graphic memoir

Book Review: Flying Couch: A Graphic Memoir by Amy Kurzweil

I need to read more graphic novels. I always, always forget how fun the format is, how relaxing it is take in the art as I page through the story- even when the story isn’t necessarily an easy one. Currently, our teen graphic novels are squished in with the manga, which makes them kind of difficult to find amidst all the brightly colored series books, and the adult graphic novels are tucked away in a far corner of the library that I’m never by, so I don’t always remember to go looking for them. I’m really hoping that they have a more prominent place when our new library building opens up late next year (I get so excited driving past the building site on Main Street and seeing the progress they’re making. It’s slow- they started tearing down the old abandoned grocery store that formerly sat in that site late this past spring, and it’s now just an empty lot with heaps of broken concrete, and the start of a small basement, but it’s definitely progress!) All that to say, I had a bit of a hard time locating Flying Couch: A Graphic Memoir by Amy Kurzweil (Black Balloon Publishing, 2016) during my last trip, but I’m glad I finally found it squished in there on the bottom shelf.

Growing up the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor isn’t easy for Amy. Her mother, a psychologist, overanalyzes everything; her grandmother has never really shared what she went through, but Amy, a budding artist, wants to learn her family’s stories. What happened to Bubbe? What does it all mean for their family, for Amy, for their future? Sliding around in time and incorporating the stories of all three women- grandmother, mother, daughter- Amy writes and illustrates the story of her grandmother’s survival in Poland, all that she lost, and all that she carries with her to this day. By doing so, Amy explores the trauma all three generations have suffered because of it.

Graphic memoir is such an interesting format for such a heavy topic. It’s still an intense subject, and Bubbe’s experiences fleeing, hiding, and losing almost her entire family absolutely reach in and rip out the reader’s soul. But the format tempers it slightly in a way that plain print doesn’t- it doesn’t lessen the emotional impact at all, but the illustrations wrap a fuzzy blanket of comfort around your shoulders as you digest the tragedy. Ms. Kurzweil represents her grandmother’s pain well, but her drawings, frame by frame, help soothe the ache and make the long-term effects of the tragedy easier to understand.

While this is definitely an emotional subject, Flying Couch is still a fast read (just take the time to appreciate all Ms. Kurzweil’s fabulous artwork!). I flew through it Sunday morning and it’s given me an even deeper understanding of the toll of generational trauma, and the importance of sharing our stories.

Visit Amy Kurzweil’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation by Eboo Patel

One good book leads to another.

If that’s not already something people say, it should be! I was fortunate enough to attend a virtual presentation by Wes Moore, author of The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates (amazing book; highly recommended), and at the end of that presentation, the woman who heads the program hosting him reminded us of another author event happening in the spring: our local parent education program will be hosting Eboo Patel, author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Beacon Press, 2007). I already had this event in my calendar- it’s not until the spring- but I was reminded that I needed to read the book, so I immediately put it on hold via interlibrary loan. It didn’t take too long to arrive at my local library branch.

Eboo Patel is an American of Indian heritage and an Ismaili Muslim. He grew up the next town over from me (making his upcoming visit extra exciting!) and graduated from the same high school system (though not the same school) that my son did. A slacker at first, his competitive nature came out during middle school and he began to take full advantage of his intellect. His diverse friend group, however, was a little harder to manage when it came to heavier issues such as religion, something he didn’t quite realize until he was older. College came close to radicalizing him, until he veered in a completely different direction, winding up a Rhodes scholar focusing on the sociology of religion.

Dr. Patel realized how often, in discussions of diversity, religion is left out of the conversation. He wasn’t serious about more formal religious practice until later on in life, but being Muslim was nevertheless an important part of his identity, and the way he connected to his faith was through service. Realizing that putting faith into action often highlighted the values all religions share, he set off down a path that eventually led him to form the Interfaith Youth Core, a service organization that brings together young people of all faiths to participate in service projects and connect via their shared values (and to learn about and from each other!). In example after example, he illustrates the tragedy of religious extremism and how the extremists don’t neglect the young people, but pull them in early and radicalize them in order to have them carry out the groups’ nefarious deeds. Why shouldn’t the good guys pull their youth in early as well and fill their hearts with the pressing need to not only serve their fellow humans, but to connect with each other and recognize that we’ve all got so much more in common than what separates us?

