fiction · YA

Book Review: Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

I was scrolling through an email from Jewish Women’s Archive about upcoming Book Talks and nearly fell out of my chair to see that Brandy Colbert would be making an appearance at an upcoming talk. I read her Pointe last year and enjoyed it, and it’s always so fantastic when an author you know and have previously enjoyed shows up anywhere you can get to, right???  She’ll be discussing her book, Little and Lion (Little, Brown, 2017), and, wanting to be as prepared as possible, I immediately put the book on my TBR and picked it up on my next library trip. Success! I’m ready! Bring on the book talk!

Suzette is a Black Jewish teen girl who has made her way back to her California home after spending a year at a New England boarding school, and all is not well on either coast. She’s running from a relationship with her female roommate that ended- or didn’t quite end- not exactly in the way that Suzette had wanted. She has a lot of complicated feelings about this. But things are complicated at home, too. The whole reason Suzette had been sent out east in the first place was because of trouble with her stepbrother, Lionel. Lionel had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder before she left, something that had turned everyone’s world upside down. Unsure of how to relate to her brother, who seems to want to push everyone away, and unsure of how to deal with her sexual identity- especially now that she’s home and hello, Emil, childhood friend who has suddenly become super hot, along with Rafaela, the plant shop girl who is on the periphery of Suzette’s friend group- Suzette has a lot on her plate.

Soon after she arrives back home, Lionel confides in Suzette a dangerous secret. Keeping it means maintaining Lionel’s trust, but it also means that things could go bad, quickly, for a lot of people. Love, sexuality, religion, trust, mental health, Ms. Colbert explores how all these intersect to form teenage identity, and how delicate the balancing act is for Suzette, who will have to make a series of difficult decisions in order to decide what kind of person she is, and who she wants to be.

This book felt incredibly real. There are so many things going on at once, so many major problems that so many teenagers face- sexual identity (and the need, or not, to label what we are), relationships (romantic, family, friendships), mental health, trust between friends and family, planning for the future, religious identity…There’s a lot going on in this book, but Ms. Colbert manages to weave everything together so seamlessly that one issue melts right into the next, just as it happens in real life. Suzette is put in several terrible positions, the most jarring by her stepbrother, and while the answer to her dilemma is crystal-clear as an adult, it’s incredibly easy to see why it would be so difficult to keep Lionel’s secret as a teenager. I was deeply able to emphasize with her struggle over this.

This is a novel of the search and struggle for identity, but it also asks a lot of questions. Why do we insist on putting our identities into so many separate boxes? We shouldn’t have to be this but not that, when by now we should all realize that we can be this AND that, simultaneously, and that the overlap is beautiful and brings so much to the table. And why do we insist on concrete identities, when we’re all really works in progress? Why can’t we be this at one stage, until we grow and mature and realize that we’ve blossomed into that– maybe with a little of this coloring the edges? Little & Lion explores all of this; Suzette’s journey encourages brave exploration but also deep contemplation and full acceptance of the all things that make us who we are.

There are so many places where this book could have gone off the rails or gone too far, and it just never did. It’s a gorgeous tapestry of the search for self, of what it takes to forge a connection with someone who is struggling and how far we should let that go, of who we are and the kind of person we want to be. I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that I thought often of Marra B. Gad’s The Color of Love: The Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl multiple times, since her memoir dealt with identity and intersection of a similar-yet-different type (and was also an amazing book that is never far from my mind).

There are content warnings for descriptions of untreated mental illness and a forced outing of sexual orientation; if these are uncomfortable subjects for you at this time, be kind to yourself and wait until you’re ready.

I’m so excited for JWA’s Book Talk featuring Ms. Colbert, and I can’t wait to hear what she has to say about this book (and, well, about everything, honestly!). Suzette and Lionel had such a deep friendship, and I felt Suzette’s distress as Lionel pulled away from her, and her urgency to cling to what they once had. I’m so looking forward to hearing about her thought processes as she wrote this, and hearing what’s next for her. What a fabulous book.

Visit Brandy Colbert’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness by Alisa Roth

Ever since reading Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation by Joseph T. Hallinan in my early 20’s, I’ve been fascinated by prison and have read about it often. And with prisons being the largest supplier of mental health care in the United States, I knew I needed to read Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness by Alisa Roth (Basic Books, 2018) when I learned about it- partly because of this fascination, and partly for semi-personal reasons.

