memoir

Book review: Wiving: A Memoir of Loving then Leaving the Patriarchy by Caitlin Myer

I’ve made it clear many times on this blog that one of my favorite kinds of books to read are memoirs about people’s experiences leaving religious groups (the more restrictive the better, but I’m open to any kind of exodus here). What makes some people leave, when others can’t imagine departing? Are there differences between the messages sent and what is received? What are the factors that aid in leaving, where is the breaking point, how do they rebuild their lives in the outside world? The psychology behind all of this fascinates me to no end, and I was so pleased to be offered a review copy of Wiving: A Memoir of Loving then Leaving the Patriarchy by Caitlin Myer (Arcade, 2020). I don’t know that I’ve ever hit the ‘reply’ button in my email so quickly.

Caitlin Myer was born in the late 60’s into a Mormon family whose mother was plagued by bipolar disorder, spending much of her time closed in her bedroom and closed off from the hearts of her six children. Amidst that constant pain, Caitlin loses her best friend at age 7 to leukemia; her older cousin begins molesting her later on that same year. In a culture, both religious and secular, that pushes girls and women to focus on becoming wives and mothers to the detriment of all other accomplishments, she flounders, grappling for purchase onto any male that pays her the least bit of attention, regardless of the healthiness of that attachment. Often, the attachments cause her pain and impede her growth, and even leaving behind the restrictions of her birth religion and the chaos of her family doesn’t help. It’s only after years of struggle, painful life experience, and medical challenges that Caitlin begins to grow into the self she always knew she could be, beyond the restraints placed upon her as a child- not in a perfect manner, but with the deep wisdom that comes realizing that the only way to survive is to change the course of the story itself.

Wiving is prose that reads like poetry. Caitlin Myer has created a raw memoir, a full-on confessional in which she divulges her deepest secrets, with the effect of a mosaic, tiny bits and pieces that collectively add up to a singular whole of a woman who has suffered greatly to find her place in the world. Her early childhood, lost in a sea of siblings with parents focused solely on their own survival, led her to fill this void and seek out approval in the only arena she had been taught was acceptable, at the foot of any man who paid her the least bit of attention. “I never felt like I got enough attention,” she writes. “Maybe nobody ever does.” It’s hard to imagine how Caitlin’s parents could have done better in the circumstances in which they lived and were raised themselves, especially within the confines of her mother’s bipolar disorder and the lack of effective treatment at the time, but this does veer into the territory of cautionary tale for today’s reader.

Her condemnation of the patriarchy, both religious and otherwise, is worthy and on point. “It is simultaneously expected for a woman to arrange her life around a man’s needs, and shameful for her to do so,” she writes, a message echoed daily in opinion pieces which outline the impossible demands on all women- be feminine and sexy, but not slutty; have children, but not too many; have a job, but also be a perfect homemaker; be educated but don’t display your wisdom. “We have made a bright line between wife, whore, victim, and set each against the other, but they all grow from the same story,” she tells us, and it’s the truth. These patriarchal messages come in many forms, but they all absorb in a similar fashion, and the stories they create play out across cultures and societies in nearly identical ways. While Caitlin’s story isn’t a unique one, her telling is, skipping back and forth in time to create a raw tapestry of pain and growth, of decisions colored by the desires of others and choices made in the wake of her own hard-won sophistication.

This is not an easy read. There are obvious content warnings for molestation and sexual abuse, neglect, sexual assault, long-term illness and death. Ms. Myer’s pain is fresh and raw on every page, and it’s impossible not to grieve along with her for all that she’s suffered under the guise of becoming the perfect woman in the eyes of the societies in which she’s moved.

Wiving will take you on your own road of self-examination, of dissecting how the patriarchy and its constrictive rules have affected your life, life path, and behavior. We should all be as fortunate as Caitlin Myer to arrive at a place of such profound awareness and self-acceptance.

Thanks to Caitlin Myer and Kristen Ludwigsen of Mindbuck Media for the chance to read and review an advance copy of the book!

Wiving: A Memoir of Loving then Leaving the Patriarchy is available today, July 28, 2020.

memoir

Book Review: How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones

One more book down from the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge, and also one off my TBR (no worries, though, I’ve added like five more books since then, so it’s in no danger of getting smaller…). For this particular prompt, I needed a book with only words on the cover, no images or graphics, and the Goodreads group for this challenge pointed out that How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones (Simon & Schuster, 2019) both fit the bill and was on my TBR. Magic!

