memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Since Sinai: A Convert’s Path to Judaism by Shannon Gonyou

Another Jewish book from NetGalley! I’m on a roll, baby!!!

I’ve followed Shannon Gonyou on Twitter for a while now. She converted to Judaism, like me, and I’m always interested in the perspectives of other converts: the whys, the similarities and differences to my own conversion. Shannon has always seemed insightful, with a good sense of humor, so I was thrilled to learn she’d written a conversion memoir. Lo and behold, there it was on NetGalley! I requested (of course!), and voilà, the acceptance email for Since Sinai: A Convert’s Path to Judaism by Shannon Gonyou (Msi Press, 2022) landed in my inbox a few days later. I may have gasped in excitement. Huge thank you to NetGalley, Msi Press, and Shannon Gonyou for the opportunity to read and review this book!

Shannon Gonyou grew up Catholic, the stipulation of her birth mother to the parents who adopted and raised her. They weren’t super into it, but they dutifully raised her in the faith, which didn’t particularly interest her as a young child, but in which Shannon took a greater interest as she grew older. She had a lot of questions, of course; maybe more questions than her religious educators cared for, and the answers often rang a little more hollow than she would’ve liked, but Shannon held on, trying to carve out a place for herself in Catholicism. The evangelical church she tried out next was much the same. Both churches’ white savior complexes felt faulty, along with their one-size-fits-all belief systems. What’s a spiritual-seeking girl to do?

Judaism was something Shannon just kept coming back to, over and over. She’d question friends, co-workers, classmates, anyone who she met and learned was Jewish. The tradition kept calling to her until finally, she blurted out to her husband one Christmas eve (what better time?) that she wanted to be Jewish. To his absolute credit, despite being caught somewhat off guard, her husband was remarkably understanding, and eventually he came to fall just as deeply in love with Judaism as Shannon did. This is the story of Shannon’s religious journey, from questioning Catholic to deeply committed Jew, and all that happened in between.

This is an absolutely lovely memoir. Shannon’s story is winding, full of questions and the struggle to find herself in traditions that weren’t quite meant for her. Conversion is a huge, intimidating leap (I sat in front of my first email to the rabbi I converted with for over a week, struggling to come up with the exact words that expressed how deeply I had fallen in love with Judaism); being able to travel her journey with her in all its stops and starts, in the moves she now considers uncomfortable at best (such as the mission trips she went on), was truly enjoyable. I saw a lot of my own story in hers and it was a true joy to not only read about Shannon’s path to the mikvah, but to also be able to compare and relive my own journey there.

This is no dry, dusty, stodgy memoir; Shannon Gonyou writes as though she’s having a warm, comfortable conversation with her oldest friend, and every sentence is infused with her love of Judaism and her absolute delight in having made her way home to where she belongs. If you don’t know much about Judaism and are curious as to why someone would choose to become a member of a traditionally persecuted group, Since Sinai will lead you to a greater understanding. If, like me, you’ve converted to Judaism, you’ll definitely see yourself in these pages. And if you’re in the process or are considering converting, this book will enlighten you as to what the process might look like for you – and you can pass it along to your family and friends when they have questions, too.

Since Sinai was an absolute delight to read. Pre-pandemic, I was staying off the internet on Shabbat, but fell away from that practice when the internet became my sole connection with family and friends who were similarly isolated. Reading this moved me back to the place where I felt ready to do that again, and I very much welcomed that haven of calm and peace the last few weeks.

Follow Shannon Gonyou on Twitter here.

memoir

Book Review: A Beginner’s Guide to Paradise by Alex Sheshunoff

It was while searching my library’s catalog for books on tiny houses that I stumbled across A Beginner’s Guide to Paradise by Alex Sheshunoff (NAL, 2015). (There’s an entire long subtitle that I’m not going to write out here, but feel free to click on the Goodreads link so you can see it in all its unwieldy glory!) I love a good travel memoir, and I also love a good ‘picked up and moved halfway around the world memoir,’ so this called out to me for those reasons, but what really intrigued me was that the author moved, at first, to the outer islands of Yap.

Yap? What’s Yap?

Yap, my friends, is an island group in the federated states of Micronesia, and it’s where I had a penpal for a brief period of time when I was about 11. Every once in a while Yap comes up in conversation and it feels pretty cool that I’ve been familiar with this place that most people haven’t heard of since I was a kid.

