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. πŸ™‚

Follow Marra B. Gad on Twitter.

nonfiction

In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language- Arika Okrent

I was around eight or so when I got the bright idea that I was going to invent a language. I thought I was pretty darn clever until I opened the dictionary to A and started making up words, which I wrote down on a piece of paper. Halfway down the page, I realized that there were an awful lot of existing words that I never used, and to come up with new words for all of them- and memorize them!- would be…difficult. And not exactly fun, because what’s the point of making up a language that I wasn’t sure I could memorize? Chastened and humbled, I abandoned my language creation and went off to do whatever it was that eight year-old me did, probably play outside in the yard or (surprise) read a book. It was this memory that led me to select In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language by Arika Okrent (Spiegel & Grau, 2009) for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt for a book with a made-up language. Maybe I could figure out where my eight year-old self had gone wrong. πŸ˜‰

Languages are complicated; in all their quirks of grammar and pronunciation, their exceptions to the rules and bizarre, untranslatable idioms, they arise to meet the needs of their speakers. Modern eras have seen the rise of constructed languages- conlangs, as they’re known- or languages purposefully and non-naturally created by a single or multiple human beings. Throughout the book, Ms. Okrent takes the reader on a tour through many of the better known conlangs, such as Klingon, Loglan (and Lojban), Blissymbols, LΓ‘adan, and probably the most well-known and most successful (for what that’s worth) conlang, Esperanto.

While the book does occasionally wander into drier territory for readers who aren’t major linguistics nerds (and I say that with deep respect and affection for linguistic nerds, because language is frickin’ cool), where it really shines is in telling the human stories behind the invented languages. Language creators, as it turns out, are a messy bunch. Drama- so much drama- anger, romance, quarrels and bickering, lawsuits, there are veritable soap operas surrounding the creation of just about every conlang, and it’s obvious Ms. Okrent is just as into these personal stories as she is the languages themselves. I very much appreciated when she became part of the story, reporting on her experiences at Esperanto and Klingon conferences; never having attended one of these conferences myself, it was interesting to see what another language enthusiast found useful- and irritating!- about them.

To be honest, while I did enjoy this, I don’t know that I would have finished it if it weren’t for the challenge. It often got little more academic than I would have normally felt up to at this time in my life, but that’s just a personal thing and shouldn’t reflect on anyone else’s opinion of the book. My brain is just pretty full from other things right now. I am glad, however, that I did finish it. It answered a lot of questions I’ve always had about the how and why of the failure, for the most part, of that perfect invented universal language. If you’ve ever wondered why we can’t all just have one single language so we can all speak to each other and finally achieve world peace, give this book a try, because you might walk away with your curiosity finally satisfied as well. πŸ™‚

Have you ever thought about invented languages? Tried to learn one? Wished you could speak Klingon or Esperanto? (Duolingo has them both: Klingon, Esperanto) I admit to some curiosity towards Esperanto, but I’m kind of full up on languages right now…

Visit Arika Okrent’s website here.

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

This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant's Manifesto- Suketu Mehta

Immigration has been a hot topic the past few years, and I think we’ve all seen how ugly that conversation can get. I’ve mentioned many times on this blog (I think…) that I’m married to an immigrant (who is also a citizen, and a veteran, thankyouverymuch); his family moved to this country when he was three, and I spend a lot of time thinking about how difficult a move this must have been on my mother-in-law. Three children, one of whom was a baby, a new language (that she’d studied in school, but the difference between learning in school and actual spoken language is pretty major), a husband who traveled more often than he was home, I’m not sure I could have managed all of that, but she did, and I’m in awe of her. I do my best to include marginalized voices in my reading, and that very much includes immigrant voices, so I knew I had to read This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto by Suketu Mehta (Vintage Digital, 2019) when I learned about it.