Saeed Jones, the son of a single mother, grew up in Texas. Growing up Black and gay in the South is no easy feat, and as he begins his own adult life, he struggles deeply with identity: who he is, where his sense of identity comes from, who his mother expected him to be, who his grandmother tried to force him to be, who he really wants to be. For too long, he uses sex as an escape mechanism, one that allows him to ignore the question about the things that define him, but always, always, he’s pulled back to the love his mother gave him, even through the pain of losing her.

This memoir is difficult to sum up. Saeed Jones writes about the struggle of living at the intersection of being Black and gay, but it’s more than that. His memoir is about identity, the difficulty in defining our images of ourselves amidst all the conflicting messages we receive from our families and the many cultures that surround us. Case in point: while Saeed’s mother raised him as a Buddhist, he spent summers with his very Christian grandmother, who had a very different idea of who her grandson should be than her own daughter did. His resulting search for identity, one we all go through to some degree as we transition from adolescence to adulthood, is fraught with challenges, ones that cause pain to both himself and others. Perhaps some of this is inevitable, but Saeed’s story makes it clear that it doesn’t have to be, that accepting people for who they are and allowing them to be themselves would lessen a lot of that pain considerably.

There’s strong sexual content in this book, along with multiple scenes of homophobia, and the serious illness and death of a parent. Go easy on yourself if these are things that will be difficult to read about right now.

How We Fight For Our Lives is a quick read, since Saeed Jones’s writing flows like water, but it will leave the reader with a lot to think about concerning who we are and how easily we’re able to define ourselves. If your transition from childhood to adulthood was a smooth one, where everyone accepted you at face value and allowed you to be who you needed to be, read this to learn how privileged you were and expand your sense of empathy.

Visit Saeed Jones’s website here and here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: A River Could Be a Tree by Angela Himsel

Another book right up my alley! Funny story about A River Could Be a Tree by Angela Himsel (Fig Tree Books, 2018). So my library opened up this week to start doing curbside pickups. Cool, cool. (They also, after four years of arguing with our local park district, made the move to purchase an empty grocery store downtown and will be building an entirely new library, but that’s beside the point- but can you FEEL my excitement?!?!?!!????) They have a really great selection of ebooks, including early chapter books for kids (like The Magic Tree House series and the Junie B. Jones series) so we’re managing okay, and thus I figured I’d leave the curbside pickup services to people who don’t have the privilege of checking out ebooks. But on the very first day of curbside pickup, I received an email letting me know that this book, which I’d placed on hold via interlibrary loan in MARCH, was waiting for me (and had been this whole time, but the library had been closed). Woot! Even with their reduced hours, I was able to run over and grab it that day. This is the first paper book I’ve read since the end of March or early April!

Angela Himsel was raised in the basically-a-cult Worldwide Church of God (now Grace Communion International), a bizarre fundamentalist sect which forbade celebrating birthdays and Christian holidays (which they considered pagan) and instead celebrated appropriated versions of Jewish holidays, including observing the Sabbath on Saturdays. The church’s focus on the End Times eclipsed most everything else, and Angela grew up pondering some of the more esoteric points of the Bible, such as which of her ten siblings her parents would eat in the end of days. She believed in the religion of her childhood so fervently; this, coupled with growing up in a very small, very white town in southern Indiana, very much stunted her views on what the rest of the world looked like.

A meeting with her high school guidance counselor put her on the path to college; a single glimpse of a study abroad brochure had her making plans to study in Jerusalem. Once there, Angela fell in love with Israel, but the more she searched, the more difficult it became to find the answers to her many questions about the religion she grew up with. And in Israel, she made the surprising discovery that Jews- those Hebrews of the Bible that had so fascinated her- still existed! (Ahhh, growing up in small Midwestern towns. I so understand this.) Her faith struggles continued well after moving back to the US and setting up a life in New York City, but getting involved with a man raised as the son of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi set her on the path to an eventual conversion and finding a new home for her soul.

There are some content warnings for this book, including the death of a child and a few other deaths (though these occur later on in life), and a few brief mentions of sexual assault and abuse.

Reading about Ms. Himsel’s childhood and about how she didn’t know about the seedy underbelly of her church (including financial scandals, sexual abuse, and more) until long after she reached adulthood made me so, so grateful for the flood of information that is the internet. It’s so much easier these days to check into an organization, and anything we want, a luxury that Ms. Himsel and her family didn’t have during the days before the internet’s existence. I can’t help but wonder how much heartache has been saved simply because people can now look into religious groups before committing their time, their money, and their lives. Ms. Himsel’s parents remained in their whole lives, most likely due to the sunk-cost fallacy or escalation of commitment, essentially doubling down after terrible outcomes instead of admitting one’s losses were for nothing. And their losses here were sizable and painful.

