What We Will Become skips back and forth in time, detailing the struggles of parenting Em, Ms. Lemay’s middle child, and detailing her own life journey, growing up in a strict Orthodox home with an emotionally distant mother. Em is difficult to parent almost from the beginning, moody and temperamental, unhappy in her own skin. She’s two when she begins to insist she’s a boy; Mimi and husband Joe aren’t sure what to make of it, but they do their best to work with and around the challenges Em presents. Mimi’s childhood provides a similar story of struggle, of desperately trying to fit into a world who only had one role for her, of never feeling enough for her school or her mother.
As Em’s difficulties compound, Mimi realizes the meaning of everything she’s gone through in the past, of all the problems she’s dealt with and faced down, and how they’ve all lead her here, to be this child’s mother, to be the mother this child needs. And thus a boy named Jacob is born, confident where he never used to be, happy and giggly and authentically himself. It’s a story of transformation born from struggle, but one where everyone ends up exactly where they’re meant to.
This is a truly beautiful and extremely honest story of listening to your heart to know where you belong, and using the skills learned from there to listen to others’ hearts as well. It’s bravery, a story of having the courage to know when to walk away and when to stand and fight. Ms. Lemay took what she learned from her childhood- about the kind of person she wanted to be and the kind of parent she needed but didn’t have, and turned that into the kind of parent her son needed her to be. That’s extraordinary.
Her story of growing up fascinated me. Her mother was extremely emotionally distant and very religious; Mimi did her best to fit in and succeeded for a while as a teenager but then realized there wasn’t a place for her in that world. She left, wounded by her relationship with her mother, but with enough tools to carve herself a place in the outside world, one where she’s built a beautiful life for herself and her children. This is a story of transformation, of parents and children, and what not to do, but how to learn and grow from that until you figure out what TO do. I admire Ms. Lemay so much for that.
Such a beautiful book and a testament to how children can grow and thrive, as Jacob has done, when allowed to be who they are. May we continue to bend and shape the world into one that will always love him as fully as his parents do.
Sometimes when you browse around on NetGalley, you find a book that calls out to you and that you know you have to read, whether you get approved for it or not, and fortunately, I was lucky enough to be approved for All the Young Men: A Memoir of Love, AIDS, and Chosen Family in the American South by Ruth Coker Burks with Kevin Carr O’Leary (Grove Press, 2020). I was born in 1980; AIDS and HIV were fully on my radar by the time I turned 10. Even in the Catholic school I attended, we watched videos and learned about the virus and the devastating effects it had on the human body and the gay community. In eighth grade, my class watched And the Band Played On. I remember our teachers being very emphatic about the ways you could and couldn’t catch the virus, and that it was okay to hug people who had it, touch them, take care of them. I’m part of the first generation for whom AIDS has always been a concern, for whom these stories have always been in the news, and, having heard the name Ruth Coker Burks before, I knew this was an important book that I needed to read.
Ruth Coker Burks was visiting a friend in the hospital in her home state of Arkansas on day in the early 80’s when she became intrigued as to why a door was covered in red and the nurses seemed afraid to go in. Upon learning that the patient had AIDS, Ruth went in anyway and proceed to sit with the man, holding his hand and staying with him until he died. Afterwards, she buried the man’s ashes in her family’s cemetery; his own family refused to take custody of his cremains. This event set Ruth down a path that would define her entire life, taking care of sick AIDS patients and being with them when they died, feeding the ones who were still alive, advocating for them to receive medical care, housing assistance, and disability pay. As they grew sicker, she upped her level of care, and she began a course of education, aiming to prevent the spread of the disease in the gay community around her hometown. In a time where no one else stepped up to the plate, Ruth Coker Burns recognized a need and saw her responsibility to be the solution.
Her life wasn’t an easy one. Her community, including her church, ostracized her. Work wasn’t easy to come by. Her former in-laws offered no help with or for their grandchild. Friends expressed disgust at what she was doing and dropped her. Displaying acts of courage that are rare these days, Ruth never gave up, creating a family and a loving community out of the men she was helping to live and die with dignity.