What a fascinating man. Dr. Patel seemed to grow up in such a normal way, slacking off in school to the point where a middle school science teacher was irritated to find he had him in class (a turning point for young Eboo, who realized he didn’t want to be *that* student). His college years were really interesting to read about, where he fell in with a group of friends who were just this side of radical. He could very well have veered off the path here, but other influences pulled him back in, and he seemed almost shocked to find himself at Oxford, where he finally discovered his passion and set about building an organization that would lead him to serve on President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships, as well as change countless lives.

Dr. Patel brings up so many good points in this book: so many faith communities tend to ignore their young people (and then are shocked, shocked! when those same young people don’t stick around as adults. There are some who do a great job at keeping their youth involved, though- the LDS Church is fantastic at this!). The extremists know that young people are the ones with the energy, who will turn their religious feelings into action, and Dr. Patel questions why we aren’t using their energy and enthusiasm for good. Why not put their desire to change the world into action, all the while forging stronger connections with each other and learning how to navigate and appreciate their differences? As Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her amazing book Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, understanding and appreciating other religions can very much lead to a deepening of our own faith practices, and a deeper understanding of the world. Why not teach our kids early on about how beautiful and beneficial this can be?

What an inspirational, hardworking man Dr. Patel is. I’m very much looking forward to hearing his talk this spring. He’s given me a lot of things to think about.

Learn more about Eboo Patel at the Interfaith Youth Core website.

Follow him 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. 🙂

memoir

Book Review: Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb

I’m not one to go out and read bestsellers and books that are super popular just because everyone else does. It’s usually pretty rare for me to run out and get something that was just published; I’m much more of a ‘comfortably wading through the backlist’ kind of a reader (a lot of this comes from reading off my TBR, but I’ve never been one to check the bestseller lists for new reading choices. End-of-the-year lists, however, are a massive weakness!). But sometimes I read things for a certain purpose, and occasionally those reads have a deadline to them- book clubs, for one, and author talks, like this one. Our local parent education group announced this past summer that Lori Gottlieb, author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed (Mariner Books, 2019), would be appearing virtually with their program this year, and I was like “Nice! Guess this means I’ll have to read that book of hers that I’ve been seeing all over the place.” It always looked interesting, but again, my TBR beckoned. Her visit later this month, however, has forced my hand, and I picked up a copy from a library display of staff picks two weeks ago.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Lori’s boyfriend up and dumps her, stating that he doesn’t want to live with a kid for the next ten years (a major problem, since Lori’s son is only eight). This causes somewhat of an existential crisis for Lori, and as a therapist herself, she needs to get things figured out and get back on her feet, in an emotional sense. In between her own sessions with clients struggling with various things in their lives, from facing their own death, to the death of a child, and how to rebuild a life in the twilight years, Lori sits on Wendell’s couch and tries to make sense of what went wrong with her boyfriend.

As a therapist, Lori seems deeply insightful and is able to pinpoint just the right question to ask to make her clients think. As a client, she even recognizes her own problem patterns but can’t seem to step outside of them without Wendell’s help. She recounts her own journeys through life while describing those of her clients (no HIPAA violations here, though!), picking apart the intricacies of human behavior with wisdom, understanding, and deep sympathy. Every story in the book wraps up with a decently neat little bow- obviously not how therapy always works, both for the client and the therapist- but it makes for some satisfying reading and provides a deeper look into what great therapy can be and should entail.