Anyway.

Alex Sheshunoff wasn’t satisfied with his life. The website he’d started up wasn’t doing well and was no longer providing him that feeling of contentment. Living in a big city and working for the weekend wasn’t doing it for him, and his relationship, it was becoming clear, wasn’t made to last. He needed to make some changes and figure out what he wanted out of life, and what better place to do that than a tropical paradise? So Alex sells everything, packs up, and heads off to Yap in order to find himself and discover that which is meaningful to him.

It’s not exactly the lazy island utopia he pictured before the plane touched down. Cultural differences are massive, and making friends – or even getting to know people at all – is challenging. Moving between islands is far more complex than Alex had anticipated, and he finds himself in a lot of wacky situations. It’s a move to a different island that changes everything, where Alex meets the woman he falls in love with. Together, with friends brought over from back home, they build a home (kind of…) and Alex doesn’t necessarily end up with all the answers, but he at least finds some of the things he wasn’t necessarily looking for.

This was…okay. Alex’s journey to Yap and the surrounding islands felt a bit rushed and lacked research, but I suppose if you have the kind of money that I’m reading he did, you can afford to do wacky things like picking up and moving halfway around the world on a whim. His recounting of his interactions with the locals felt awkward and like he wasn’t sure how to fit in (which very well may have been the case; cultural exchanges can be really tough!), and I did feel bad for him in that aspect.

I don’t know, there was something about this book that made it hard for me to connect with. Part of it might be how different our lives our to begin with; it’s hard to find something to connect with in a story of a man who’s able to drop everything and leave the country to find himself, when I don’t have the money to find myself here in town. While I don’t necessarily need to see myself in every book I read, I couldn’t find much at all to connect with here. Still an interesting story, but…it was lacking, for me. But that’s okay. Not every book is meant for every reader. : )

Visit Alex Sheshunoff’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction · memoir

Book Review: The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir by Dee Williams

I’ve been on a kick lately, reading about tiny homes. I’ve watched documentaries about them in the past and enjoyed them, but I think I’ve just reached that part of middle age and that stage of the pandemic that a small house all to myself seems like the ultimate fantasy. Combine that with all the environmentalism stuff my daughter and I have been reading for her schoolwork, and having a smaller carbon footprint in a house mostly run on solar and built out of used materials sounds amazing. I dug through my library’s catalog and one of the selections they had was a book called The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir by Dee Williams (Blue Rider Press, 2014). Yes, please! Into my bag it went on my next library trip.

Dee Williams lived a normal-to-hippyish life in the Pacific Northwest. She owned her own home (which was constantly breaking down in various ways) and had been building her DIY skill set since she was young (which came in really handy when her house needed repairs!). When a health problem surfaced that couldn’t be ignored, Dee began to take a hard look at her life and what mattered. What did she want? What would truly make her happy?

Almost overnight, she purchased a trailer and began to build an eighty-four square foot house on it. She had help; friends, neighbors, random passersby, the men giving free advice at the hardware store, they all pitched in to help her dream become a reality. And suddenly…it was built, and eighty-four square feet became home.

Dee Wiliams has written a charming memoir of the ups and downs of building your own home, of learning the skills you need to create a place you can live in, of figuring out what’s important and what can be discarded, and how to build not just a dwelling place, but a community. There are definite downs: her health scares are stressful, and she writes about an incident involving falling off a ladder that resulted in multiple unable-to-be-casted-or-splinted bones that made my whole body cringe (because I’ve also broken one of those bones, and it’s awful); pulling her house behind her down the highway is my actual nightmare (I’ll stick with my smaller vehicle and continue fantasizing about tiny homes that don’t need to be moved anywhere); not having a shower or washer in my tiny house is a no-go for me, but she manages just fine. But the ups outweigh it all. The community she builds around her, the friends who rally and cheer her on when she’s building and afterwards, the family she builds when the house is finished, it’s all so lovely and cozy-feeling.

You might not be ready to give all your possessions away and move into a house smaller than most bedrooms, but it’s still fascinating to read about someone who was, and did. I enjoyed the time I spent living vicariously through Dee Williams’s tiny house-building journey. What a fun and thoughtful book.