All the Young Men is a necessary story for any reading list. This is a gut-punch of a book that will introduce younger readers into the perversion of humanity that was the AIDS epidemic, where parents refused to have contact with their children, where patients were starved for human touch, where the friends that nursed a person through his last days were thrown out or barred from attending funerals by the family who had previously cast the ill person out. There are numerous painful moments throughout this book, for Ruth, for her guys, as she called them, for their friends. She bears so much pain with courage and grace, never once giving in to despair or turning someone away because it’s too much. If you need to restore your faith in humanity and in the idea that one person can indeed make a difference, Ruth Coker Burks’s story is one to read.
The writing style of All the Young Men is more ‘down home Arkansas’ than it is Shakespeare, but this doesn’t detract from the importance of the story at all. What Ruth Coker Burks has penned here is a stunning narrative of her own human decency, about which she never brags or boasts, in a time when the world was starved for it. She showed up when others refused. She held the hands of the dying when others wouldn’t even enter the room. There’s a quote from Frederick Douglass that says, “Praying for freedom never did me any good ’til I started praying with my feet.” While others sat in the pews on Sunday, listening to and agreeing with a pastor who condemned her, Ruth was praying with her feet.
All the Young Men is easy to read in style, but tough on emotions, as it should be. This isn’t a particularly fun time of history to revisit, but it’s important, especially these days, when we’re seeing record numbers of people disavow the humanity in others by refusing to protect them from Covid-19. It’s difficult to be confronted with the fact that we really haven’t come that far. But what makes the difference is that people like Ruth Coker Burks exist and are out there praying with their feet, caring, helping. ‘Look for the helpers,’ Mister Rogers taught us. Ruth Coker Burks is one of the best helpers, and this book, and her life, is a testament to that. Would that more people had her sense of compassion and duty.
All the Young Men is an introduction to the terrible realities that the gay community faced in the 80’s and 90’s as a virus was allowed to run unchecked through their numbers while the government sat back and twiddled its thumbs (sound familiar?). If you read this book and are interested in learning more, I’ve got two books for you that will give you a deeper understanding of why Ruth was left alone to care for the AIDS patients of her community.
And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts is probably the number one book I recommend to people in real life (most recently, to someone in the grocery store!). It’s an in-depth history of the AIDS epidemic, and it’s heartbreaking in every sense of that word. Don’t be discouraged by the fact that the book is 656 pages; it reads like a novel and will not only have you in tears but will leave you with a sense of rage like you’ve never known before. Easily one of the best books I’ve ever read in my life.
Secondly, My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story by Abraham Verghese is the memoir of a doctor who stepped up and cared for AIDS patients in eastern Tennessee when no one else would touch them. Like Ruth Coker Burks, he greets his patients with compassion and allows them to retain their dignity when no one else would, helping to destroy the stigma around AIDS patients and reminding the public that these were people, not just a diagnosis.
Huge thanks to NetGalley and Grove Press for allowing me an early copy of All the Young Men to read and review.
I’m perpetually about ten years behind in my reading. I mean, pretty much every book in the world is on my TBR, so I’m never actually caught up, but if something is popular at a certain point in time, that basically ensures that I will ignore it for the next decade in favor of reading things people read ten years before now. Reader problems, amiright??? I never got around to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper, 2007) when it first came out, but I grabbed a copy at a used book sale last year, since I figured the price was right (man, I miss those book sales, but it’s giving me a chance to catch up on reading from my own shelves!), and this was what came on next on my by-the-TV shelf.
Author Barbara Kingsolver and her family moved from their home in Tucson to the farm property her husband owned in Virginia in search of a more authentic life in which they could grow their own food and eat more locally, taxing the earth’s resources less. They began a year-long experiment in growing their own food in sizeable gardens, raising chickens and turkeys (and doing the slaughtering themselves), and eschewing almost all food products that didn’t come within a hundred (or so) miles of their home. Starting in the spring, they realized they’d have to give up a few staples- no more bananas, fresh fruit was hard to come by at that time of year and they had to substitute with locally grown rhubarb, etc.- but they soon realized that almost everything they needed or wanted could be grown on their land, obtained from a local source, or foregone entirely. It wasn’t easy- it involved hard word, sacrifice, occasionally paying a little more or doing a lot of research to find a local source- but it changed the way her family saw their own abilities, their community, and the world.