This is really a lovely read with an awful lot of insight. Lori reminds us that suffering isn’t a competition; just because someone else has a problem that seems bigger doesn’t mean that yours is nothing or insignificant, and that’s something I think we all need a reminder of (especially thanks to the barrage of those gross social media memes that portray someone suffering from a terrible illness or a major loss, and then it says something like, “Your problems don’t seem so bad now, do they?” STOP THAT. Stop trying to make everyone compete in the Suffering Olympics). Her ability to connect with her clients is remarkable, especially with the client she refers to as John, an arrogant, self-centered narcissist who uses barbs and sarcasm to deflect from the grief and pain he’s been carrying around for years. It would be easy to write him off completely and immediately, but Lori keeps trying until she’s able to find the way to getting John to open up. I don’t know that I would have the patience.

This is a moving story, full of other moving stories. Heads up for a lot of references to death, including death of a child and its entailing grief, and death from terminal illness, and learning to let go. Thinking about all the painful stories therapists listen to makes me wonder how any of them do such an intense job, and how busy they’re all going to be listening to healthcare providers process the trauma they’ve endured throughout this pandemic. The academic community is going to be researching, writing, and developing new methods of trauma treatment for decades to come after this.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is both intense and gentle at the same time; it’s a memoir that reads like a novel, but you’ll also learn a lot about what it takes to become a therapist, and a few important lessons about human nature as well.

I’ve been through a few therapists myself in the past; the best one I ever had was also named Lori, and I still hear her voice in my head quite often, despite leaving her office for the last time in 2004. I looked her up after finishing this book, wondering what she was up to, only to find that she passed away in 2017 after a bout with leukemia. May her memory be for a blessing.

Visit Lori Gottlieb’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Live as TV’s Most Influential Guru Advises by Robyn Okrant

I love yearlong experiment books (AJ Jacobs, anyone?). There’s something that seriously fascinates me about committing to a project for a full calendar year, for taking on a project around which you wrap your entire life. That’s how I stumbled across Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Live as TV’s Most Influential Guru Advises by Robyn Okrant (Center Street, 2008). For so long, Oprah reigned as the queen of daytime talk. She was so universal that even my good friend- a guy!- watched her in high school and would come into work and school discussing what he had seen on the show. My mom subscribed to O! magazine- maybe she still does, I don’t actually know. And as readers, we all know about Oprah’s book club. So this book immediately sounded fascinating to me. I missed out on Ms. Okrant’s project when it was ongoing, but I wasn’t going to miss out on her write-up of it!

An artist, actress, writer, and Chicagoan, Robyn Okrant knew about how far-reaching Oprah Winfrey’s influence stretched. But what would following all of her advice do to a person’s life? Not just some of it; ALL of it- if Oprah said to do it or buy it, watch it or consider it, Robyn would comply. And that’s how her Living Oprah project came to life. For one full calendar year, Robyn would take all of Oprah’s suggestions to heart, buying the products and clothing that Oprah claimed everyone neeeeeeeeeeeded, regardless of how Robyn felt about them, participating in the activities Oprah pushed, including exercise, reading assignments and webinars, watching movies, and of course watching The Oprah Winfrey Show and reading O! magazine cover to cover- taking notes the whole time, of course.

Some things worked well. Some things didn’t. And some things got really, really awkward. But along the way, Robyn learned a lot- about herself, about the way society markets certain things to women by first ensuring that they feel unsatisfied with their lives, and about the power of one person’s influence.

This is a really fun, thoughtful book. Ms. Okrant’s project lives right at the intersection of one-year experiments, pop culture, psychology, self-help, celebrity worship, and feminism, and her lighthearted, occasionally self-deprecating tone keeps the narrative moving without ever getting too bogged down by what was occasionally a slog of activities. This wasn’t at all a simple project; so much of what Oprah directed her audience to do involves a lot of exhaustive self-reflection and inner examination that might not always be comfortable, nor is the constant focus on weight and improving or making changes to your body something that’s health for everyone (a topic that Ms. Okrant, a yoga instructor who suffers from scoliosis, returns to several times throughout the book). She’s not afraid to criticize Oprah- she doesn’t *love* doing it either, but her criticism is fair and even-handed, and she brings up a lot of good points that made me think about the little bits of Oprah I do remember seeing.