Visit Dee Williams’s website here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: The Girls in the Wild Fig Tree: How I Fought to Save Myself, My Sister, and Thousands of Girls Worldwide by Nice Leng’ete with Elizabeth Butler-Witter

Years ago, in my very early 20’s, I was introduced to the concept of female genital mutilation when my online book club read Do They Hear You When You Cry by Fauziwa Kassindja. Since then, I’ve read other books on the subject, and it never gets any less horrifying. Last summer, my library announced they would read The Girls in the Wild Fig Tree: How I Fought to Save Myself, My Sister, and Thousands of Girls Worldwide by Nice Leng’ete with Elizabeth Butler-Witter (Little, Brown and Company, 2021) as a book club selection. I’m still not going to in-person events, so I missed out on what I’m sure was an amazing discussion, but I definitely still wanted to read the book. That FGM hasn’t disappeared off this planet yet is a tragedy, but it’s a relief knowing there are still brave women (and men!) out there, fighting so hard against it.

Nice Leng’ete grew up in Kenya, a member of the Maasai tribe. Her parents were more progressive than most, and her father had a deep commitment to ensuring that his children were educated. Unfortunately, both of Nice’s parents died when Nice was still in early elementary school, and she and her sister were shipped off to an uncle who wasn’t much interested in raising his brother’s children. Education remained a priority for Nice, and she fought hard to be able to stay in school, but by the time she turned nine, her family began demanding that she undergo the ritual of female genital mutilation. Having seen these scenarios performed and knowing that its risks included infection and death – and especially knowing that having this done would mean early marriage, babies, and the end of her education – Nice refuses, even running away multiple times to escape the knife.

It’s not easy to avoid being mutilated; pressure is intense and Nice is nearly shunned by her family and her community for refusing (her sister is, unfortunately, not so lucky), but she holds fast and not only gets the education she deserves, she goes on to college and begins a career with a nonprofit, working to stop the practice of female genital mutilation around the world.

What a fascinating book! This is another easy read about a tough subject. It’s not as in-depth as, say, Do They Hear You When You Cry, but it’s definitely more accessible for younger readers and would make a fabulous read for the mature middle-to-high schooler looking to become better informed about issues that affect girls and women around the world. FGM is still happening, even in countries where it’s been banned, and Ms. Leng’ete makes an excellent case for why people like her – girls and women who know the community, who are intimately familiar with the communities – need to be at the forefront of demanding change. There are a lot of great lessons in this book about what amazing modern-day leadership looks like.

This is another book I read quickly, but it’ll stay with me. I’m in awe of Ms. Leng’ete’s bravery, and her commitment to becoming educated despite so many challenges. This is another book I’d love for my own daughter to read in the future.

Follow Nice Leng’ete on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Kissing Bug: A True Story of a Family, an Insect, and a Nation’s Neglect of a Deadly Disease by Daisy Hernández

“You don’t know what you don’t know” is something we say often at my house, and I wonder a lot about how many things are out there that I don’t know about (this is why I’m so drawn to nonfiction! I want to know ALL THE THINGS). And when I learned about a book about a contagious disease that affects millions but that most people have never heard of, my curiosity was immediately piqued. And that’s how The Kissing Bug: A True Story of a Family, an Insect, and a Nation’s Neglect of a Deadly Disease by Daisy Hernández (Tin House Books, 2021) ended up on my TBR. And Ms. Hernández was right: I’d never once in my life heard of Chagas.

Daisy Hernández grew up with a sick aunt. Tía Dora had become sick by eating an apple, Daisy believed, until she was older and learned that her aunt, with whom her relationship was often contentious due to, among many things, the aunt’s homophobia, had been infected with Chagas disease after having been bitten by a kissing bug. Tía Dora suffered terribly throughout her life, and Daisy later learned that yet another aunt had died as well of Chagas in South America. What was the insect that had so troubled her family? Despite the phobia Daisy had developed of it, she set out to learn more.

As it turns out, kissing bugs are all over in South America and the southern US. “Every adult with Chagas is a child that wasn’t treated,” one doctor says, and it seems to be true. Many adults who are found to be infected (usually discovered when their blood donation is tested) aren’t symptomatic, though it can take years until symptoms (like heart failure) make themselves known; others begin showing symptoms early on, and no one is sure why. Several years ago, Zika was all over the news, but Chagas, which affects more Americans than Zika, hasn’t gotten a fraction of that kind of attention. With bravery, determination, and a deep-seated curiosity, Daisy Hernández has penned a part-memoir, part-scientific narrative that clues readers in to the dangers of Chagas (with climate change, kissing bugs are heading north – this is everyone’s problem) and the devastation they cause.