Ms. Kingsolver is a master storyteller; The Poisonwood Bible is one of my favorite books, and I have a copy of The Bean Trees waiting for me on my downstairs shelves. The stories she tells in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle are lovely; they make me want to plow up my entire lawn and plant a massive garden (how is it that I always manage to read these books at the end of the season???), and it definitely got me thinking more about buying local products and paying attention to where my groceries come from. It doesn’t always make sense to purchase products that come from thousands of miles away when there might be a similarly-priced alternative that comes from our own area, that doesn’t have as much packaging and hasn’t used up so much fossil fuels to land on our doorstep (sometimes only to liquefy in the crisper bin, yikes!). Ms. Kingsolver makes a good point that we must do better eating locally; our climate and the future of our planet depends on it.
What I didn’t particularly care for were the sections on meat and her proclamation that vegetarians would totally chow down on meat if they could see the happy lives of the animals on the farms where she purchases her meat products. That felt dismissive and reductive; I stopped eating meat and cut way back on the animal products I consume in general after a bad cholesterol test a few years ago. I don’t sit around eating tofu burgers, as Ms. Kingsolver claims (and what little tofu I do consume comes from about twenty miles away anyway); my diet consists of legumes, vegetables, fruits, and grains (not much of the fancy stuff like quinoa, either, it’s usually outside our budget), and that wouldn’t change even if Happy Lamb Farm took their lambs to Disneyland every other week and bought them all Mickey Mouse shirts and balloons. I’m doing the best I can for what my body is telling me it needs, and I didn’t appreciate having my health concerns dismissed in this manner. It seemed a bit self-righteous and didn’t mesh well with the rest of the tone of the book.
The other bone I had to pick was about farmers’ markets. We have a lovely one here near us that sells a lot of really awesome local produce and locally made products; we haven’t been since last year, because it just gets SO crowded, but I really enjoy going. That said, Ms. Kingsolver seems to be attending different farmer’s markets than I do in terms of cost (as do the majority of people I’ve seen singing their praises). I do understand that local food is often going to cost more, but I can’t afford to pay six dollars for a pound of strawberries or tomatoes. So many of us are doing the best we can with our food budgets; a lot of Americans live life on the edge, paycheck to paycheck, and asking us to pay more for the food we eat isn’t always a tenable suggestion when you can either buy a pound of local strawberries, or apples and broccoli and a head of cabbage from the grocery store to feed your family for the week for that same price. It’s a terrible choice; we need those local farmers and their produce, but we also need full tummies and a varied diet. It’s frustrating to read that her experiment saved her money in some areas and her meals cost so little, when I’ve seen some of the prices of produce at our famer’s market and thought, “I could buy that and no other vegetable for the week.” Doing our best here, but there’s only so much we can do.
But the rest of this book absolutely put me in a warmer state of mind, in lush gardens with sun-warmed soil, in steamy kitchens with pots of tomato sauce bubbling on the stovetop with sterilized glass jars glinting on the counter nearby. The weather is turning here; we’ve got rain in the forecast for most of this week and chilly temps in the 40’s and 50’s, so it was lovely to curl up on my reading chair and follow Barbara Kingsolver into her barn and kitchen as the rain streaked my living room window.
Lynne Martin and her husband Tim decided that instead of becoming stodgy retirees, they’d sell their California home and instead spend their retirement traipsing around the world, spending varying amounts of time living in rented apartments in various countries around the world. Though their initial arrangements failed to take the Schengen Agreement into consideration, they were soon on the road, leaving behind family and friends for a life of adventure. What could be better than traveling the world?