Bursting with pages upon pages of footnotes and sources to back up the argument that immigration is necessary and beneficial, This Land Is Our Land covers all facets of immigration: the who and the why (they’re here because we- our country- were most likely there, in their country, exploiting it until a living could no longer be made and its citizens were forced to leave in order to provide for their families), the many wheres and the how (and the dangers of that how). This is world history- England’s brutality in India, Belgian’s brutal, bloody rule over the Congo, the United States overthrowing the government in Guatemala and funding death squads in El Salvador (and, once again, they’re here because we were there. Mr. Mehta describes this as, “You break it, you buy it,” and I think that sums it up perfectly). There are stories that escaped my previous learning, such as Chiquita Brand’s (yes, the banana company) involvement in supporting paramilitary and drug trafficking groups in order to protect their workers, and stories that I’d learned about years ago (if you’ve never read anything about Belgium’s involvement in the Congo, I highly, highly recommend King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild). There’s a lot of heartbreaking, infuriating information in this book that will have you stopping to take a deep breath and wondering why and how we can continue to perpetuate such atrocities against our fellow man.

But this is also contains great beauty, offering statistics and anecdotes (more statistics than anecdotes) of how societies flourish when we open our doors and welcome the stranger. In almost every case and in every way, society is made stronger and more economically powerful when immigrants join us. The benefits are not always immediate, and there are instances where it’s a long-term investment, but the research is overwhelmingly clear: immigrants are beneficial to societies and we need more immigration, not less.

Despite the heavy subject and often painful examples of the horrific maltreatment of immigrants, this is a quick read that will present any native born citizen of any country with a more nuanced take on their immigrant neighbor than they may have had before. It would be nice to see this book appear as required reading in high schools, college classes, book clubs, and community reads, because frankly, we as a society and as a world have a lot to learn in the way of compassion for those who have left their homelands behind.

Visit Suketu Mehta’s website here.

Follow him 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. πŸ™‚

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

Follow her on Twitter

nonfiction

The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia: From Abraham to Zabar's and Everything In Between- Stephanie Butnick, Liel Leibovitz, and Mark Oppenheimer

My current podcast obsession is Unorthodox, the world’s leading Jewish podcast (as the opening goes, and available on whatever app you use to listen to podcasts; Podbean works well with my devices, although it takes up a LOT of space…), by Tablet Magazine. It’s funny, it’s fascinating, it’s at times reverent and irreverent in the best ways, and I love it so much that not only have I been listening to it at night, I also listen to it when I’m cooking and cleaning (well, not so much when the kids are home. It’s hard to listen to anything when I’m interrupted every six seconds to pull something down from a closet shelf, load the WiFi password into another device, cut a string off a sock or an itchy tag off a new shirt, and answer yet another question about the location of some random item). I’ve learned so much from it and added so many books to my TBR because of it, and I look forward to every single new episode (new episodes are out on Thursdays; I listen to those as they come out, but I’m also making my way through the back episodes). And the hosts don’t necessarily always agree with each other on everything, and I don’t always agree with them, but they seriously make it feel like there’s room for disagreement, and I love that. Those hosts, Stephanie Butnick, Liel Leibovitz, and Mark Oppenheimer, have come out with an awesome book, The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia: From Abraham to Zabar’s and Everything in Between (Artisan, 2019), and a few episodes in, I slapped that baby on my TBR, requested it via interlibrary loan, and squealed loudly when it came in.

The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia is history, culture, food, religion, sadness, and joy. Its entries stem from religious figures- biblical, historical, and current- to pop culture (I had zero idea that Michael Landon was Jewish! His given name at birth was Eugene Orowitz), to history (biblical, Israeli, world) and beyond. It covers all aspects of life, because wherever life happens, Jewish people are there, too, changing the world and managing to not just survive, but flourish despite the odds.