I so enjoy these kinds of memoirs, learning what once drew the author to a certain religion or religious group and what eventually pulled them away, but my one beef is that generally, if/when the author does find a religious home in which he or she is comfortable, that section is usually more rushed and lacks as much depth as the beginning. That’s not just a criticism of this book; most memoirs of this genre seem to follow that same path, so this feels more like a general editing decision for all books of this type, and I wish editors would reevaluate this. I’d love to hear more about what draws the authors down their new paths (if there is one), what appeals to them about their new practices and why. Ms. Himsel’s Orthodox conversion only covered a very small amount of pages in this book, and I would have loved to read more- more about why this was the right decision for her, more about what she loved about living a Jewish life, more about what she found surprising or difficult or especially wonderful (if anything) after her conversion.

I’m counting this book as my choice for the Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge prompt of a memoir by someone from a religious tradition (or lack thereof) that is not your own. I’m not sure if I’ll continue on with this challenge (this year has been so weird and reading is so different right now that I’m thinking about completing the PopSugar Challenge and calling it good!), but this book was on my TBR and so I’m thrilled to finally have read it!

A River Could Be a Tree is deeply fascinating. While I wish it would have gone deeper into her conversion and post-conversion life, Ms. Himsel’s story so intrigued me that I flew through this book in two days. If you enjoy religious exit memoirs (seriously, is there a better term for this genre???) the way that I do, this shouldn’t be missed.

Visit Angela Himsel’s website here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Devotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro

Onward with the reading challenges! (Or at least the one I’m most focused on, anyway.) I needed a book with a three-word title for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge, and, upon searching my TBR, found that my library had an ebook of Devotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro (Harper, 2010). This one ended up on my TBR last year after I read her other memoir, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, so I was really looking forward to reading her again and ticking off another box on the PopSugar Reading Challenge.

(Side note: Either there aren’t a lot of books with three-word titles, or I am just not drawn to those particular books!)

Ms. Shapiro writes of middle age and the challenges that come along with it. Having almost lost her son as a baby to a seizure disorder has left her with what is most likely some measure of PTSD and her anxiety about him and the rest of life is through the roof. She’s been asking the big questions about the meaning of life and how best to cope, but hasn’t come upon any true answers, and she’s not entirely sure she even knows how to.

Along the way, she discovers yoga and meditation, and those help, as do the lessons she learns from the mentors she seeks out. She also grapples with the Orthodox Judaism with which she was raised and has since abandoned- what parts of it, if any, does she want to retain? How can she pass along to her son a tradition she’s not fully comfortable in or with? There are never any concrete answers, only a sense of becoming comfortable with the questions and discomfort that life causes, and the knowledge that the search, however meandering, is an important part of life.

I liked this. It felt like a poignant read for these times. She occasionally moves back and forth in time, wanders here and there in her memories, but it’s never difficult to follow her train of thought. I understood her anxiety, the kind that wakes you up in the middle of the night (HELLO, THREE AM THIS MORNING!) and makes you unable to enjoy or fully live in this present moment. Worrying about your kids, worrying about the state of the world, that indescribable feeling of dread that pervades every moment of your life and always seems to be hanging out in the background, ready to crank up to eleven at any given moment, Ms. Shapiro does a great job of illustrating what life looks like with this.

Grappling with the religion she was born into is also something I understood, and while our paths differed in that Ms. Shapiro seems to have eventually found a balance with hers, I enjoyed reading the details of her search. At one point, she wrote about finally finding a synagogue that felt like home, and the name of the rabbi rang a bell. I googled, and sure enough, he had appeared on an episode of the Unorthodox podcast (Ms. Shapiro has also appeared on this podcast)! Small world. I love when that happens.

If you’re looking for a memoir with more concrete answers and advice, this may not be the book for you, but Devotion: A Memoir documents well that the journey is important, too; that anxiety, though a constant companion for many of us, can be managed in many different ways; that sometimes what we’re born into needs to be rearranged in order to fit the person we grow into. Two thumbs up for what ended up feeling like a calming read for me during this turbulent time.