While there were aspects of this that I enjoyed, a lot of it irritated me. I’m sure Lynne Martin is a lovely person, but this book occasionally has her coming off as an obnoxious American, especially in the chapter where they ‘live’ in Argentina (‘live’ because they’re still tourists, not residents). Her complaints about the language (which she doesn’t speak) and culture being difficult to understand grated on me, as did her constant referral to everything as ‘foreign,’ such as this quote:
By week four, we definitely needed an American fix- something familiar to orient us in this foreign place where we were floundering.
The use of the word foreign here bothered me; you’re IN the country. It may be different than what you’re used to, but if you’re going to ‘live’ there, as she claimed, referring to it as ‘foreign’ as you’re standing on its soil seems a bit disrespectful to me. Not every place will agree with every person, but her complaints about Argentina seemed a bit over-the-top, especially since this was something they willingly chose. Comments like this one didn’t help, either:
No wonder [Argentinians] seem to be a confused, melancholy people!
Yiiiiiiiiiiiikes. Another one that grated on my nerves:
When we arrived at the famous Topkapi Palace that afternoon, we ran into a long, slow-moving ticket line. That put us off immediately. Call us impatient, but waiting is agony for us, and the microscopic inspection of every site does not interest us too much. We are really not very good tourists.
So much privilege, so little desire to acknowledge it, or take advantage of so many aspects of it. They’re older, in their 70’s, but still- all this ability to see the world and you complain about needing to stand in line to see it? (MAN, I wish I could stand in line- literally! Some days I have trouble physically standing in line at the grocery store, thanks to my garbage back.) I was also bothered by her constant assessment of people’s levels of English. She is, like most Americans, functionally monolingual, and yet so many of the people she comes across are described in terms of their ability to speak- or not speak- English. I don’t know if this is a quirk of her writing style or a sign of her general attitude, but I get irritated to no end by people who have never put in any true effort to learn another language getting fussy or being critical in any way about the language skills of someone who is on their second, third, fourth language. I don’t expect travelers to be fluent, but a respectful attitude goes a long way, and that didn’t come through here for me at all.
I don’t know that I was the proper audience for this book; it seems to be more written for upper-class people with money to burn, who are physically capable of traveling anywhere with no concerns as to their health or accessibility. My husband and I have never taken a vacation other than our honeymoon in 13 years of marriage, and I’d have to do a *lot* of planning, including discussing some just-in-case prescriptions with my doctor, in order for travel like this to be possible for me. And to read Ms. Martin’s casual complaints about her trip to Argentina, where she didn’t need to plan for these kinds of things, and seemed irritated about the language and dialect and cultural differences, irritated me. I ended up hearing a *lot* of this book in my head as being read by the character of Moira Rose from Schitt’s Creek.
So while I normally enjoy travel memoirs, this one felt, to me, replete with unacknowledged privilege and upper-class dismissal of opportunity. Your mileage may vary, though; not every book is for every reader!
I am saddened to learn that her husband and travel companion Tim passed away last year. May his memory be a blessing.
On my last trip to the library for books for me, I had grabbed all the books from my list, and then I turned around and caught sight of a display of books behind the teen hangout part of the library. And there in that stack of books was the graphic novel They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker(Top Shelf Productions, 2019). It was obvious that this book told of George Takei’s family’s unjust incarceration in the Japanese internment camps during World War II, and despite already clutching a stack of books, I added it to my pile. I knew I couldn’t miss this one.
George wasn’t even in kindergarten yet when his family was rounded up with all the other Americans of Japanese descent after the attack on Pearl Harbor. They were sent to live in an American concentration camp (remember, concentration camps and death camps aren’t the same thing; technically, the US did have its own concentration camps). You can see a map of these camps here; he and his family were first sent to Rohwer, then later Tule Lake. His parents worked hard to keep the horrors of the situation from affecting George and his siblings too much, but occasionally the racism, the food shortages, and the injustice of being incarcerated for simply having the wrong ethnic background crept in. George spent years processing the injustices visited upon his family and community and is still working today to right the wrongs the United States committed and speaking out about the atrocities the United States still continues to commit against Mexicans, South Americans, Muslims, and various other populations.