Much like AJ Jacobs’s long-suffering wife, Ms. Okrant’s husband is a decent sport- mostly-about the way Robyn’s Living Oprah project takes over their entire life, which added an interesting perspective to the narrative and makes you wonder about how this works in marriages where one of the partners really does get obsessive about following the advice of another celebrity guru. This project took over Ms. Okrant’s entire life and sucked up so much of her time (and even wormed its way into her diet, clothing choices, workout routines, and sex life!), and it’s always interesting to see how it affects the partners (and children, if applicable) of the people who take on such all-consuming routines.

I was never a huge Oprah-watcher, solely because I was either at school or asleep when she was on (I believe she used to be on at 9 am here in Central Time Zone, but in my defense, I also lived in the Eastern Time Zone for five of my adult years and my sleep schedule was REALLY messed up, so I was often awake most of the night and sleeping in the morning), but I did enjoy the shows I was able to watch. At least I did until she got into her Eckhart Tolle, self-help-your-way-to-a-more-perfect-you spiel. I have no particular issue with that sort of thing; it’s just not my thing. But Robyn Okrant’s account of living through a full year of diving deep into the Tao of Oprah completely and utterly fascinated me. She did the work that I wasn’t interested in doing- but reading her account of it all was a lot of fun, and I truly, truly enjoyed every last bit of this book.

Visit Robyn Okrant’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit the website of the Yiddish Book Center here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq by Ariel Sabar

Combing through the selection of ebooks on my library’s website one day, I came across a book titled My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq by Ariel Sabar (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008). UM, YES! I’m always fascinated by the diversity of Jewish communities around the world and I love reading further about ones I’ve only ever heard mentioned by name (like the Jews who fled to Shanghai, China during World War II, which I hadn’t really known much about until I read Someday We Will Fly by Rachel DeWoskin). And lo and behold, this book was in as I’ve been working my way down the ebooks on my TBR. Win all around. 😊

Ariel Sabar wasn’t the greatest son growing up. He never connected with his dad and treated him terribly, especially as a teenager, but as an adult, he became curious. Who was this father of his? Yona Sabar is one of the world’s foremost scholars of neo-Aramaic, a language of which he happens to be a native speaker. He grew up in Kurdish Iraq, in the mostly Jewish town of Zakho, the last generation to live there in the years before modernity reached the town. His family fled to Israel in 1951, where he struggled to learn the language and live in a way that was entirely different from everything he’d ever known. A hard worker and a good student, Yona earned a place at Hebrew University, where his studies of the linguistics of his native language, via the folktales and lullabies he grew up with, propelled him into a career that would take him around the world and have him consulting with Hollywood when they needed help with Aramaic translation.

This is the story of a man whose life has undergone numerous massive changes. Time and time again, Yona has had to reinvent himself and learn how to survive and thrive in entirely new societies, in entirely new languages, and he’s always risen to the challenge, though maybe not to the level of coolness his teenage son desired. His son worked hard to understand him as an adult, however, to research and pen this riveting account of a fascinating life, and to do what he could to make up for the ways he felt he had failed his father. My Father’s Paradise is a beautiful account of a son’s understanding of his father, but it’s also a look at how the world has changed over such a short period of time, and what’s necessary for survival when times are difficult.

Wow. This was truly a fascinating book. Imagine growing up in a small Iraqi village with no electricity, with dirt roads full of sheep, where clothes are still dyed by hand and washed in the river, and by the time you’re verging on retirement, your life consists of air travel, credit cards, air conditioning, the Internet, all viewed from your modern home in Los Angeles. Yona Sabar grew up thinking he would likely take over his father’s dyeing business or work some other small job in his village of Zakho, and because life happened, he’s a world-renowned scholar and professor. That much change is absolutely mind-bending. How anyone could even begin to process all these changes is mystifying.

