Catch-up post

A catch-up post full of mini-reviews!

Eek! You ever have months where blogging just gets away from you? This was one of those months. It’s hard cramming in everything I need to get done every day, and sometimes at night I just want to collapse and not think anymore. And thus we have here a post to catch up on all the books I missed out on blogging about. I hate doing these; each book deserves its own post, but such is life, especially these days.

Ready? Let’s do this!

I Want You to Know We’re Still Here: A Post Holocaust Memoir by Esther Safran Foer (yes, she’s Jonathan Safran Foer’s mother) was a book I grabbed during my first library appointment, on the New Books shelf. She writes of the story of searching for the family she lost in the Holocaust, of online searches, long-distance phone calls, dusty paperwork, and lengthy plane rides to visit the site of the villages where her family once walked. It’s moving, heartbreaking, and almost miraculous at times, especially when you see the picture of her family after reading all that had been done to ensure that they wouldn’t exist.

I just happened upon Hostage by Guy Delisle, whom I’ve enjoyed in the past, at that same library trip- literally just walked by the shelf this was on, on my way to searching for something else, and this leapt out at me. He tells the true story of a man working for Doctors Without Borders when he was kidnapped in the Caucasus region and held hostage for three months. You wouldn’t necessarily expect a man chained to a radiator for that length of period would make for an engaging graphic novel, but Delisle’s sparse style makes this book an absolute page-turner.

Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares by Aarti Namdev Shahani is a memoir of her family’s experience in America: surviving as undocumented immigrants, the greencards that helped secure their status, and the things that happened that showed them how quickly it could all go up in smoke. If you haven’t read much about the nightmare of the immigration process in the US, this might be a good place to start. If her family’s story had happened today, I don’t think the outcome would have worked out so well (although *worked out well* is relative here) and that hurt my heart for all the families struggling with these kinds of situations right now, but Ms. Shahani tells her story so smoothly, it nearly reads like a novel. I’d love to hear her speak one day.

I’d avoided reading Roomies by Christina Lauren for a while, but I needed something on the lighter side during my last trip to the library and since they’re a favorite of mine, I grabbed this. Roomies tells the story of Holland, who discovers the perfect musician for her uncle’s Broadway performance, only to find that Calvin, the Julliard-trained street busker, is Irish and here illegally. In order to help her uncle and feel like she’s really contributing to the theater (where she also works), she marries Calvin to help him obtain a greencard, but of course it’s all a bit more complicated than that. I avoided this one for a bit because I felt, and still kind of feel, that it’s a little tone-deaf in light of the horrific things the US is doing to undocumented people these days, and the book never mentions any of that (mostly because, I assume, it was written before all this came to light?). The book itself is extremely well-written and I very much enjoyed both the romance and Holland learning to be her own person and design her own course in life. If you can separate this story from the disgusting reality of what happens to brown people when they’re discovered to be here without papers, it’s a great read, but it’s painful when you’re aware of the realities versus the privilege Calvin had, both due to the color of his skin and his connections once he was brought into Holland’s circle. Excellent writing, great love story, hard to square with reality.

Another Christina Lauren novel for my lighter reading enjoyment. I didn’t like Twice in a Blue Moon as much I liked Roomies. It tells the story of Tate, the daughter of one of the most famous actors in Hollywood. She’s had no contact with her dad in ten years and no one knows where she went. She spills her secrets to Sam, a boy she meets on a trip to London with her grandmother. She and Sam are falling in love and it’s something major, something special…until he betrays her. Fourteen years later, Tate is one of the most famous actresses in the world, and the screenwriter of her new project is, of course, none other than Sam, whom she hasn’t seen since London. Messy? Oh yes. Liked it, but didn’t love it; I felt like Tate and Sam didn’t have quite the same chemistry as Holland and Calvin did, but it was an okay read.

And that’s it! All caught up. It wasn’t quite as many books as I had thought. I’ll do my best to update on a regular basis next month!!!

Mini reviews

Mini-reviews! (Yet another catch-up post.)

