nonfiction

Book Review: Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine by Eric Weiner

It was an episode of the podcast Judaism Unbound that clued me in to the existence of Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine by Eric Weiner (Twelve, 2011). You may be aware of Eric Weiner’s other books, including The Geography of Bliss (which I read and enjoyed years ago) and The Geography of Genius. I knew about those books and had heard of them in various places; I had never heard of this one before, and I leapt out of bed to tap the Want-to-Read button on Goodreads. I’m always interested in what a widespread spiritual search looks like, and Eric Weiner doesn’t disappoint here.

After a nurse asks him if he’s found his god yet during a hospital trip, Eric Weiner realizes…no, he hasn’t. He’s not even sure what God means. Surely someone out there has this all figured out, right? Plenty of people out there seem happy with where they’ve ended up, spiritually speaking. He makes out a list of places he finds acceptable to look, and off he trots in search of the Divine and what speaks deeply to him of it.

From Kabbalah to Buddhism, from Taoism to the group known as Raëlians, Eric Weiner travels the globe, looking for the sect to which he feels he can connect with the sacred, for a place that feels like home and an endpoint to his spiritual search. Along the way, he’s excited, weirded out, forced to examine what he thinks and feels and knows about what makes something holy. Maybe it’s more than what he previously believed, and maybe it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation, but along the way, he learns that everyone’s ‘god-shaped hole’ looks a little different…and that’s okay.

Combination travelogue and religious seeker’s journal, Man Seeks God is a fun look at some well-known and some more (or incredibly!) obscure religious groups spread far and wide throughout the world. From China to Vegas, from Israel to Nepal, you learn almost as much about the places Mr. Weiner travels to as you do about the religious sect he’s learning about in that place. And that, to me, wasn’t a bad thing. I enjoy travel memoirs, and since we can’t go anywhere these days, this was an interesting literary field trip to learn about things I hadn’t much touched on since the year I took a college Comparative Religions class (seriously the most fascinating class I’ve ever taken). The Raëlians were pretty far out, but not the most unique group I’ve ever learned about (I wish I could remember the name of the American group that wore these burqa-like coverings and wandered in a field for one of their rituals. I had never seen anything like this before and watched it over and over again!). Mr. Weiner goes into each sect with an open mind- probably far more open than I would have been able to; I’m not sure I could get down with the Raëlians, to be honest- but he writes about his experiences in a fun and funny way, all the while being as respectful as possible of the different paths and beliefs…even when most of them prove that they’re not for him.

I enjoyed this. I enjoy Mr. Weiner’s humorous-and-slightly-self-deprecating-but-still-somewhat-serious style and the look into religions that definitely aren’t for me but are still enjoyable to read about. Even when they were something he outright rejected, it was still pretty fascinating to read about the people these practices did work for. My brain doesn’t quite work in a way where Buddhism or Taoism fits me well, but reading about the teachers that Mr. Weiner learned from helped me understand these paths better. And I can’t say I knew too much about the Raëlians before this (just enough to wonder, “They’re into aliens, right?” when I saw whom the chapter covered), but now at least I’m better informed (won’t be signing up, though. Still not my thing. If it’s your thing? Party on!).

Fun fact: as I was writing up this review, I noticed Eric Weiner’s latest book on Goodreads, The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers. I’d never heard of this book before, but thought it sounded interesting, as philosophy is a subject I’ve always thought I should read more about. About twenty minutes after that, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed while eating dinner (I’m the only person in the house who wants to eat dinner at the table; alas, I have been outvoted) and found someone from a podcast group had posted a picture of books in a library display. In that display? The Socrates Express. I love when this stuff happens.

Visit Eric Weiner’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Miriam’s Kitchen by Elizabeth Ehrlich

Reading lists are both the best thing ever and the bane of my TBR. I don’t know that I’ve been able to look at many lists titled things like, “100 Books Coming Out This Year That You Can’t Miss!” or “You Will Literally Die If You Don’t Read These Books!” without my TBR growing exponentially. It’s really the best problem to have, isn’t it? It was a reading list that introduced me to Miriam’s Kitchen by Elizabeth Ehrlich (Penguin Group, 1997). The premise had me hitting that want-to-read button immediately, and interlibrary loan delivered the book into my hands- in a stack of other interlibrary loan books, of course, because, as we know, everything always comes in at once!