In Insane, Ms. Roth details the challenges the prison system faces being the provider of mental healthcare for its millions of prisoners. Funding is short, so providers- whom it’s difficult to hire for various reasons, including safety and lower-than-civilian-jobs salaries- are constantly lacking. Therapy is challenging when it can only be given out in the open, with no privacy. Fewer providers mean services don’t get rendered in time; meds don’t get handed out in time; diagnoses don’t get made for months, sometimes years. Officers get little-to-no training in how to deal with severely mentally ill prisoners. Overcrowding exacerbates symptoms and strains already strained resources. If you’re unaware of just how overburdened the prison system is in regards to mental healthcare, you’ll have a pretty good idea after reading this book.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t places trying, and Ms. Roth points that out throughout the book. It’s just that this is a monumental task, and the country does almost next to nothing in order to keep these mentally ill patients treated so that they don’t end up in prison in the first place. (Our garbage healthcare system, tied to employment, shares a lot of this blame, as does the lack of therapists and psychiatrists- and I’d say the problem of affordable higher education is also an issue there.)

This is a deeply distressing, heavy book, full of information that I wish everyone knew and cared about. We’re all just one slightly different brain chemical away from ending up as a patient on the wrong side of the law- and that’s if we’re lucky, because far too often in the US, mentally ill people end up being shot by the police. A dear friend of mine had a son who suffered from schizophrenia and one of her greatest fears was always that he would end up being shot by the police during an episode. I learn so much about mental illness from her, and I think of her son and her continued fight to improve mental health care in this country every time I read a book like this. The two of them are a continued reason why I pick up these kinds of books; what Ms. Roth is doing, shining a light on the conditions faced by inmates who are often incarcerated due to the affects of their illnesses, is so necessary, and it’s such a service to the mental health community.

Insane isn’t an easy read. It’s a tough subject matter, and a lot of what she talks about will probably scare you or make you uncomfortable. It should. But you should use this information to become better informed and a better advocate for the mentally ill. Because stigma is bullshit and mental illness is illness- like cancer, or heart disease, diabetes, or epilepsy. It deserves research, resources, treatment options- treatment BEFORE tragedy, as my friend Laura says. And mentally ill people deserve dignity and respect, which Ms. Roth definitely affords them all throughout this remarkable book.

Visit Alisa Roth’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction · YA

Book Review: The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

I’ve had The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf (Salaam Reads, 2019) on my TBR list for ages, both because the premise sounded intriguing and also because Hanna Alkaf is wonderful on Twitter (you really should follow her!). It was never in at the library when I checked…and then I finally realized it wasn’t shelved under Alkaf, Hanna, but under Hanna, Alkaf. Whoops. (I’ll ask the library worker about that when I return it, because this needs to be easier to find.) Once I realized the mistake, I located the book and slipped it into my bag.

Everyone knows about the Holocaust. You’re probably also familiar with the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and the Cambodian genocide from 1975 to 1979, and maybe you’ve even learned about the Armenian genocide. But what do you know about what happened in Malaysia on May 13, 1969 and the days that followed? I knew nothing, had never even heard about it (have I ever even read a book set in Malaysia before this? I honestly don’t think so), and that’s one of the reasons I knew I had to read this book.

Melati has OCD in a time where there’s no word or phrase to describe her incessant need to count, usually in groups of threes, in order to protect the people she loves. She pictures the forces compelling her to count as a djinn, cackling at her distress to appease him. It started after her father died; her mother, already stressed over the loss of her husband, doesn’t know how to handle her daughter’s mysterious and shameful problems, and so Melati works hard to hide her compulsions from her.

So life is already tough for Melati, and then the world around her explodes in violence. Separated from her best friend by a group of men wielding knives and wearing sinister smiles, she has no knowledge of where her mother is, no ability to get home, and no idea if she’ll survive the bloodshed. As the bodies pile up in the streets, Melati will need to depend on the kindness of strangers and her own quick wit to not only defeat her own djinn but the evil and hatred that has suddenly pervaded her society.

Ms. Alkaf begins the book with a necessary content warning (told you she’s awesome); this is not an easy book to read for so many reasons, but I think it’s a necessary one if you have the mental space for it. There are a lot of parallels to things going on today, of the way far too many people view those different from them, and the events described in this book are devastating and worrying as a potential conclusion to those levels of hatred. Melati’s OCD is also tough to read, in that it causes her so much distress. I’ve dealt with some OCD tendencies (which were much worse when I was young), so reading her struggles made me want to scoop her up and hug her.

Her growth throughout the novel is admirable and inspiring; it’s hard-fought and incomplete, since OCD is a beast that must be continually tamed, but it’s real. And as in real-life crises, there are no full conclusions, just a sober understanding (as much as that can be possible) of what happened, along with the determination to carry on while never forgetting those who have been lost. It’s heartbreaking and should be eye-opening to any reader, imploring them to examine their biases, delve deeply into their prejudices, and pick apart the reasons why they believe the things they do. Because the outcome of hatred and prejudice is often devastation and death, and at this point in history, with far too many painful examples to illustrate the point for us, we should be better than that. Ms. Alkaf has penned a fictional account of real history that serves as a warning point; don’t let this happen to you, to your country, to anyone.

Excellent book; highly recommended. Just wait until you’re in a good mental space so you can fully process this story, because it’s heavy.