Hello, hello! It’s time for another post of mini-reviews, because my weeks are so full of homeschooling, cooking, and cleaning, that I can’t manage to get anything else written (with the exception of yesterday’s post excoriating It Had to Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, because that absolutely had to be done). Imma get all this out here in one post, just to see if I can catch up a little bit. I’m mostly only reading at night time right now after my daughter goes to bed, so maybe this will help get me back on track (she says optimistically). Let’s do this!

The History of Love by Nicola Krauss (Norton, 2005) tells the story of Alma Singer, a teenager who is struggling with the death of her father, her distant mother, her younger but over-the-top religious brother, and the mystery of the book her mother is translating, which is where Alma’s name came from. Leo Gursky is an elderly immigrant who, sixty years later, still can’t stop thinking about the girl he loved back in the old country, the one who inspired the greatest thing he’d ever written. There are twists and shocking conclusions, and what happened with Leo’s book is pretty appalling. This was way more literary than I normally venture, and for me, it was just okay.

Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life by Harold S. Kushner (Knopf, 2015) is a wonderful book about some fairly universal human truths viewed through the lens of Rabbi Kushner’s Conservative Judaism. Clocking in at only 171 pages, the book is small, but the content is huge, with a lot of discussion of how authentic faith translates into action that improves the world for everyone, and how doubt and searching can and absolutely should be a part of everyone’s faith. There’s a lot of wisdom packed into this book, as there are in all of Rabbi Kushner’s books, and eventually I’d like to read them all. This was my third of his, I believe.

You may be familiar with Anita Diamant’s other works; she’s probably best known for The Red Tent, the story of the wives of the Biblical Jacob and his daughter Dinah. (We’re also using her Living a Jewish Life in my Intro to Judaism course, which is still taking place on Zoom!) Pitching My Tent: On Marriage, Motherhood, Friendship, and Other Leaps of Faith (Scribner, 2003) is a collection of her articles, essays, and writings about her life, her family, her religious practice. She writes eloquently about the realities and the struggles of marriage and parenthood and the ups and downs of being an active member of a close-knit religious community. I really enjoyed the essay about her dreams of opening a liberal mikvah (Jewish ritual bath), and am pleased for her that that dream has become a reality; she’s a founding president of Mayyim Hayyim outside of Boston. This was a pleasant, calming read.

I love Dahlia Adler, so I was excited to finally find a copy of His Hideous Heart (Flatiron Books, 2019) right before the library closed, a collection of thirteen retellings of classic Edgar Allan Poe stories by modern YA authors (including Ms. Adler). The stories are dark, dark, dark, but also beautifully inclusive; there are plenty of LGBT and non-white characters to give the stories a realistic feel. Though this may not be the best time to read something so dark- I really struggled to get through this, as I was reading it during our first week of being at home. If you enjoy Poe and horror in general, though, you’ll love this.

And there we go. I’m about to finish another book, but I’ll be able to get up a post on that, and I’ll have my usual monthly roundup in a few days, so I’ll talk more there about how we’re managing in this weird, weird time. Stay safe and healthy, friends!!!

Mini reviews

Four mini-reviews!

I generally don’t enjoy cramming a lot of book reviews into one post, but sometimes it’s necessary, or it’s the best option. And this time I’m not even doing it as a catch-up, even though I’m a little behind. I’ve been doing some extra reading for my Introduction to Judaism class, cramming in some Jewish fiction and non-fiction around the edges of the reading I need to do for class (which varies by amount per week, but there’s extra suggested reading, and you know I read all those articles too!), just to expand my knowledge base because I find it helpful and also because I just want to know everything about everything in the world- totally an attainable goal.

ANYHOODLE. Here are a few of the extras I’ve read the past few weeks!