When I picked this up, I was a little hesitant. I had just finished a fairly heavy book and wasn’t sure I could handle any intense scientific reading at this point, but Ms. Hernández deftly combines her research with her family’s story. Instead of being bogged down by this, I blew through it in a day. The effects of Chagas are difficult to read about; Tía Dora’s suffering is detailed throughout the book and it’s not pretty, but it’s less shocking than the fact that even with all the medical and science writing I’ve done throughout my life, Chagas had never once appeared in any of it. How does this affect so many people and yet no one talks about it?

The Kissing Bug combines the best of open, honest memoir writing with science writing that is simple enough for even the most science-phobic brain to grasp (I *really* wasn’t much of a science person growing up; it’s only being married to a molecular biologist and getting a daily lecture on All Things Science that has helped me appreciate it more). I appreciated Ms. Hernández’s admissions of how terrifying it was for her to research and write about the very thing that killed her aunts and devastated her family so deeply; knowing how tough it was for her to be out in the field with researchers, collecting kissing bugs in the dark, bending over microscopes to peer at T. cruzi, added another layer of humanity to her story. I’m honestly not sure I could’ve gone on this journey if I were her. Mad respect.

The Kissing Bug is an easy read about a tough subject, and one that desperately needs this kind of light shone upon it. Highly recommended.

Visit Daisy Hernández’s website here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Chosen: A Memoir of Stolen Boyhood by Stephen Mills

Trigger warning: this review will contain mention of childhood sexual assault. If this is a subject that’s too painful for you to read about, be kind to yourself and skip this review. I wish you peace.

I received a notification of a new Twitter follower one day not long ago and was delighted to find an author named Stephen Mills had followed me. One of his recent tweets made it clear that he was also Jewish (WOOHOO!), so I followed him back and added his book to my TBR. And when Chosen: A Memoir of Stolen Boyhood (Metropolitan Books, 2022) showed up on NetGalley, I requested it. I know I read a lot of emotionally heavy books, but it’s because I believe so much that these are the stories that deserve to be heard the most; these are the topics that need to be at the forefront of our discussions; these are what everyone should understand a little more about. And Chosen is no exception to that rule.

Thank you so much to NetGalley, Stephen Mills, and Metropolitan Books for offering me a copy of Chosen in exchange for an honest review.

Stephen Mills was thirteen, the son of a father who had passed away when he was very young, growing up in an emotionally unhealthy blended family, when the director of his summer camp began spending more time with him. Longing for positive attention and approval (and aren’t we all?), Stephen falls into his trap, and soon Dan is molesting him regularly. Not only is Stephen deeply confused about what’s happening to him, his trauma is furthered by Dan’s weaseling his way into every aspect of his life. His family loves him and has no qualms about sending the young teen on solo trips and foreign vacations with Dan, and without the words to describe what’s going on, Stephen is powerless to stop the abuse.

It’s not until college when the trauma begins destroying his life. Still unable to speak about the abuse, Stephen turns to drugs, to religion, to foreign travel, in order to ease his pain, but nothing helps, and the darkness begins to pull him in. As society begins to wake up to the pervasiveness of childhood sexual abuse, Stephen is finally able to understand the root of his anguish…only to discover that those with the power to change things still don’t give anywhere near enough of a damn.

Chosen is a painful, heartfelt memoir that doesn’t hold back on raw emotion. Mr. Mills doesn’t shy away from the physical acts perpetrated against him, nor does he sugarcoat the depth of his suffering that the abuse caused. ‘Soul murder,’ Oprah Winfrey has called childhood sexual abuse, and it’s clear from this memoir, from how much Stephen suffered as an adult from the trauma foisted upon him as a child, how accurate this phrase is.

As difficult as the subject is, Stephen Mills’s writing flows like the most enjoyable novel. His honest prose is open, accessible, inviting the reader to share his pain for a while, to walk in his shoes and gain just a hint of understanding about what he’s been through. It’s a story of pain, but also one of courage, and ultimately, a demand for change. We have got to do better. More listening to kids, better treatment for survivors, and a never-ending commitment to keeping the monsters who hurt them away from any children whatsoever for all time. We can do better, and we should have started doing better a long time ago. Chosen is proof of that. Stephen Mills was failed over and over again by so many adults in his life, and while he’s written an amazing book that shares his pain and trauma in the most eloquent of ways, I truly wish he hadn’t had to.