Visit Dani Shapiro’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book review: Concealed by Esther Amini

This week in my (Re)Introduction to Judaism class was our week to study Jewish history from Creation to the Enlightenment. Thousands of years of history in just an hour and a half, not an easy feat, and as the rabbi teaching the class said, “Jewish history is a bit of a misnomer. We have Jewish histories, plural.” And in a stunning bit of serendipity, this lesson showed up in my own life when I was offered a chance to read and review Concealed by Esther Amini (Greenpoint Press, 2020). After reading the premise of this new memoir, I leapt at the chance, because this sounded perfect for me, and it was. From the very first paragraph, I was hooked.

Esther Amini was born in New York, but her parents and older brothers came from a world away in Iran, Mashhadi Jews who spent their lives passing as Muslim in order to stay safe and alive, living as Jadid al-Islam, a kind of Persian converso. Outwardly, they presented as Muslim, their status as Jews a public secret; when tensions rose and the community stopped looking the other way, violence- stonings, robberies, assault, and murder, all sanctioned by the government- erupted. It was with this trauma that Esther’s parents lived, affecting their marriage, their outlook on life, and how their raised their children.

“Can we ever really know our parents?” Ms. Amini asks, before admitting the weight and sheer gravitas of this task. In this memoir, she recounts the struggles of her youth and young adulthood with parents whose volatile marriage and difficulty adapting to the cultural norms of their new home touched every part of her life. As she matures, she comes to understand her father’s fierce overprotectiveness and silence, her mother’s drive for independence and single-minded desire to stand out, while still acknowledging their faults and gathering the determination to stop the pattern of chaos with her own children.

A memoir of religion, immigration, family history, the challenge of reaching an adult understanding of one’s parents, and healing from the scars of the past, Concealed tells a story of a life lived with grace, perseverance, forgiveness, and the drive to shed the turmoil of one’s past.

I’d known there were Jewish communities in Iran, but Concealed was my introduction to what those communities look like. Extremely insular out of necessity, the community suffered greatly and lived in constant fear for their lives. It was after Esther’s brother David, then three, was burned on the ear with a red-hot fire poker by his teacher (who also screamed a terrible antisemitic pejorative at him) that Esther’s mother insisted that they needed to leave.

What fascinated me, however, was how much of the surrounding Persian culture and the lifestyle her parents had needed to adopt in order to survive, yet which they still carried with them to their new country. Early marriage for girls, as young as nine and to men twenty to fifty years older, was the norm in Iran (for the Mashhadi Jews, the reasoning behind this early marriage stemmed from the fact that minority girls and women ran a higher risk of being raped, which would then affect their chances of being married at all; thus, the earlier the marriage, the safer they would be, the reasoning went). While marriage at nine was, thankfully, out of the question, Esther’s parents made it clear that marriage, the earlier the better, was the only goal they had for her. Doing nothing to disavow her parents of the notion that graduation from high school was mandatory in America, Esther put all her effort into her studies, determined to make something more of herself than the anemic vision of her future presented to her by her parents. The book illustrates an almost stunning parallel: her parents sneaking and hiding their Jewishness in Iran, and Esther’s furtive studying, hiding books under the covers and reading with a flashlight, sneaking schoolbooks from her parents. The type of survival differed, but both types of concealment were necessary for each person to persist.

Her brothers were encouraged to study and work hard, however, a sexist stereotype that unfortunately transcends culture. “Stop thinking. No man will marry you,” her father told her. “Books are evil, they poison girls’ minds.” Her mother, herself illiterate, mocked Esther’s constant studying and desire to attend college. Her brothers, however, formed a team to educate and protect her, teaching her about periods, taking her bra shopping, serving as the knowledgeable, tuned-in substitute parents she desperately needed. “Es, create a mind you want to live with,” her brother David told her. And through hard work, trial and error, and the help of a good therapist, she does.

Her parents are mysteries, human contradictions whom Esther defies as a young adult, then endeavors to understand as she ages and then has children herself. Her father, harsh and reticent with a fierce protective streak, remains an enigma until she sees him through the eyes of a parent. Her mother, never missing a chance to create a spectacle, denied so much in her own life yet content to deny so much in her daughter’s, felt the world owed her, something Esther doesn’t come to terms with until late in her mother’s life. Maybe we can’t ever truly know who our parents our, but Esther Amini never stops trying, never gives up piecing together the puzzle of where she came from and how it affected her. Readers will triumph alongside her as she reaches hard-won conclusions and answers about the family she was born into.