The Best of Sholom Aleichem by Sholom Aleichem, edited by Irving Howe and Ruth R. Wisse. Sholom Aleichem is best known for his short stories about Tevye the dairyman, which were gathered and shaped into the musical Fiddler on the Roof (which I haven’t seen, but there’s a version of it available with Amazon Prime, so I’ll get to it one of these days!). His short stories, translated from the original Yiddish, give readers a glimpse into life in nineteenth-century Eastern European shtetls. There’s laughter, joy, family, poverty, hunger, fear… The wolf is always at the door, but why not enjoy yourselves while you can? His writing is so very slice-of-life; the telling of the story is more important than a distinct conclusion. I worried that would bother me, but surprisingly, it didn’t; Aleichem’s method of storytelling is more than enough to carry each selection in the book. I’m jealous of those who can read him in the original Yiddish, because from what I’ve read, the language is so very nuanced that any translation loses a lot. I’m counting this as a pick for The Modern Mrs. Darcy 2020 Reading Challenge prompt of a book in translation.

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch. “Yet another troll-fighting 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl,” the story’s byline yawns, but this graphic novel is anything but tired. Mirka, who dreams of fighting dragons, struggles to learn the feminine skills her stepmother wants her to, and keeps finding herself in odd situations- lassoing a homework-eating talking pig with a serious attitude problem, for example. And those feminine skills come in handy when she meets a troll, of all things. This book is creative and fun and deeply imaginative, and I’m going to have to keep my eyes peeled for the other books in the series at my library (looks like they’re checked out right now! I’m glad; they deserve to be popular!).

The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt by Ken Krimstein. Hannah Arendt is a name that keeps coming up over and over again in my reading, so I picked up this graphic novel biography that covers a short period of her life. She was brilliant and complex and Krimstein presents some tough material in an easier-to-digest format. Two quotes in particular stuck out to me:

“As fire lives on oxygen, the oxygen of totalitarianism is untruth. Before totalitarian leaders can fit reality to their lies, their message is an unrelenting contempt for facts. They live by the belief that fact depends entirely on the power of the man who makes it up.”

“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

I definitely want to read more about Hannah Arendt, but this feels like a good introduction.

The last 20-30 minutes of each Sunday night class is dedicated to learning the Hebrew alphabet, and I’ve never met a class I didn’t feel the need to go full on Hermione Granger in, so thanks to an extra-long interlibrary loan, I was able to work my way through Aleph Isn’t Tough: An Introduction to Hebrew for Adults by Linda Motzkin and Hara Person. This is the first language I’ve ever studied that doesn’t use the Roman alphabet, so it was intimidating to begin, but this book is incredibly thorough, introducing only a few letters and vowels per chapter so that the learner isn’t overwhelmed. Right away, the authors have you reading and writing words, matching English sounds with their Hebrew equivalents, and listing words the reader (who is assumed to have at least a basic knowledge of Judaism) is probably familiar with (and I was!). I was able to sound out (and recognize!) some of the Hebrew words when the class went down and sat in the sanctuary the other night, both around the room and in the prayer book. If you’re looking for the best, most basic place to start learning the Hebrew alphabet, Aleph Isn’t Tough should definitely be your first stop.

And with that, I’m only two reviews behind! Graphic novels and short stories aren’t always the easiest for me to review (and then there’s the language book!), so I’m feeling okay about covering these four books with one single post. I enjoyed all of these- for very different reasons- and would love to hear your thoughts if you’ve read any of them as well.

Happy reading, folks! 🙂

Mini reviews

Mini-reviews: Part II of Catching Up

Here we are again, folks! I’m catching up on reviews before the end of the year, and while I’d much rather that each book had its own individual post, sometimes we have to cram in our reviews any way we can. After this post, I’ll be caught back up, so that’ll be nice. (Until I’m behind again, which wouldn’t happen if people would stop needing me to do things other than read and blog…)

Let’s get this wrapped up!