If you love someone who has suffered childhood sexual abuse, Chosen by Stephen Mills should be on your reading list in order to better understand that loved one, what they’ve faced in trying to heal, and what they’re up against in seeking justice. And if you don’t know anyone who’s been traumatized this way, Chosen should also be on your list – because yes, you do; they just haven’t told you.

May Stephen Mills experience continued healing throughout his life, and may justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream for all survivors.  

Chosen is available now at all major retailers.

Visit Stephen Mills’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Reivew: Golem Girl: A Memoir by Riva Lehrer

I was going through my email a few weeks ago when I came across one from the Jewish Women’s Archive. They hold a few virtual author talks every now and then, and I’ve attended quite a few, all of which have been fabulous. The email was announcing the newest round, and one of the books sounded familiar. I looked it up on Goodreads, and sure enough, it was on my TBR! I picked up Golem Girl: A Memoir by Riva Lehrer (One World, 2020) from the library the next day and immersed myself in the world of art and disability activism.

Riva Lehrer was born in 1958. Her mother, a former researcher, recognizes her infant daughter’s spina bifida immediately. At this point in history, infants with disabilities like these aren’t expected to survive. Most are institutionalized, but Riva’s mother is sure she can care for her daughter’s complex medical needs. Riva becomes among the first of her generation with spina bifida to live to adulthood.

That doesn’t mean her life is easy. Everyone around her, including her family, defines her by her disability and by their own standards for her, constantly telling her that she’ll never have a romantic partner (she’s given a hysterectomy at age 15, ostensibly due to cysts, but disabled people were routinely sterilized at this point in history), she’ll never live alone, she’ll never hold down a real job. But she forges ahead anyway, living out her life as an artist, a queer person, whose disability affords a unique perspective of the world. Riva Lehrer’s art is displayed throughout the pages, offering the reader a journey through her career and the empowering way she views her friends and colleagues with disabilities.

This is a fabulous memoir (and it’s so beautifully Jewish!). Riva has lived a complex, fascinating life, and I wish I could sit down with her and hear more stories. She’s been through so many surgeries and medical procedures, and her success has obviously been hard-won; how could it not be in such an ableist society?

There are so many gems scattered throughout this book that provide such insight into what Ms. Lehrer’s life has been like, and what the world was like and how it’s changed (and how it hasn’t…) for those with disabilities. From the stories of her earliest days growing up in a hospital, to the way her parents and her teachers spoke to and about her, the dawning realization of her queerness and what that meant for her life, the casual mention of her countertop coming up to her mid-chest (the world really isn’t built for those whose bodies differ from the standard issue), her writing paints a very clear picture of a woman who has definitely struggled, but who has forged ahead despite not only the obstacles her health has presented, but those placed in front of her by both society and the people who loved her.

I really enjoyed this and was sad that it ended. Fascinating fact: I figured out about halfway through this book that Ms. Lehrer works (at least sometimes) in the same (very large!) building my husband does. I love when my reading life and real life collides. : )

Visit Riva Lehrer’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang

On Rosh Hashanah this year, my synagogue held its services at a time when I wasn’t able to attend, so I took a virtual field trip to New York’s Central Synagogue (services there are amazing and thoughtful and insightful, and the music is absolutely incredible). Giving a Dvar Torah that day was Qian Julie Wang, whose words moved me. It was only after she spoke that a member of the clergy let the congregation know that Ms. Wang had a book coming out. I looked it up immediately and added Beautiful Country (Doubleday Books, 2021) to my TBR. My library had it, but up until my last trip, it was always checked out. It makes me happy to know that so many local people were reading it; it’s an incredibly moving memoir.

Qian Julie Wang’s family lived in China until coming to America, a country whose Chinese name translates to ‘beautiful country,’ when she is seven. But this country, as Qian Julie is quick to learn, is anything but beautiful to her and her parents. Their family is undocumented and lives in constant fear of being deported back to China. Her parents, educated professionals back in their home country, work low-wage jobs in terrible conditions in places that also occasionally employ young Qian Julie. Their living conditions are less than ideal, and hunger, followed by malnutrition, is Qian Julie’s constant companion. She goes without medical care, without proper clothing, in order to save money.