Concealed is an intriguing memoir of not just one woman, but of a family, of a community, of the past and how it follows us all, and the effort it takes to grow and flourish beyond the places predetermined for us. Esther Amini is an absolute bastion of strength and determination, and her meticulous insight glows on every page of this book. If you enjoy memoirs, you won’t want to miss this original take on the genre spotlighting a community and a type of voice not often heard from.

Special thanks to Alessandra Scarpaci of Wunderkind PR and Greenpoint Press for sending me a review copy of Concealed.

Visit Esther Amini’s website here.

Follow her on Facebook here.

Follow her on Instagram here.

memoir · nonfiction

In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom- Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers

I love nonfiction. I could read it exclusively (and kind of have in the past), although I realize that’s kind of outside the norm for book bloggers. I so enjoy learning and getting to expand my knowledge of the world, so I was excited to find a nonfiction pick as this month’s Library Book Reading Group selection. I’ve read two books about North Korea in the past (The Girl With Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee with David John, and Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick; both excellent books and highly recommended, especially Nothing to Envy) and have found the subject alarming and deeply intriguing, so I’m really looking forward to the group discussion of In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom by Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers (Penguin Press, 2015).

Yeonmi Park lived a semi-privileged existence in North Korea, under the dictatorships of Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Un. Despite rarely having electricity, having no running water, at different times having her parents imprisoned, having to forage in the forest for plants to eat in order to not starve and weighing only 60 pounds when she escaped, at the age of 13, with her mother in 2007, Yeonmi and her sister were better off than many of the North Korean children around them. As their living situation and the conditions in the country continued to deteriorate, the family began to realize their only hope of survival was escape. But in a country where even making a joke about the leader could lead to one’s execution, escape carried with it nearly as many risks as staying.

When Yeonmi and her mother flee across the river to China, they fall into the hands of human traffickers. They’re separated for some time, but through determination, some help along the way, and more than a bit of luck, they’re able to finally make it to the safe haven of South Korea, where the fight to finally build a life for themselves, find Yeonmi’s sister (who escaped just before them) and pull themselves free of the North Korean indoctrination presents yet another challenge.

Yeonmi’s story isn’t all that different than so many other defector’s stories. There are some serious moments of heartbreak here, including multiple accounts of rape and the death of family members, so take care to prepare yourself or choose another book if this isn’t the right time for you to read this. She explains in depth how much she and her fellow North Koreans had to numb themselves to the pain of others in order to survive and maintain the regime’s facade that theirs was a prosperous country with no problems; seeing piles of dead bodies in the streets, fellow citizens who had starved to death, was nothing out of the ordinary, and ignoring it was a matter of survival, mental, physical, and emotional. When you’ve been taught to care for nothing but your country’s leader, caring for your neighbor is a concept that doesn’t exist. A particularly harrowing quote:

‘The frozen babies that starving mothers abandoned in the alleys did not fit into my worldview, so I couldn’t process what I saw. It was normal to see bodies in trash heaps, bodies floating in the river, normal to just walk by and do nothing when a stranger cried for help.’

The propaganda fed to North Koreans is incredible. Yeonmi grew up believing Kim Jong-Il could read her mind and she would be punished for any bad thoughts about him. She and her classmates are taught to inform authorities on their parents and neighbors, and even their schoolwork is taught through a nationalistic lens of propaganda (“If you kill one Yankee bastard and your friend kills three, how many Yankee bastards have you killed?”). The flow of information is tightly controlled and Yeonmi’s family has almost no idea of how the rest of the world really lives- though the propaganda they’re fed tells them that North Korea is the most powerful nation on earth, and every other country is an utter nightmare to live in. It’s all doublespeak to the extreme, almost as if the leaders of the country were using 1984 as an instruction manual.

Her escape and journey to South Korea is harrowing and disturbing, especially considering how young she was at the time. I’ve read that it’s very difficult for defectors to build new lives, even with financial support of the South Korean government, for diverse reasons but mainly due to things like PTSD, lack of education and difficulty catching up, and difficulty learning to live in a society so radically different from the one in which they were raised (and one they were propagandized against). I can’t imagine the struggle, and it’s amazing that anyone comes out the other side and manages any kind of a life at all. So much pain, so much loss, so much left behind.

My book group discussion isn’t until the middle of this month, but I’ve got four pages (back and front) of notes I can go over in order to keep things fresh in my memory. Ms. Park apparently lives in the US now, is married, and is continuing her human rights work. She’s also a huge reader (it’s really the best club to be a part of, isn’t it???), which thrills me and fills my heart with such pride for her and all her many accomplishments. That she could survive such a brutal regime and use her life to shine a light on the egregious human rights’ violations ongoing in North Korea, while still working hard to improve herself every day, is inspiring. What an amazing story.