The Chai Factor by Farah Heron (Harper Avenue, 2019). This is what I was reading when my hellacious migraine struck, so it took me longer than I wanted to get through. Amira Khan has moved back in with her grandmother, mother, and much younger sister to finish up her final paper for engineering grad school. She wasn’t expecting to have to share the basement with a barbershop quartet, nor was she expecting to get caught up in their drama. This is a lovely multicultural romance; Amira is Indian-Canadian and Muslim, and the book has a lot of great scenes that deal with issues from and which expose the reader to her particular community (and will have you scrambling to place an order from your favorite local Indian restaurant, because Ms. Heron’s constant mentions of food did exactly that for me. I’d rather eat Indian than any other cuisine in the world). Amira and Duncan’s relationship is super cute, and while Amira is kind of a prickly and defensive character, the reasons for that are entirely valid. I enjoyed this.

Before They Pass Away by Jimmy Nelson (teNeues, 2013). This is a stunning book of photography, with a little bit of text in multiple languages, about isolated cultures that are struggling to survive and exist as the world encroaches on them. The photos are intense and beautiful, showcasing different traditions of dress (and occasionally lack thereof; keep this in mind if you have curious children to whom you’re not ready to explain differences in genitalia and cultural expectations of who should keep what covered and when) and bodily decoration, as well as the landscapes, some of them daunting, where these groups each live. This is an utterly enormous book, to the point where it was somewhat painful to carry, so maybe have an extra set of arms or a wagon if you’re going to check this out of your local library.

Becoming Eve: My Journey from Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman by Abby Chava Stein (Seal Press, 2019). Abby Chava Stein grew up in a Hasidic community in Brooklyn, one of the most gender-segregated communities out there. Born a boy, she knew from a young age that she was actually a girl, but she received the message early on that acting anything other than what was considered typical for a boy in her community was unacceptable. She struggled her whole life, trying to cram herself into the role her community demanded of her, but ultimately made the decision to live as the person she is and not who others wanted her to be. This is a very life-affirming book; I was in awe of her strength, both to survive in such a constricting community for as long as she did, and for finally making the painful choice to leave. The book covers more of her early life, while only briefly alluding to how she left and what the aftermath of that looked like, so I’m extremely hopeful that there will be a follow-up memoir.

What the Wind Knows by Amy Harmon (Lake Union Publishing, 2019). A time travel romance set against the backdrop of Ireland’s struggle for independence from England in the 1920’s. I didn’t know much about this subject, so this was a delight, and I’m absolutely in awe of Ms. Harmon’s research skills. Ireland is as much of a character as anyone else in the novel, and I love that Michael Collins is a large presence in the book. This would make for a fabulous book club read; the romance is never explicit, and the focus of the novel is far more set on the historical aspects of the story and the complex emotional relationships between all of the characters, past and present. I’m very curious about Ms. Harmon’s other novels after reading this!

And that’s it! I’m now caught up and will *crosses fingers* hopefully stay that way, although no promises! The treadmill of life just keep speeding up and I can’t quite manage to keep up the pace…

Mini reviews

Mini-reviews: a catch-up post!!!

ARGH!!! I told myself I would never do this, but I’ve been a terrible mixture of swamped and exhausted lately. The migraine I had at the beginning of December had me feeling terrible for a week, and I’ve been running around like crazy trying to get things done for the holidays and by the end of the year (which of course means that my daughter is home sick today!). All that has put me so many reviews behind that there’s no way I’ll catch up by the end of the year, but I don’t want to ignore those books entirely. Thus, a mass post of tiny reviews!

Ready? Let’s get this post started.

Love Thy Neighbor: A Muslim Doctor’s Struggle for Home in Rural America by Ayaz Virji (Convergent Books, 2019). This was a beautiful, moving book. Dr. Virji had a pretty good life as a doctor in a big city, but with rural towns in dire need of medical professionals, he felt called to serve humanity and his fellow Americans by moving his family to rural Minnesota and setting up practice there. And in doing so, he found both a sense of home and fierce racism and bigotry.

This is an absolute must-read; Dr. Virji’s perspective is absolutely eye-opening on what Muslims face, especially when they’re the only Muslims in the area. It’s a beautiful and heartbreaking book and should definitely top your TBR list.