You’ll learn Yiddish terms (shpilkes describes my inner state about 99% of the time, LOLSOB), read about horrifying incidents in history (the MS St. Louis, anyone? Babi Yar?), piece together a picture of the founding of Israel and some of its struggles to survive, and be jonesing for a really good bagel by the time you reach the acknowledgements. My sole complaint is that the book came to an end! Fortunately, the authors included in the entries many, many titles to books by Jewish authors and about Jewish subjects, along with movies and documentaries that cover everything from agunot to the Holocaust, that my ravenous appetite for more knowledge will have plenty to feast upon.

This is yet another book that I’ll probably end up buying in the future. Quite a few of the entries had me laughing out loud, and at other times, I was flipping back and forth to reread an entry or glean more information. Having a copy of this on my own shelf to refer back to whenever I want (and I can imagine that I’d pick it up again and again, both because it’s interesting and because my memory tends to be a little Swiss-cheese-ish…) definitely makes sense for me.

If you’re at all interested in any aspect of Judaism, or even if you’re just a student of history and culture, The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia deserves a place on your reading list and your bookshelf.

nonfiction

Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS- Azadeh Moaveni

You ever go into a book thinking you’re getting one thing and then you wind up with another thing entirely? It’s kind of like ordering a pizza, but when the deliveryman knocks at your door, instead of a large with extra cheese, you get a platter of oysters. Now, plenty of people enjoy oysters; they’re served at some of the finest restaurants in the world, but when you were expecting a hot, gooey, cheese-covered pizza, that oyster platter may leave you puzzled.

That’s how I felt about Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of Isis by Azadeh Moaveni (Random House, 2019). With a title like that, I was very much expecting the book to be focused entirely on the women of ISIS. What inspired them to travel to Syria, what their lives were like before they arrived and after, what kept them there and what made them leave (if they could or did). And while Ms. Moaveni does include these stories, they’re more like brief interludes into the story of the conflict of Syria and the creation of ISIS. It’s a complex story, to be sure, and this book is very well-written; I would expect nothing less from Ms. Moaveni, who is a Pulitzer Prize finalist. But the text of the book is overwhelmingly about the conflict itself; the stories of the women are briefly wedged into a larger narrative about the war in Syria. Some chapters have a few paragraphs about a woman’s story or her situation, and the rest follows the story of the war.

I kept waiting for the focus to be more on the women, and in the last twenty pages or so, it finally turns that way, only to introduce women not mentioned at all through the rest of the book. I’d really been hoping to get a better, deeper look into the mindset and daily life of these women who left behind fairly normal lives (albeit some poverty-stricken, others depressing), often in Western countries, to join ISIS, and while the brief pictures painted show bleak ones, I was expecting quite a different book based on the title and the blurb. So while this is absolutely a masterful piece of writing, it wasn’t at allwhat I expected it to be.

One thing that really stood out in the book was the story of the British teenagers (known as the Bethnal Green trio) that ran away from home to Syria, in order to become ISIS brides. The police knew they were trying to leave beforehand, but didn’t inform the girls’ parents. Related incidents at school also weren’t mentioned to the families. The parents had no idea of the girls’ plans; they were all good students with no issues at school, and religious parents generally don’t think to question increased piety and modesty in their children. How three fifteen year-olds were able to purchase plane tickets and get on planes, unaccompanied, and fly to foreign countries is beyond me. It seemed like there were a lot of times the story could have been stopped before it started, but too many people dropped the ball.

That said, these girls were fifteen when they left. Not legal adults, below the age of consent, at the age where society knows they’re still apt to make terrible, illogical decisions, and there’s some scary vitriol thrown their way by certain commentators, calling the girls ‘whores’ and demanding that any attempts by the government to return the girls to their parents (the police and the government didn’t seem to be doing much, if anything) be dropped. I’m by no means excusing their actions; leaving their families to join ISIS is obviously deeply horrifying, with terrible consequences for them (two of the girls are dead; one has watched all three of her children, which she gave birth to by the age of nineteen, die) and for the world. But I’m also far more reluctant to call fifteen year old girls whores and throw their entire lives out like trash than others, apparently. I hadn’t heard of these girls before this book, so this particular story was an eye-opener.