Visit Yeonmi Park’s website here.

Watch her TED talk here. (Highly recommended!)

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

The Color of Love- Marra B. Gad

For all its ills, social media is useful for a lot of things (like finding out my favorite Indian restaurant closed *sob*), and one of them is connecting with other bookish people in various groups. I belong to a few readers’ groups on Facebook, along with a host of other various groups, and it was from one of those groups that I learned about The Color of Love: A Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl by Marra B. Gad (Agate Bolden, 2019). The story was pitched as being about a mixed-race Jewish woman who eventually had to take care of a family member who treated her terribly. It’s that, but it’s so much more, and I’m deeply grateful I was able to obtain a copy through interlibrary loan.

Marra Gad was biologically the child of a Jewish woman and a black man. Her first mother knew she couldn’t keep her baby, and thus a rabbi helped to find a Jewish family to adopt Marra. Marra’s parents were happy to have a baby at all; the child’s skin color made no difference to them, but it didn’t take long for them to realize how differently the world around them felt, and member by member, their family and circle grew smaller. Within pages, you’ll be gasping out loud in utter shock and total disgust at the comments that family and friends thought nothing of leveling at Marra. Despite your heartbreak and rage on Marra’s behalf, read on; this is an important story.

Throughout her childhood and young adulthood, Marra is ostracized and made to feel different by the community that should have embraced her and celebrated her. Fortunately, she has her close family- parents, siblings, grandparents- to love her, fight for her, and instill a strong sense of self-worth in her. As the years go by and her family members begin to age and need care, Marra finds herself the only available family member to care for her out-of-state great-aunt, the woman who was perhaps the cruelest to Marra throughout her life. Despite the pain it causes her, she does so because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s never easy.

I won’t lie; this book brought me to tears multiple times. I kept turning back to Ms. Gad’s picture on the back inside flap and wanting so badly to both travel back in time and protect the vulnerable child that she was and to hug the adult she is now. I’m no stranger to racism; when I was young, my maternal grandfather was deeply, hideously racist, and I’ve heard racist comments coming out of family members’ mouths as recently as last year (you better bet I step in and say something these days, though. As a child, I didn’t, though I knew my grandfather was wrong. I’m not sure how well my correcting him would have gone over, but I remember having conversations with my mom on the way home from his house about why he was so awful regarding people of certain races). But the hateful comments directed toward Marra are just…soul-crushing. To have had such vitriol spat at you as a child and emotionally survive and still come out kind on the other side is an absolute miracle; I weep for the ones who did not.

Taking care of her hurtful great-aunt was difficult; there are many descriptions of tears and heartache on the journey to and from her care facility, and I deeply admire the fortitude of character Ms. Gad possesses to have kept returning and providing care in the face of such a difficult challenge. It may not have been what she wanted to do, but doing so was the kind of person she wanted to be, and so she did. This is something I strive for in my own life, though normally under much less challenging circumstances, so I understand her motivation and I applaud it.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful and a deeply emotional read, and will challenge any reader in just how far they’re willing to take their devotion to kindness and generosity.

I’m going to count this as the book for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt for a book by a woman of color, but it won’t be my last for the year, not by a long shot (my next review is also for a book by a black woman, and my reading list for the year is bursting with diversity, as it should be). Read on, friends. 🙂

Follow Marra B. Gad on Twitter.

memoir · nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit Adam P. Frankel’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love- Dani Shapiro

The Unorthodox podcast strikes again! I was merrily listening along when the hosts began their interview with Dani Shapiro about her new book, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love (Knopf Publishing Group, 2019) (link to this episode here; because of this episode, I also have a library copy of Adeena Sussman’s Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors From My Israeli Kitchen cookbook on my couch right this very moment and it’s FABULOUS. Usually I find like two or three recipes TOPS I want to make in each cookbook I check out from the library, but this one, I found myself wanting to copy down so many recipes that it’s going to be worth it to buy the entire book. Highly recommended! Can you see why I enjoy this podcast so much????). I’d heard of the book before and kind of filed it away as another one in that growing genre of people who received surprising DNA test results. This interview, however, had me scrambling to hit the ‘want to read’ button on Goodreads, and I’m glad I did.

Dani Shapiro never felt like she fit in in her Orthodox Jewish family. Her blond hair and blue eyes made her stand out and had people constantly telling her, “You don’t look Jewish…” Beyond that, there was a feeling, a feeling that had her staring at her image in the mirror her entire life, searching for something she couldn’t name, couldn’t put words to despite being a writer. A DNA test done on a whim in her fifties revealed something she never expected: her father, the parent she’d been closest to, wasn’t her biological father.

