adopted her at age seven- and after the adoption, as was the norm for the time, all contact with her biological family ended. Jennifer struggled with feelings of abandonment and trauma; trust wasn’t easy for her. And in her late 30’s, she happened upon a book about a woman grappling with her father being Amon Goeth (as it’s spelled in the book), one of the most vicious Nazis and head of the  Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp. That woman was Monika Goeth, Jennifer’s biological mother.

Already suffering from depression and struggling to define her life, Jennifer was thrown into the depths of despair. Who was she, if that’s what she came from? What did this mean for her life, for her two sons, for her relationship with her adoptive family, for her relationship with her Israeli friends? How much of ourselves can we assign to those who came before us? Jennifer struggles terribly with the implications of this discovery, and it takes a lot of work, soul-searching, therapy, and thousands of miles of travel and years of research to come to terms with who her biological grandfather was.

Whew. This is obviously a heavy topic and a compelling story, likely an adoptee’s worst nightmare. Jennifer is legitimately distressed, as would most people be. Her biological grandfather was a horrible, horrible person, responsible for the murder of thousands; her biological grandmother, whom she absolutely loved, was far more supportive of him than Jennifer would have expected, and this also caused her a great deal of strain. As someone who is a dedicated traveler, who spent years living in Israel and who is fluent in Hebrew, being a woman of mixed-race, she’s completely certain that her grandfather wouldn’t have treated her any different than the Jews he shot from his balcony at the camp he presided over.

I had some issues with this book. While it’s an intriguing story, I disagreed a lot with how the author handled some of the situations she found herself in. She obviously had very fond memories of her maternal grandmother, who had never been anything but kind and loving to her. Even after learning about her grandmother’s romance with and lifelong support of and defending of Amon Goeth, she still chooses to cling to those memories and defend her grandmother. That is absolutely not the choice I would have made. People who are nice to you but not nice to people who are different from you…are not nice people. People who defend bad people are not nice people. I could have respected if she had said, “I have very fond memories of my grandmother, but it disturbs me greatly to learn of her support for this Nazi murderer and I cannot look at her the same way anymore.” I realize I’m seeing this in a more black-and-white fashion, but something things ARE black and white, and defending Nazis is one of them.

I also really struggled with the way she treated and referred to her adoptive family (some of this may be due to social and cultural differences; adoption was looked at very differently back then. And there may also be translation issues as well- not with content, but more along the terms of differences between how Germans refer to adoption and how it’s talked about here). It seemed almost as if the moment Jennifer learned about her Nazi grandfather, that biological family became her sole family and her adoptive family ceased to exist, ceased to matter to her. This may be due to her underlying trauma that hadn’t yet been addressed, but there were a lot of places here that made me feel really bad for her adoptive family in terms of how she spoke about them (and I’m absolutely NOT of the mindset that adopted kids need to be grateful their whole lives to the family who chose them. Eff outta here with that gross BS; we’re the lucky ones for those kids being in our lives and we need to honor the trauma they’ve experienced by losing their biological family). I’m definitely willing to cut her a lot of slack in regards to this, especially as she does write about having a better relationship with her family these days, but I wish that would have been covered a little more. So this book is a wild ride that has a lot of issues. I felt terrible for Jennifer throughout quite a bit of it; she was very obviously deeply distressed on learning such shocking information. I hope she’s since figured out she’s not responsible for her grandfather’s crimes, and just because she shares a few segments of DNA with him doesn’t mean…anything, basically. We get to be our own people; we don’t have to be anything at all like the people who came before us, if we don’t want to be. That’s the beauty of it all. 🙂

nonfiction

Book Review: Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham

I was too young to remember anything about Chernobyl, only being five at the time of the accident, and information was slow to leak out in the days after the explosion (and news didn’t move as fast back then, anyway). But it’s become something that fascinates me as an adult. I read Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich in 2019, but I realized I really didn’t know much of the specifics of what happened, and in order to more fully understand, I would need to read on. A friend mentioned Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higganbotham (Simon & Schuster, 2019) after I’d read Voices, and so onto my list it went. I held back from reading it for a while, intimidated by the 538 pages, but fear not; a lot of that is footnotes, and the text in my ebook copy ended at around 50%. It’s not actually *that* huge of a book.

Adam Higginbotham has created a masterpiece here, weaving a story of incompetence, shame, national pride, and suffering that takes the reader back to the early days of Soviet nuclear innovation, where anything was possible and the USSR was large and in charge (if only in its own propaganda). The desperation of the Soviet Union to appear as a major force in nuclear power on the world stage required its architects, builders, and engineers to cut corners at every turn in order to keep up with the pace demanded by its leaders. What happened at Chernobyl was inevitable, caused by a major design flaw; if it hadn’t happened there, it would have eventually happened at another Soviet nuclear plant.