So tell me, dear readers: have you had this happen before, that a book turns out to be quite different from what the back cover or inside flap portrays it as? I’m pretty sure this has happened to me in the past, though not anytime recently. The reviews for this book on Goodreads are quite high, and I almost feel like I’m missing something, because my takeaways are so different from everyone else…

Visit Azadeh Moaveni’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Unfollow: A Journey From Hatred to Hope- Megan Phelps-Roper

The second I learned about Unfollow: A Journey From Hatred to Hope by Megan Phelps-Roper (riverrun 2019), I went running to Goodreads and smashed that Want to Read button. I’ve been a rubbernecker at the nightmare that is the Westboro Baptist Church for years, and I’ve also read and enjoyed both Girl on a Wire: Walking the Line Between Faith and Freedom in the Westboro Baptist Church by Libby Phelps with Sara Stewart, and Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain. So it was only natural that I read what Megan had to say, and as luck would have it, Unfollow appeared the next day on my library’s “These books are coming out next week, reserve them now!” shelf. I did indeed reserve it immediately, and I was the second person on the list (who ARE you, other cool local person??? We could be such good friends!).

Megan Phelps-Roper was born into the Westboro Baptist church, famous for their signs with foul statements about who or what God is currently hating, used to picket such occasions as funerals of dead soldiers. Despite the family’s constant spewing of hatred making international news, Megan’s upbringing seemed this side of normal. Her extended family lived mostly on the same block, she and her siblings were pushed to excel in school, and she never longed for company, as she was one of many children. And Megan had no reason to question her family’s aggressively hateful messages: she loved and trusted her parents and grandparents. Why wouldn’t they be telling her the truth about God? She happily and eagerly participated in their protests that caused so many others such pain.

Her story of growth and escape aren’t an immediate one. Through her use of social media to spread the church’s message, she gets to know her followers on Twitter and several of them plant seeds of logic that begin to germinate in her mind. Things begin not sitting quite right over a period of time, and eventually, Megan and her sister find their way out, striking out on their own in a world they’ve never really lived in. It takes time, but eventually she finds what she truly believes and how wrong her church was. Through it all, though, she never loses sight of how much her parents loved her, and how difficult this very necessary break is for everyone.

Megan Phelps-Roper has written what I think is the strongest so far of the post-Westboro memoirs. She shies away from nothing, including the more hideous parts of Westboro’s protests and her eagerness to take part in them, and for that, I give her a lot of credit. It’s really not easy to admit when you’ve been so wrong about something that has hurt so many people, and she makes it obvious that she’s done the work to extricate herself from the hurtful beliefs she grew up with (also something that’s not easy). Her pain at losing almost her entire family is obvious, and it was easy to feel compassion for her. Her writing really does an amazing job of separating the parents we know from TV interviews and footage (her mother is Shirley Phelps-Roper), and the mother who cared for her when she was sick and lovingly answered her many questions. That takes some serious writing skill to pull that off, as I’m obviously no fan of Shirley’s.

Her exit from the church and from her family is really the most intriguing part of this. The relationships she developed over Twitter and the thoughtful replies from these people were the beginning of the end for her, although she never would have thought of it that way when she first began connecting with them. It made me think about how I respond to those with whom I disagree on social media (usually with facts and pointing out the gaps in their logic; sometimes snark leaks through…), because without these people (and no spoilers, but there are two really interesting ones!), Megan might never have left. That’s pretty huge.

What a fascinating book. Is it okay to say you’re proud of someone you’ve never met? Megan Phelps-Roper seems like a genuinely decent person who was born into a bad situation and never had any reason to question it until just the right people came along and threw up some flashing neon signs that her brain wouldn’t let her forget. I’m proud of her for having the courage to be true to who her heart and soul told her she really was, and for taking the time to learn all that she has once she left. Leaving the majority of her family behind was no easy choice, and I’m proud of her for choosing truth and integrity despite the cost.