Despite still being Jewish according to Jewish law (a fact that she didn’t seem quite able to summon in those first hazy days of shock), Dani’s entire sense of self is upended, her entire childhood come into question. Her mother had made allusions to a fertility clinic years ago, and along with a comment from the woman who she once thought of as her half-sister (but with whom she’d never been close), she realizes that she was conceived using donor sperm. With her journalist husband’s help (and the help of one of his colleagues), she’s able to narrow down the family of her donor, and then the donor himself, all within a number of days after the initial discovery, something close to miraculous in terms of how searching for donors usually goes). Emails are exchanged, tentative at first, one step forward, two steps back, and then a meeting is planned. Dani must come to terms with who she is and how her identity has been altered, and what it all means.

This is a doozy of a story, and according to Dani’s Unorthodox interview, it’s not hugely uncommon (I think she mentioned that the statistics are something like one in every two hundred-and-something cases reveals unexpected parentage). The popularity of DNA testing for ancestral origins has blown the door wide open on family secrets previously thought to be un-sleuthable, and while her parents had both passed on by the time her story came to light, I imagine that every day there are difficult conversations being had about this very topic. Dani’s education and connections to people able to aid in her search gave her a major advantage in being able to advance in the mystery of her paternity, and to begin putting the pieces of her life back together after having it all upended. She’s aware of this and doesn’t take it for granted.

Dani must also reckon with what her parents knew, if anything, as well as the religious community she grew up in: was this a secret both parents hid from her? Did one parent know and not the other? Did everyone know but her? As nearly everyone connected to this story is either dead or in their 90’s, it’s nearly a race against time to fill in the blanks this explosion has made in her story. She does seem to make peace with it in the end, and for that, I’m glad. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and the stories others tell us about where we came from and how we came to be are so important in shaping our images of ourselves, and having your entire story erased in one swoop has the potential to be emotionally devastating.

In the end, Dani Shapiro is able to find comfort in the abiding love of the father who raised her. I do wish she had spoken more to the fact that family isn’t necessarily only blood ties, that there are many ways to make a family and that biology is just one of them, that biological paternity (and maternity, for that matter) doesn’t make or break a parent’s relationship with their child. That wasn’t necessarily the focus of this book, as it centered more around the secrets her parents might or might not have kept, but leaving it out disappointed me a little, as so many families are built and flourish on ties that have nothing to do with biology (including mine!). Oversight? It’s possible, and it’s also possible that this just wasn’t her focus, so I’m willing to let that go.

I can’t help but compare this to When I Was White by Sarah Valentine; there are definite similarities, though the writing styles are very different. Both women are highly educated, both always felt out of place and had people make constant comments on their appearance when they were young. Both had strained relationships with their mothers. Both had their sense of self and self-image rocked when they received the news that their heritage wasn’t exactly what they thought it was. I’m sure the two women would have a lot to talk about and find a lot of common ground if they ever found themselves in the same location. If you’ve read both books, I’d love to hear what you think!

And of course, I can’t bump one book off my TBR list without adding another; after logging Inheritance on Goodreads, I combed through Dani Shapiro’s other published works and added Devotion to my list. There’s no such thing as a TBR down to zero. I’ll just keep repeating that to myself.

Have you done DNA ancestry testing? I have, and it’s pretty fascinating. I’m going to have to haul my laptop to the library one day (or many days) and make use of their Ancestry.com subscription. My mom’s family likes to talk about how Italian they are (and they have an Italian last name, an apparently uncommon one at that), but I’m not at all Italian (and just a tiny bit Sardinian, along with a smattering of Spanish and Portuguese; my mom and her older sister are nearly identical, my dyshidrotic eczema comes from that grandfather, and I look exactly like my dad’s side of the family, so everything’s kosher there, pun intended), so I’d like to be able to track down how that side got to the US, since no one seems to know. (The other side, I know; my great-great grandparents emigrated from Norway, and I still have family over there, including a third cousin!). This kind of testing has opened up a world of fascinating, and sometimes surprising, information for people, and Inheritance is a great example of this.