Ariel Sabar truly captures the spirit of the Zakho his father grew up with, a Zakho to whom modernity has finally arrived. It’s a place that exists only in memory now, with modern buildings and American pop music a part of its current landscape, but through the power of Ariel’s writing, the Zakho of old comes back to life. If you enjoy writing with a strong sense of place and books that will transport you to another world (especially worlds of the past), this is a must-read. But more than a sense of place, he captures the strength and determination of his quiet, humble father, a man who, despite circumstances that haven’t always been easy or pleasant, despite coming from a family that has suffered trauma along the way, has always risen to the challenges presented to him. He’s a father to be proud of, with a proud past and a proud history, and watching his son recognize all of this is heartwarming.

This is a lovely, fascinating book. You’ll learn a lot- about the Kurdish Jews of Zakho, of course, and what their lives were like, but also about strength, perseverance, and what it takes to mend a frayed father-son relationship. I really enjoyed this.

Visit Ariel Sabar’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Shunned: How I Lost My Religion and Found Myself by Linda A. Curtis

Pretty sure I learned about Shunned: How I Lost My Religon and Found Myself by Linda A. Curtis (She Writes Press, 2018) from a list of books about people leaving various religious groups and sects (Goodreads actually has a bunch of these lists! The number of boxes that say READ for me on these lists is almost a little embarrassing…). It can be a little tricky reading about Jehovah’s Witnesses. So many of the memoirs make its adherents’ lives seem so bleak, what with the no holiday or birthday celebrations. Quite a few of the memoir authors’ lives as children lacked any kind of joy, just slogging through life from meeting to door knocking to school, lather, rinse, repeat. Shunned wasn’t quite that heavy, fortunately.

Linda Curtis grew up a devout Jehovah’s Witness, beginning to knock on doors to bring others into the fold when she was just nine years old. Unable to participate in classroom celebrations with her friends or any of the regular teenage dating rituals in high school, she forgoes college (why bother, when Armageddon is surely around the corner?) and works part-time while full-time knocking on doors, and then marries young to a man about whom she already has serious doubts before the wedding. Career-wise, things take off for her; Linda begins to realize all that she’s capable of, all that she’s good at. When she meets a co-worker, one she likes and respects, on the other side of a door one afternoon, she hears what her practiced Witness speech must sound like to his ears for the very first time, and she begins to question a religion that would so willingly throw such a nice guy away.

The questions and doubts fly fast and furious after this, and before long, Linda has divorced her husband, gone inactive in the church, and moved away. Divorce is unacceptable to the Witnesses, however, and she and her husband are still considered married to them- he’s not allowed to date again unless she admits to finding someone else, thus committing what the church considers adultery (legal divorce doesn’t matter to them). And when she does, that’s grounds for her family to shun her. Linda understands that this is coming and accepts this as a consequence of living an honest life. It’s painful and difficult to create an entirely new life on her own, but she does, one that is beautiful and authentic, though the wounds from her family never truly heal.

This is a well-written memoir. I didn’t necessarily gain any new insights into the JW religion or culture, but it was an interesting look at what a Witness family looked like. (Her father didn’t join until Linda was mostly on the way out, which added an interesting perspective.) I can’t say this endeared me at all to the Jehovah’s Witness sect, though- I understand having faith and it being deeply important to your life. I don’t understand it taking precedence over any kind of a relationship with one’s children. I’m deeply committed to my Judaism, but my kids are free to be whatever it is they need to be, whatever it is they feel is right for them and their outlook on the world. I cannot imagine looking at them and saying, “If you don’t believe exactly like me, I don’t want you in my life.” I’m actually really appalled that there are parents out there who do that, in any group. (That’s not to say I don’t understand why some families cut off contact with each other- it happens; not all relationships are successful or healthy, and sometimes you need to put some distance between each other when things get toxic. This, however, I feel is in an entirely different category, and it breaks my heart that kids are left high and dry because of religious beliefs, or lack thereof.)