No Laughter Here by Rita Williams-Garcia (Amistad, 2003). Akilah and Victoria have been best friends for a few years. Akilah loves Victoria’s accent and her stories of world travel, but when Victoria comes back from her summer in Nigeria, something’s terribly wrong. She won’t smile, she won’t laugh, she won’t even speak to Akilah, who can’t figure out what she did wrong. Little by little, Akilah works to gain her friend’s trust again, only to find out that in Nigeria, Victoria’s family forced her to undergo female genital mutilation, and she’s been massively traumatized by it.

This is a middle grade novel and it’s devastating and unfortunately necessary. The author points out at the end that while this might seem like a too-sensitive subject to bring up to middle school-aged girls, it’s girls of those same ages that undergo genital mutilation, so yes, this is exactly the book for girls that age. This would make for a fabulous mother-daughter read, or a mother-daughter book club, especially one looking to expand cultural awareness and issues that affect women and girls the world over.

Jesus Girls: True Tales of Growing Up Female and Evangelical, edited by Hannah Faith Notess (Cascade Books, 2009). This is a collection of essays, written by various authors, on their varying experiences of growing up as evangelical Christians. Their experiences run the gamut; for some, it worked out well and they remained in the fold, and others found their connection with the sacred in other ways and in other places. I didn’t find this particularly riveting, to be honest, but it was a pleasant-enough weekend read.

To Life! A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking by Harold S. Kushner (Grand Central Publishing, 1994). This is a reread for me; I don’t often reread books, but it’s been a few years and I was curious as to how my perspective of it had changed. It’s a great primer if you’ve never read anything on Judaism before and are curious. The reread taught me that I still indeed enjoy this book very much; Rabbi Kushner has a lovely perspective on religion and God that I can often relate to. He’s probably best known for his bestseller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, which he wrote in the aftermath of his teenage son’s death from progeria. It’s also worth your time if you’re struggling with some of the darker aspects of life.

An Unorthodox Match by Naomi Ragen (St. Martin’s Press, 2019). I’d tried one of Naomi Ragen’s novels years ago and ended up DNF’ing it, but this sounded interesting so I figured I’d try her again. Leah (called Lola by her flighty, hippie mother) is dissatisfied with all of her life and decides to leave everything behind and join an extremely insular ultraorthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. Almost immediately, she begins helping in the home of Yaakov, a widower with five children (including a deeply angry teenage daughter), whose life has been upended after his wife’s untimely death. Even though they’ve never actually met, they start to fall in love, but their community and family aren’t so sure about this match.

The premise of this book sounded fascinating, but every single character in this book (minus maybe the grandmother, after a while) engaged in such singular black-and-white thinking that I was annoyed almost from the start. Things are either this way or that, and ZERO in-between. Leah, for all her pious leanings, treated her mother terribly and engaged in constant judgment of others whilst bemoaning that they were judging her. Yaakov was ready to toss his teenage daughter out like yesterday’s spoiled food; Leah’s mother was a mere parody of a person, and there are multiple shocking incidents of racism and an uncomfortable-at-best depiction of autism that are casually included by the author and that nearly made me drop the book. This book had such potential to be interesting, but I don’t feel like I can recommend it at all.

Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life- In Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There!) by Sarah Hurwitz (Spiegel & Grau, 2019). I absolutely adored this book. It’s brief parts memoir, but mostly more nonfiction about Judaism. There are a few write-ups and breakdowns of holidays and practices, but moreso it’s a theological discussion of the differing Jewish perspectives of what God is and isn’t, what that means and looks like in practice, and how belief doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing thing. I deeply appreciated Ms. Hurwitz’s take on things; she presents ideas and thoughts about God that made a lot of sense to me. Some were her own; others came from current rabbis and rabbis throughout the ages. I took down multiple pages of notes from this book, and it gave me a lot to think about. Highly, highly recommended if you’re interested in reading about religion!

Okay, I’ll wrap this up here, so as to not make it a MEGAPOST that no one will read, and I’ll continue on with a second post of mini-reviews on Monday. Happy reading, friends! 🙂