At every turn, Mr. Higginbotham shows how the wrong decision was made that cost lives and increased human suffering and environmental damage to the extreme. The truth was hidden for ages as unsuspecting citizens were exposed to massive amounts of radiation. Those in charge were loath to admit that mistakes had been made (by themselves or anyone else); what mattered more was how the Soviet Union appeared in the eyes of the rest of the world. The dangers of nationalism and pride are illustrated on every page of this remarkable book about a disaster that opened the public’s eyes to the dangers of nuclear power plants.

This book is a LOT. A lot of history with which I wasn’t familiar (I was born in 1980; I vaguely remember learning bits and pieces about the USSR when I was growing up, but I very much remember having a class discussion after the USSR fell and what that meant), a lot of explanation about the science behind nuclear power that I will admit flew right over my head, a lot of Russian names I struggled to keep straight (part of this is due to the fact that I read it as an ebook; I have a harder time reading nonfiction on my kindle. There IS a handy guide to who’s who in the front of the book, and I would really have liked to have been able to flip back to that!), a lot of anxiety-inducing scenes where the radiation levels were off the charts, and days upon days where leaders failed to evacuate anyone and instead let them marinate in radiation in order to save their own stupid pride. While I couldn’t explain anything about nuclear physics or engineering, I definitely have a better sense of the story of Chernobyl: what happened, what was covered up and lied about, and why.

This has all left me with a massive disdain for nuclear power, although Mr. Higginbotham is clear that things have gotten safer since then, with better design and different sources of power that are much less likely to melt down. But that’s still not zero danger, as Fukushima has shown us, and I’m not sure I’ll ever feel totally relaxed when it comes to the subject of nuclear power plants at all. I’m definitely glad I read this, though, because I absolutely feel better informed about the disaster and tragedy that was Chernobyl.

Visit Adam Higginbotham’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

Sometime late last winter or early last spring, one of my online friends posted an article discussing A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling (Public Affairs, 2020). The premise sounded wild, and I added it to my list, and there it was at the library on my latest trip. I only have forty-some books left on my TBR that are available at my local library branch, so it’s less mood-reading these days and more reading-what’s-available-at-this-particular-moment in terms of my list. Which is usually fine (although there are certain things I know I can’t handle at the moment, so those sit a little longer on my list).

The town of Grafton, New Hampshire became the focus of a group of Libertarians (an American political party that emphasizes freedom above all, oftentimes without the corresponding responsibilities. Wikipedia article on Libertarianism here). They chose this town as the site they were going to ‘liberate’ from the tyranny of taxes (I hope you can hear my eyeroll) and began to move there in sizeable droves. They liberated a lot of things, including the town from fire protection, road repair, and wildlife management.

Bears began to become a huge menace in the town, aided by certain residents actively feeding them. Bear attacks, uncommon even in the worst of times, took place on several occasions, including bears coming into people’s homes (many townspeople looked for any reason to blame the victim; apparently, cutting up meat in your own kitchen makes you responsible for being mauled by a bear). Houses burned down because the fire department had been so gutted. Roads crumbled. The library suffered, both in terms of the hours it was able to operate and the building itself. The libertarians fought amongst themselves, and the town continued to suffer. To only certain people’s surprise, a higher-taxed town not too far away continued to thrive and grow, while Grafton crumbled and its population shrank.

While nothing in this book was surprising, in terms of outcome, it still made for an interesting, if occasionally slightly dry (more due to subject than the writing style, I think; I don’t necessarily find Libertarianism all that interesting and definitely not appealing, since the thought processes of its adherents is just a whole lot of cringe for me. The book intrigue me because of the strong consequences of seeing this line of thinking through). Mr. Hongoltz-Hetling does a good job of digging down into the essence of the psyches of the libertarians who took over the town, showing their goals and thought patterns and their expectations for Grafton’s eventual tax-free utopian status under libertarian rule. A rule-less (or nearly rule-less) society depends heavily on its citizens always making the morally correct choices, and as this book shows (and common sense dictates), that’s just not something that happens. People are people; they quite often make terrible decisions that are entirely against even their own self-interest, not the mention the interest of the community around them (see: pandemic), and in case after case, this is illustrated throughout this book.

This is a fairly entertaining, occasionally amusing, and often face-palm-inducing read that I think serves as interesting reading material to readers who understand that this particular philosophy makes for a great ideal, but that put into action, the outcome will never match up with its prior vision. Will it convince anyone already married to the ideals of Libertarianism? Having known a few people that prescribe to that particular philosophy, I doubt it; I think they’d be more along the lines of assuming that the Grafton crowd made mistakes that they wouldn’t, that “That wouldn’t possibly happen to me because REASONS,” entirely discounting the fact that living without regard to the society around you makes for a very dangerous society altogether (see: pandemic).

I enjoyed this, and while I assume that it was at least partly written to serve as a warning, I think it’s more of a warning for people to be on guard against these ideals from taking hold and destroying their communities. Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling has painted a picture of a community turned into a pretty bleak place to live; it should serve as a warning to everyone who doesn’t want to end up being mauled by a bear in their own kitchen, and struggling to call for help afterwards due to collapsed town services.

Visit Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.