Visit Dani Shapiro’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Made From Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life- Jenna Woginrich

I have hobbies other than reading. (I hear you all gasping. I know. It’s scandalous.) I knit- nothing fancy, but hats and mittens and scarves and baby blankets and whatnot are all in my arsenal. I do a little crocheting- I’m still slowly plugging away at that giant blue blanket. I’m working on a cross-stitched table runner that my grandma had started before she passed away. I do a little sewing, we’re planning on expanding our garden this year, I cook almost everything we eat from scratch, I bake, I play a few different musical instruments (I mean, not professionally or anything, but I do okay). Basically, I enjoy a lot of the same things my great-grandparents did, aided by lightning-fast internet videos to grow my skills, and it’s because of this that Made From Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life by Jenna Woginrich (Storey Publishing, 2008) ended up on my TBR. One of the greatest pleasures of my life is reading books by or about people who are different than me in some way, but sometimes it’s nice to read books by or about people with whom I share something in common.

Mostly memoir but partly how-to, Jenna Woginrich moved to northern Idaho for a job, but also in search of a more handmade life, one where her food, her clothing, and her entertainment were more of her own creation and not store-bought or piped directly into her house via internet or cable. Gardening, baking, chickens, rabbits, bees, musical instruments, all of these and more became part of her daily routine. Leaning on neighbors and new acquaintances for help, Jenna learned new skills and the hard lessons that come along with living closer to the land (look away for a few minutes during the chapter on rabbits, animal lovers; all-natural lives aren’t always pretty. Though never delving in to gory details, Jenna has to put a rabbit down and it’s obviously not easy for her).

I’m not allowed to keep chickens where I live (and I’m not totally sure I’d personally want to- I have enough living creatures in my house to stress out about already, thank you) and I have no desire to keep rabbits or sled dogs, but I enjoyed this book, both the chapters that resembled my life and the ones that weren’t necessarily pertinent to my interests. Ms. Woginrich is very thoughtful and deliberate about her journey towards a more authentic life, never foolishly jumping in too deep, always venturing step by step down every new path, seeking the advice and tutelage of others who have gone before her. If you’re just starting out, wanting to learn what a more simple life might look like, this is a lovely introduction. I’ve been engaged in a lot of what’s included in this book for years, so while I didn’t necessarily learn anything new, it’s always nice to take a peek into what someone else’s life looks like, and to remember that all these things I’m doing have value. It can be hard to remember that when I’m stressing about what to make for dinner or putting off that pile of mending in order to get more reading done, but those are worthy projects as well, so I’m grateful that these books exist to help me remember that.

Some of the links in her section on research are now outdated and non-existent, but I’m sure anyone looking for more information can spend a few minutes on Google, sorting through links on whatever topic it is you need.

One important note: Ms. Woginrich began her journey to a more simplified life as a single woman with no kids (but employed full-time). Her free time and ability to learn, for example, to play fiddle and garden, is going to look very different than someone who has a spouse and a toddler and older child and all the errands and responsibilities that come along with that. I’m assuming she could do whatever housecleaning she needed and then her house would stay clean and not look like a Category 5 hurricane blew threw every time she turned her back for more than three seconds (LOOKING AT YOU, FAM), and thus had more time to spend enjoying her chickens and playing the dulcimer in the backyard. I’m on a pretty tight schedule around here and spend more time yelling at my daughter to PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY FOR THE LAST TIME PUT YOUR SHOES ON OR YOU CAN GO TO SCHOOL BAREFOOT EVEN THOUGH IT’S NINETEEN DEGREES OUT (actual conversation we had last week), which seriously eats up any free time I could be spending to spin yarn, so my life looks a little different than hers. Don’t feel bad or like you’re not doing enough if you read this and wonder how you’re going to shoehorn in *more* things to do. Do what you can, when you can, and realize that you and the author may be at different places in your lives right now, and there’s nothing wrong with that. (I mention this because there was a time in my life where I would have needed to hear this message. My mom and I went on a tour of local houses once when my son was about two and I was super busy all the time. One of the houses had on display the wife’s collection of quilts that she had sewn, and it was a large, large collection. She wasn’t that much older than I was, and I was feeling horrible about myself, wondering how on earth she had time to DO all of that, and when I said as much to one of the people running the tour, that person happened to mention that the homeowners didn’t have children, and I nearly sobbed with relief, because THAT’S why they had that kind of free time. I felt like I’d totally been mismanaging everything up to that point because I didn’t have stacks upon stacks of homemade quilts!)

This is a lovely little book, a quick read about what a slower life might look like. If you need a little inspiration, you might find some in between these pages. 🙂

Visit Jenna Woginrich’s farm’s website, Cold Antler Farm

Follow her on Twitter