It’s not until she’s an adult and has children of her own that Elizabeth Ehrlich begins deeply pondering what her Jewish identity means. Never fully identifying with the religious aspects, she turns to the kitchen of her mother-in-law Miriam, a Holocaust survivor who still maintains a kosher kitchen and cooks nearly everything from scratch. Homemade noodles, chopped liver, all the dishes that Elizabeth remembers her grandmothers laboring over appear on Miriam’s table, and Elizabeth wants to know more. Something in these old ways calls out to her, and at Miriam’s side, she begins to learn and ponder the traditions that have been passed down for millennia through her family. Little by little, she moves toward a kosher kitchen, toward trying out the religious aspects of Judaism, seeing what fits, seeing where she belongs, all the while recounting the stories of her family members- mostly women, but some of the men as well. These people lived through some of the worst violence humanity has ever perpetrated on their fellow men; the miracle of their survival pushes Elizabeth to look deeper, work harder, to create something to pass down to her children. Even if they ultimately reject it, giving them something from which to turn away- and maybe return to one day- feels right.

This is an absolutely lovely memoir. Miriam and Ms. Ehrlich’s bubbes and her mother are women of valor, women who experienced horrors, who weren’t given many options in their lives, but who persevered anyway, doing the best they could with what they had. They exemplified hard work and honor, working both in and outside the home, without many of the tools we take for granted. Seeing all they did without many of the luxuries I own really made me think while I was reading this.

I deeply identified with Ms. Ehrlich’s draw toward certain aspects of Judaism, that pull without fully understanding the why of it. Sometimes you just feel moved toward something that doesn’t necessarily make logical sense- it’s a bit like falling in love, I think. There’s not always a rhyme or reason to it. When she was faced with the daunting task of kashering her kitchen and living a kosher life, she was somewhat dismayed by all the extra work it will take, all the time and emotional labor necessary to remember which sponge is used for wiping up meat spills and which for dairy, all the strength it takes to tell her children no, that we don’t eat that, and then cooking after a long day at work. But still she felt drawn to do it, even knowing the difficulties, and that is something I understood and felt on a visceral level. (Not for the exact same reasons- I’m vegetarian, so that cuts out like 99% of the problem right there, and I live in a house with three non-religious, occasional meat-eaters, so unless I wanted to maintain my own set of pots and pans and dishes, keeping a kosher kitchen wouldn’t really be possible for me. I *could*, but I don’t know that anyone else in the house would remember which dishes were just mine, and I’d end up having to re-kasher them like twelve times a day…)

She’s hard on herself, seeing all the ways she falls short of Miriam’s ideal, but still forging ahead and jumping in with both feet, which I found deeply admirable. So often, we shy away from what intimidates us- I know I’m guilty of this- especially when we know that perfection is unattainable. But she begins anyway, taking the steps to live the life she feels drawn to, and that’s a message to live by.

I wonder if Miriam ever felt intimidated by the older women in her life, if she ever felt that her cooking, her kitchen, wouldn’t measure up. Will Ms. Ehrlich’s grandchildren feel the same as they observe her preparing Miriam’s recipes? Do we all feel like this to some degree, that we’ll never be the strong, capable women our foremothers were? This book raised a lot of questions about how we connect to our pasts and what we carry with us into our futures, what we pass down, and I’m glad this ended up on my TBR. I don’t know that I’ll try any of the recipes in it- some of them sound absolutely delicious, but in terms of heart-healthy cooking, they’re not something I would normally make (thank you SO much, genetic cholesterol levels!). Perhaps one day, I’ll get up the courage…

I don’t see any websites or contact information for Elizabeth Ehrlich; if you’re aware of any, let me know in the comments and I’ll amend this post. Miriam’s Kitchen is the winner of a National Jewish Book Award.

nonfiction

Book Review: Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage & Preservation by Sharon Astyk

What does your pantry look like? Do you have a dusty can of beans from a year when One Direction was still together, a package of an ingredient you’ve never used and are too intimidated by to open, and not much else? Or are you like me, with a few months’ worth of food stashed away in various corners of the house? This past year has shown us the importance of being prepared for tough times- job losses, shortages, weather events that cut off power and access to stores, all that and more has plagued us (pun intended) as a society, and being prepared for these terrible events isn’t a bad idea. Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage & Preservation by Sharon Astyk (New Society Publishers, 2009) has been on my TBR for a while; it piqued my interested because having a fully-stocked pantry has always been important to me (mostly because I’m lazy and don’t ever want to have to make an emergency run for a missing ingredient!). This seemed right up my alley, so I requested it via interlibrary loan.