The stress takes its toll on the family, and each member reacts in different ways. Living in the shadows costs the family greatly, and while they survive, it comes at a cost. Beautiful Country will leave the reader wondering exactly what’s so beautiful about the American dream after all, marveling over the strength of immigrants, and weeping over what we put them through for no good reason.

This is a heartbreaking book. My daughter is the same age Ms. Wang was when she came to this country, and the images of a seven-year-old girl so hungry all the time broke me. There is ZERO reason for anyone in this country to go hungry, but so many of us keep voting for politicians who believe in punishing people for existing. Ms. Wang’s mother suffered greatly before finally getting medical care, due to fear of being deported, and, just…I don’t understand why the entire world is so insistent on maintaining this illusion of borders and rules instead of just caring for each other. Why are we so intent on hurting each other?

This isn’t the easiest book to read, emotionally, but it’s an incredibly important one in understanding the undocumented immigrant experience. To be so alone in a country that makes it clear every day how little they value you, despite not only the services you’re providing to help the country run but also your inherent worth as a human being is so incredibly painful and Ms. Wang paints a picture of desperation tinged, somehow, with wonder. That she isn’t filled with bitterness and rage toward the US is nothing short of a miracle; I’m not sure I would have that much grace in me.

Beautiful Country is an incredible story of a young girl’s struggle to survive in a country that refused to extend a hand to her and her family, that would rather punish her for existing than help her flourish and develop her many talents. And yet she persisted. Highly recommended.

Visit Qian Julie Wang’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Challenging Pregnancy: A Journey Through the Politics and and Science of Healthcare in America by Genevieve Grabman

I’m pretty terrible at being pregnant. I start barfing about ten seconds after sperm meets egg, and I had to be hospitalized twice during my pregnancy with my son (not quite so bad with my daughter, but I still had to be medicated the entire time). But for all the issues I had with both of my pregnancies, the babies were never in danger and I’m truly grateful for that. But those pregnancies left me with both a fascination for all that can go wrong for both parties during a pregnancy and the unnecessarily complexities and sometimes deadly consequences the American healthcare system likes to heap upon pregnant people (would you like to hear how my insurance company wouldn’t pay for medication to keep me out of the hospital, but it would pay for hospitalization? And how during my second pregnancy, it wouldn’t pay for medication at all? I’m still incredibly angry about all of this.) This is why Challenging Pregnancy: A Journey through the Politics and Science of Healthcare in America by Genevieve Grabman (University of Iowa Press, 2022) caught my eye on NetGalley. A quick tap of the request button and it was added to my kindle in just a few days. Much thanks to NetGalley, University of Iowa Press, and Genevieve Grabman for the opportunity to read this thoroughly engaging account of the author’s medically complex pregnancy and the system that stood in the way of solutions every step of the way.

What doctors first suspected to be a blighted ovum turned out to be a set of twins, shocking Genevieve Grabman. And things would only grow more complicated. The twins were soon diagnosed with a complicated condition known as twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome (TTTS), for which the outcomes for both babies and mother are often not good (death for all three is a distinct possibility, along with lifelong neurological problems for the babies). Alongside of this, the smaller twin was suffering from sIUGR, or selective intrauterine growth restriction and a dangerous two-vessel umbilical cord (which was only tenuously attached to the placenta), both boys had heart defects- basically, a lot of what could go wrong did.

Ms. Grabman’s degree in public health and her experience as a lawyer helped her navigate the often difficult-to-understand research articles about the serious medical conditions she and the twins were experiencing, giving her a massive advantage over most other people dealing with similar problems, but even with these advantages, she ran up against the wall of politics. Anti-abortion legislation heavily limits what treatments are available to pregnant women in the US, and time and time again, Ms. Grabman found that what she wanted for her pregnancy and what was considered best practice and safest in a medical sense wasn’t allowed, in favor of more dangerous procedures with worse outcomes, thanks to anti-choice politicians.