It impressed me how Linda didn’t maintain a sense of bitterness or anger at her family (or if she did, it didn’t come through in her writing). I don’t know that I could have been so kind- I feel like if my parents no longer wanted to talk to me, I’d just shrug and be like, “For that? Wow, your loss, then,” and wouldn’t necessarily be open to them reaching out in any capacity. Because if I’m not good enough for you to keep around in your daily life, why would you expect me to come running for…anything? Maybe that’s just me, but I couldn’t live holding out hope that maybe, maybe one day my family would beg me to come crawling back. Nah. If you don’t want me around, that’s fine. Too bad for you, but I’m staying gone, then. I’m curious as to what makes Linda as gracious and forgiving as she was with her family during the brief respite she got upon returning home for her grandmother’s death. I wouldn’t have been so forgiving. (I was also seriously impressed at her career trajectory. She made a place for herself in the finance world with no secondary education and reached seriously impressive levels of success. GO LINDA!)

This book did seem to drag a bit at the end, but otherwise, it’s an enjoyable read and a look at what happens when parents decide that allegiance to a religious group, or religious ideals, trumps any relationship with their children. It’s depressing at times, but ultimately, it’s more of an inspiration, of having the courage to find the path in life that’s authentic to who you are.

Visit Linda A. Curtis’s website here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son by Michael Ian Black

If you’re my age (40) or older, you might remember a sketch comedy show from MTV called The State. With sketches like Barry and Levon, The Jew, the Italian, and the Redhead Gay, Doug, and The Animal Song, The State was irreverent and hilarious, and twelve/thirteen year-old me was utterly obsessed. Quite a few of the cast members have gone on to have flourishing careers in Hollywood, including Ken Marino, Michael Showalter, Thomas Lennon, and, one of my favorites, Michael Ian Black (not gonna lie; tween/early teen me thought he was super cute). So when one of my friends mentioned she was reading his A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son (Algonquin Books, 2020), onto my TBR it went. I checked the shelves for it a few times at the library, but it was always checked out, but last time, it was in. Score!

The book begins with some disturbing images of the Sandy Hook school shooting. Black and his wife reside in Connecticut, one town over from Newtown, and were thus tasked explaining the murders to their young children. This sent him down a path of pondering what’s wrong with manhood and masculinity today, since it’s overwhelmingly boys and men that commit these atrocious mass shootings. What are we doing, what are we teaching our boys that far too many of them find solace solely in violence? Why do we shove boys and men into such small boxes, emotionally speaking, and then act shocked that so many of them are emotionally stunted? Why do we act like being emotionally stunted is a good thing? What are we even doing here???

This is a really deep look into how badly we fail our sons and how much our society suffers for it. Some of it is a memoir, of where Black succeeded, where he failed, where he could have done better, and where he was allowed to skate by simply because he’s a white man. Other parts are heartfelt advice to his son: do this; don’t get messed up with that; allow yourself to feel things; don’t fall into the traps of masculinity that society says you must; I’ll keep trying to be a better man, and so should you, because we owe it to ourselves and to the world.

This is a really beautiful book. Time after time, I was blown away by Black’s in-depth thoughts on how toxic we’ve made manhood. (Remember when Fox News flipped out about Obama’s tan suit and his ordering Dijon mustard on his hamburger? That’s part of it. Flavor and style are feminine traits, y’all. Real men eat sawdust and wear barrels with straps *eyeroll*) We can all be better about this; we can all do better with this, and there are so many examples of how in this book. This is a subject about which he obviously cares deeply and has spent a lot of time thinking about, and it shows in his writing (which is smooth, witty, and enjoyable to read). This is a man who loves his kids and isn’t afraid of being tender with them. I hope his son realizes- someday, even if he’s not there yet- what an absolute gift his father has given him by writing this.