The art is simple, in black and white, which adds to the stark horror of the US incarcerating its own citizens (and those to whom they refused citizenship outright) because of their genetics. George has some fond memories of the time in the camps, simply because his parents worked so hard to make that true and also because children are remarkably adaptable and will find ways to be children even as their countries incarcerate them in concentration camps. His experiences are slightly less stark than those illustrated in Farewell to Manzanar: A True Story of Japanese American Experience During and After the World War II Internment by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston. Ms. Wakatsuki Houston goes into greater detail about the terrible conditions and lack of food in the camps she was forced into, and the terrible reality of leaving the camps- having nowhere to go, with former neighbors having stolen all of the possessions the family had been forced to leave behind. George Takei does go into the family’s post-camp experience; they were homeless for a time and had to rebuild their lives from absolutely nothing.
I’m glad this graphic novel exists. They Called Us Enemy and Farewell to Manzanar are the only two books I’ve read on the internment of Americans of Japanese descent, and I know I need to read more (I welcome your recommendations in the comments, as always). I wish this were better taught in schools- my school did a surprisingly good job when it came to teaching about things like race and injustice, but while these concentration camps were mentioned, the subject was kind of glossed over, and I feel like I wasn’t properly educated on this when I was younger. It’s something I’ll make sure that my daughter knows about more fully as she grows; it’s shameful and disgusting that this even happened, but it’s worse that we apparently learned nothing from it and continue to perpetuate similar horrors.
They Called Us Enemy is a quick read, but it’ll stay with you, and hopefully it’ll inspire you to speak out against injustice. We’re not obligated to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it.
Rachel Friedman, the girl who always followed the rules and the plan, graduated from college without any kind of plan whatsoever, and she surprised everyone in her life by buying a plane ticket to Ireland and applying for a student visa so she could work as a waitress to earn money to fund her travels there. She’d never traveled on her own before, never traveled without exact travel plans or a plan for the future, so all of this was definitely an adventure.
In Ireland, Rachel is bitten by the travel bug, aided by her wanderlusty roommate Carly, an Australian who hasn’t yet finished college and isn’t sure what she wants to do outside of traveling the world. When her time in Ireland runs out, Rachel’s next stop is Australia, and then on to South America. Deadly animals, blazing sun and chilly mountain air, experiences that scare the crap out of her, living out of a single backpack, Rachel’s experiences will have you longing for the days where you had no responsibility and could just pick up and go.
This was a lovely armchair vacation for me. Rachel’s experiences are so far from what my own were at her age that it was nice to read how very different her life was. I did understand her what-do-I-do-with-my-life stress, along with some of her travel anxiety; I applaud her for pushing her boundaries so much. I’m still working on working out my social anxiety (NOT EASY THESE DAYS), and I’m a massive wreck when I travel, so it’s good for me to read stories of people who do things that scare them simply because it scares them. There are a lot of reviews talking about how self-entitled and privileged Rachel is; I felt as though she does acknowledge her privilege in the book and how lucky she was that her parents had paid for her college and thus she didn’t have to immediately begin working off her student loan debt. She mentions that multiple times, and I see no problem enjoying someone else’s experiences even if they’re not struggling in the same way I do.
Reading this also made me a little sad. Rachel and Carly met each other during their travels; Rachel eventually meets her husband while traveling. How many friendships aren’t beginning right now that would have if the US and a few other countries had handled this pandemic better? How many travelers are stuck at home not broadening their horizons and experiencing the world? How many relationships and marriages will never happen because we’re not allowed to travel due to our own stupidity? Here in the US, our world has gotten so much smaller- even beyond the reason of Covid-19- and that just breaks my heart.
But reading about Rachel Friedman’s boundary-pushing journey made for a pleasant Sunday out on the porch swing. If you can’t travel right now, taking a book vacation is the next best thing, and I enjoyed seeing the world through Ms. Friedman’s eyes.
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.
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.
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.
(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.