Woven throughout Ms. Grabman’s tense and frustrating narrative are facts and statistics about the dire landscape that is American maternal healthcare. For every 100,000 live births in the US, 17.4 mothers die, a statistic that is the highest out of the fourteen most-developed countries. Women’s lives are sacrificed on the altar of politics, and outcomes are decried in favor of placating the religious right. Twin-to-twin transfusion system statistically has a particularly poor outcome (along with suffering from a dearth of good research), and readers will come away from this book with a fresh sense of horror for not only the dangers of such a complex medical condition, but also for the ease of which politicians are willing to disregard medical necessity (for children and mothers they have no stake in caring for) for ideals.

This is a moving, intense narrative. I appreciated Ms. Grabman’s attention to detail in terms of the research available, and her acknowledgement that if she found accessing proper medical care difficult, with her degrees and knowledge of reproductive law, how much more difficult and stressful is it to navigate the medical system for women with potentially deadly conditions who have less education, less ability to read the scientific studies, and fewer qualifications that mark them as someone to take seriously for the researchers and doctors she contacted?

Challenging Pregnancy will have readers questioning everything they thought they knew about the American healthcare system, abortion politics, and what the true consequences are for voting for candidates who call themselves pro-life.

Challenging Pregnancy: A Journey through the Politics and Science of Healthcare in America by Genevieve Grabman is available on March 1, 2022.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Knocked Down: A High-Risk Memoir by Aileen Weintraub

The description of Aileen Weintraub’s Knocked Down: A High-Risk Memoir (University of Nebraska Press, 2022) pulled me in immediately. A new marriage, high-risk pregnancy spent on bedrest, a potentially haunted house (what???), what’s not to like? I’m a sucker for a memoir, so I hit request on NetGalley and the book landed softly on my kindle a few days later. Many thanks to NetGalley, University of Nebraska Press, and Aileen Weintraub for allowing me to read and review an early copy of this book.

Aileen Weintraub lacks follow-through. From quitting Brownies in grade school to quitting jobs and relationships as an adult, she’s never been able to fully commit to much of anything. But once she meets Chris, all bets are off. Moving to her new husband’s creaky country house whose basement support beams turn out to be an old car (no, really!), her life takes a turn she wasn’t quite expecting when her much-wanted pregnancy is labeled high-risk, thanks to some monster uterine fibroids she wasn’t even aware she had, and Aileen is sentenced to full-time bedrest.

You’d think lying around all day would be easy, but it turns out to be one of the greatest challenges of Aileen’s life. Unable to cook, clean, do anything around the house (including preparing for the baby), work, or help her husband out with the new business they just purchased (one of THREE jobs for him), she’s left feeling helpless, useless, and alone (three jobs make for incredibly long work days, and in an area where Aileen doesn’t know many people, this means spending most every day completely alone). Their marriage frays under the strain, and throughout this challenge, Aileen delves into the grief she’s still processing from her father’s death. This open and deeply honest memoir explores the difficulties of a pregnancy with unexpected challenges, and the toll it takes on everyone around it.

So many of the other reviews I read for this book consider Knocked Down funny, but I didn’t necessarily experience it this way (though there are funny parts!). To me, this book was more raw and intensely emotional, along with being deeply honest. Aileen Weintraub isn’t afraid of painting herself in a way that isn’t always flattering but that display the frustrations and hardships of being confined to bed for months at a time. None of the pregnancy books I’ve read discuss the strain that bedrest causes on a marriage, and I very much appreciated her illustrating the guilt she felt, mixed with the occasional bouts of irrationality caused by being so isolated and stressed.

With a husband working twelve-to-fourteen-hour days and a dire financial situation (basically, anything that can break or go wrong does during her pregnancy), Aileen is thrust into a situation she can’t truly run from, and along the way, she processes her grief from her father’s passing and the lessons she learned from him- how not to act, why she shouldn’t give up, and what their relationship meant. These bittersweet recollections give the memoir depth and showcase Ms. Weintraub’s ultimate growth throughout a deeply challenging situation.

Knocked Down is a raw, emotionally honest memoir, fraught with the complications of a tough pregnancy and a marriage that can barely withhold the strain, but which is ultimately triumphant in nature, and hopeful. Ms. Weintraub’s genuine voice isn’t afraid to tell a difficult, painful story of doing the work necessary not only to survive, but to learn from those who went before us and to move beyond the mistakes they made in order to cling to what truly matters. More than just being about pregnancy and grief, Knocked Down is about true growth.

Knocked Down is available on March 1, 2022.