Who can benefit from this book? Quite frankly, everyone. Parents of sons. Parents of daughters. Anyone who interacts with men and women. Young men. Young women. People who read. People who don’t read. If you’ve ever wondered what’s wrong with American society, you should definitely read this book. Reading this made me wish I could sit down for a long conversation with Michael Ian Black, because he’s obviously an intelligent man who puts a lot of thought into the things he cares about, and I’d love to hear more from him.

What a wonderful, moving, thought-provoking book. I was sad to reach the end.

Follow Michael Ian Black on Twitter.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Here and There: Leaving Hasidism, Keeping My Family by Chaya Deitsch

Another memoir! I’ve been reading off of my TBR as usual and have been ordering a bunch of these memoirs from interlibrary loan. I’m wondering if I had found a list of Jewish-themed memoirs and that accounts for this streak in my TBR. Probably! Anyway, that’s likely how Here and There: Leaving Hasidism, Keeping My Family by Chaya Deitsch (Shocken, 2015) wound up in my reading pile. The publishing world has seen quite a few memoirs written by people who have left the Haredi world, but honestly, I’m not tired of these at all. There’s something that fascinates me deeply about the hows and whys of people who radically change the way they live- whether it’s going from living a strict religious life to a more relaxed one (or the other way around!), leaving a terrible relationship, going from rags to riches (or the opposite way around!), moving to a new country, all of these scenarios intrigue me. I’m so grateful to all the memoir authors who dig deep and allow us to take a peek into their lives and hearts and minds.

Chaya Deitsch was raised in a not-terribly-strict Lubavitch family. Lubavitchers are best known these days for Chabad houses and Mitzvah Tanks. If your city has a yearly giant menorah for Hanukkah, odds are that Chabad is responsible for it (Nashville used to have one down on Broadway by the river; it always used to make me smile when I’d drive by it every November/December). Over Chaya’s life, the movement went from being more kabbalistic and hyperspiritual to one more focused on outreach and bringing secular Jews back into regular observance. Chaya’s family lived in New Haven, Connecticut, outside of the Lubavitch center of Crown Heights, New York City, and thus, with the eyes of the community not on them full-time, the parents are more relaxed and Chaya and her sisters are allowed more freedom than most other Lubavitch girls.

From an early age, Chaya knew that life as an adult Lubavitcher wasn’t for her. The early marriage, soon followed by an ever-increasing pack of children, wasn’t what she wanted for herself. The restrictions on female worship- being separated from the men by a sheet or a mechitza (or being tucked away altogether upstairs in the balcony), not being allowed to sing, not being allowed to fully study or engage in religious debates- grated. The focus on modesty and gender-based dress standards irritated her. None of this was what she wanted for her life, though in her late teens, she made a last-ditch effort to please her parents by attending a strict British seminary (a post-high school year or two of religious study for Orthodox students).

There’s no set moment where Chaya decides to walk away; there’s no big moment where she dashes away in the night or blows up her life by making a single decision that will take her away from the fold altogether. Rather, she slowly moves away from her strict Orthodox standards, small step by small step, into a life that feels more authentic to her.

If you’re looking for major drama, you won’t find it here, but you will find a story of a woman who understands both she and her parents tried their best, and that there’s no set way to live that works for everyone. Unlike most other stories of people who have walked away from Haredi or Hasidic families and who are summarily shunned, Chaya still manages to maintain a good relationship with her family. They may not fully understand her, and she may not fully admit to them all the parts of her new life that don’t jive with how they live, but they’ve kept each other, a testament to the strength of their bond and the unconditional love of her parents. This is a really big deal and I have to say I was extremely impressed with how understanding her parents are. I hope I can always accept the choices my kids make with such grace.

This is a really lovely memoir of a woman who recognizes early on that what she’s raised with isn’t right for her- not because she wants to act out or defy anything in a religious sense, merely because it’s just not a good fit, and I find that incredibly admirable.

Follow Chaya Deitsch on Twitter here.