Visit Hanna Alkaf’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir

Going Doolally: An honest tale of anxiety and motherhood- Katie Pickworth

Anxiety and motherhood? Hey, it’s the place where I live!

I can’t say I know anything about life without anxiety; it’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. While antidepressants helped me deal with depression, they never quite turned off my constant stream of worst-case-scenario-for-absolutely-every-single-moment that my brain offers up on a daily basis. It’s just become something I’ve learned to live with, or, probably more accurately, live alongside, so when Katie Pickworth offered me a copy of her book, Going Doolally: An honest tale of anxiety and motherhood (independently published, 2019), I accepted, because boy, could I ever relate.

Katie Pickworth’s anxiety started early on in life, affecting both her physical health as a child along with her schooling. As an adult, she found that working in television production on shows like Hell’s Kitchen, EastEnders, and I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here made excellent use of her creative thinking and problem-solving skills, but she still struggled mightily in groups of friends and social situations. And motherhood wasn’t any easier; pre-eclampsia forced her into hospital for an early delivery, and postpartum eclampsia saw that she returned there soon afterwards. She filled the days of her son’s first year with classes and playgroups, making the anxiety-related decision to join a playgroup several towns over as insurance in the event she needed to never see anyone from that group ever again. (I can’t believe I never thought of that!) And then, it was time for baby #2.

Ms. Pickworth writes about her anxiety, motherhood, and all the chaos that accompanies both, with brutal honesty and an incredible amount of self-awareness. Quite a few quotes had me laughing and/or nodding vigorously, including these two:

I didn’t know the sperm stays alive for up to five days. Five days? How is that even possible, or not the most disgusting thing you’ve ever heard?

If this is your first child, just think about [the period of time before you give birth] being very precious, because once the baby comes, the things you used to do without question become the lowest priority, and sometimes that really sucks.

Going Doolally is not without issues: I felt as though it could have been better organized; the writing wanders at times, lacking a strong sense of direction and focus; it ends with a series of Facebook updates from her sons’ first years, which felt out of place and not applicable to what the rest of the book was trying to achieve . But where this memoir shines is Ms. Pickworth’s candor about her struggles, and the authenticity of her voice. So many of the things she said, I could relate to, having dealt with similar situations myself. She writes,

There are some with the opinion that when you have young children, the washing up and such chores can wait. The trouble is, when you’re like me, that’s utter bollocks.

SAME. I’m the farthest thing from a neat freak, but I can’t think straight in a room strewn with toys, or relax when I KNOW there are dishes in the sink and people have left items all over the counters. I will work myself into pain (because I also suffer from chronic pain) in order to complete these chores, because otherwise, my anxiety skyrockets.

Ms. Pickworth may not have all the answers, but she knows what she’s talking about when it comes to living with anxiety, and, at 112 pages, this book would make a quick but informative read for any anxiety-sufferer thinking about becoming a parent OR the spouse or partner of someone with anxiety. Trying to explain what we’re feeling and how deeply we struggle isn’t always easy, but Going Doolally does a fantastic job portraying what parenting looks like when you’re eyebrow-deep in your own brain trying to convince you to worry about and fear every. last. thing.

I know it’s important to never give up. I also know it’s important to pick your anxiety battles.

Excellent advice, advice that I definitely need to incorporate into my life.

Huge thanks to Katie Pickworth for providing me a copy of your book to read and review!

Uncategorized

April is the cruelest month: to bloggers who are struggling.

Spring is a terrible time of year.

For those of us who live in the northern hemisphere, we have this idea in our heads that spring is a time of warmth, of regrowth and beauty and sunlight. Unfortunately, reality refuses to comply with this and often offers us nothing but rain, wind, chilly temperatures, and gray skies that seem to drag on forever. Is it any wonder that so many of us struggle during this time of year?

I’ve seen quite a few bloggers who are having a difficult time right now, and my heart goes out to all of you. Whether it’s because of the weather and seasonal depression, difficulties with some aspect of your life or health, or something you can’t put words to, I see you. I hear you. I hate that you’re hurting. You’re important, I care about you, and I’m glad you’re a part of my world.

There aren’t any axioms or proverbs or clever one-liners I can share to change anything for anyone, but if this is a difficult time of year for you, you’re not alone. I’ve been there, I struggled massively through the spring for years when I was younger, and I understand the awfulness of it. I can’t tell you when it will end, but I can tell you that even when things feel terrible, I still care. If you need someone to talk to, I’m here, always.

If you’re feeling okay right now, check on your friends. It’s hard to ask for help and to admit when things aren’t as you’d like them to be, and sometimes a quick note or a gesture means the world. And for anyone who may need it, resources and help are out there:

Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

A list of international suicide hotlines.

If you’re struggling, you’re in my thoughts and my heart. Fight on, friends, one breath at a time.