Follow Megan Phelps-Roper on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland- Jonathan M. Metzl

Anything about politics these days, I have to wait until I’m mentally strong enough to handle it. Self-care and all that; there’s only so much negativity I can take at one time. I had placed Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland by Jonathan M. Metzl (Basic Books, 2019) on my TBR on the recommendation of a friend, and on a recent trip to the library, I took out my updated list and grabbed this book.

The title sums the book up nicely. Across many red states, white Americans are voting for policies that directly harm them, from gun laws that up their own death rates, to healthcare policies (or the rescinding of policies) that lead to increased suffering and deaths, to education cutbacks and policies that mean their own children’s schools are worse off- sometimes much worse off. And they’re doing this out of a misplaced sense of cultural pride, that lifting those whom they have ‘othered’ up means they’ll have no one to look down on, and so in order to maintain this false sense of superiority, they continually put their own lives on the line by voting for policies that bring harm upon themselves. To them, this tradeoff is worth it.

Dying of Whiteness is necessarily heavy on the statistics in order to prove its hypothesis, but Mr. Metzl has managed to wrangle what could have been a dry recounting into a sobering narrative of his research findings as he traveled through multiple states that went red in the 2016 election. The first section on how looser gun laws in Missouri led to a 25% increase in firearm homicides and a 47% higher homicide rate than the national average between 2008-2014 shocked me, as did the massive increase (the percentage which I somehow neglected to write down) in suicide-by-gun among white males. Prevention is key, but thanks to the Dickey Amendment, researchers haven’t been able to research what would be effective prevention for suicide carried out by a gun (as government contributes the most funding to research, since government funds cannot be used for funding research into gun deaths, the only thing to takeaway here is that the ability to own a gun is more important than saving lives, according to our government). Imagine if the flu, or the polio epidemic were treated like this, and where we would be as a nation if no research were allowed to be conducted on death or suffering caused by those. Yet here we are… It’s not exactly an uplifting book, but it’s not meant to be.

The healthcare section is similarly packed with statistics and numbers, with men on Medicaid, tethered to oxygen tanks and barely able to wheeze out answers complaining about immigrants and people of color and saying they’d rather die than have certain groups of people also able to access healthcare. It’s really that bad.

Same goes for the educational system, but at least Mr. Metzl is able to find plenty of citizens who seem to understand how the affects of austerity measures in Kansas harmed their own children (though they still voted en masse for people who promised to enact these same policies nationwide…), but only after their children’s schools went massively down the tubes.

‘You can’t hold a man down without staying down with him,’ Booker T. Washington famously said, and Mr. Metzl does a fine job of exposing the Americans who are content to stay down with those they’re deadset on oppressing. It’s a gloomy look at the reality of America today. My sole complaint lies with what Mr. Metzl seemingly overlooks: while these people have no trouble living in reduced circumstances in order to maintain their place in this invisible hierarchy, even going so far as to give up their own lives for this misguided ideal (something at which he seems more than a little awed at, in a horrified way), what he doesn’t mention is that it’s not just themselves these people are sacrificing. It’s their children. It’s their neighbors. It’s people who desperately want change, who DON’T want to sacrifice themselves, who don’t want to watch their children or their parent die due to lack of decent medical care, or who need to know how to prevent gun suicides, or who want their kids to have technology classes and AP classes and college preparation in school. People who are literally dying for their allegiance to their own whiteness are also sentencing the rest of us to die alongside them, and I would have liked to have seen more written to that particularly terrifying reality.

Dying of Whiteness is daunting and more than a little disheartening, but it’s well-written, statistically sound, and an important read, if you can handle it. It’s also a call to action for white people. Free your mind. Get over whatever racial biases and prejudices you have. Do the work to ditch your racism, because your life, and the life of those you love, literally depends on it.

Visit Jonathan Metzl’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.