Think about this past year, when toilet paper, hand sanitizer, yeast, garlic, and various other products were nowhere to be found on store shelves. How did you fare? Having a well-stocked pantry in trying times could alleviate stress and get you through rough patches caused by job loss, weather events, power outages, economic downturns, illness, pandemics, and all the other chaos that disrupts daily life and may make getting to the store or procuring sustenance for your family difficult or impossible. Changing your diet to one more sustainable to your location, gardening, obtaining food and supplies from more local and sustainable sources, and preserving this food in a variety of ways are all suggestions that Ms. Astyk has for creating a better-prepared life.

It’s a lot of work, true, but so is pretty much anything worth doing, she argues, and stocking your pantry is never something you’ll regret if things go sideways. With in-depth discussions on gardening, locating storage space no matter where you live, recipes, the ups and downs of various forms of preservation, and more, Sharon Astyk has created a basic primer for anyone interested in living a prepared life.

This is a pretty good book for anyone starting out on the journey of planning and stocking their pantry. She lays out some pretty compelling arguments for the need for keeping your larder stocked, and a lot of the scenarios she frets about have actually taken place in the years since the book was published. Her pleas to her readers about the necessity of storing water don’t seem so wild after this year’s devastating winter storms in Texas that saw residents without running water for ages, and storing pantry food isn’t at all far-fetched after seeing the shortages on grocery store shelves during this past year. (I keep at least two full boxes of toilet paper from Sam’s Club in the basement at all times; it wasn’t even something I had to think about last year as I watched people all over the country scramble for even the rough stuff. The only thing I lacked was an adequate supply of hand sanitizer, but that’s because it wasn’t something I normally use. Now, though, I’ll always have some on hand!) Some of the Goodreads reviews seem to view her as a kind of out-there prepper, but I have to wonder how those people handled the crises this past year.

If you’ve been serious about storing and preserving for a while, there’s probably not much to learn here, but this is a great resource for anyone who has realized that maybe it’s not so bad to keep a three-month (or longer) supply of food on hand. Ms. Astyk covers all of the why, along with some of the how, and provides a few recipes along the way. This was a nice reminder of why I shop the way I do, and why my kitchen resembles a small overflowing grocery store.

Visit Sharon Astyk’s website.

Follow her on Facebook here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket by Benjamin Lorr

I’m one of those weird people who actually enjoys grocery shopping. Of course, the pandemic has changed that a little bit; these days, it’s mostly get-in-and-get-out-as-quickly-as-possible-without-breathing-near-people, but in normal times, I enjoy seeing what’s on the shelves, what products I’ve haven’t tried, what’s on sale. I live by some great grocery stores, so this is always an adventure. It’s because of all this that The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket by Benjamin Lorr (Avery Publishing Group, 2020) ended up on my TBR. I requested it at my library even before it hit the shelf, and there were several people ahead of me! I love knowing I live in a town with such enthusiastic readers.

Think of the grocery stores you shop at- a chain? A big box store? A specialty store like Trader Joe’s, a co-op, maybe a store with lots of organic products like Whole Foods? Maybe you’re one of the few people who still have a local store. Regardless of where you purchase your food, there are rules as to what food ends up on the shelf. The supply chain, as we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, is a machine with many parts, but each part is far more precarious than the average American might expect.

From the studied beginnings and growth of Trader Joe’s to the exploitation of American truckers, from the numbers-and-hustle game of getting a product on store shelves to the exploitation of Thai shrimp workers, Benjamin Lorr covers the profits-over-all system of food shopping in the US and how we as consumers participate in this system simply by our need to eat. Were you aware that a large portion of shrimp in the US is produced via slave labor? Did you know that around 90% of new products end up failing each year, and that the producers of each product must pay to get their products on the shelf? How much do you know about how exploitative the trucking industry is, and how the men and women who deliver everything you consume and use might not be making any money at all, but might instead be paying to work? Almost every part of the machine that works together in order to fill our grocery stores has a dark story that we don’t necessarily see or think about, and it’s all laid out here on the pages of this book.

I went into this book expecting to learn solely about grocery stores, but I came out of it better informed about the horrors of the supply chain that makes American grocery stores possible. Absolutely every cog in this machine runs on exploitation, from the lowest paid shelf stocker to the one-handed Thai slave who works 20 hours a day on a shrimp boat, to the person who has developed a great new product and who has run themselves ragged and put their life savings into trying to get that product into stores. Other than the high-up CEOs and high paid businesspeople at big box stores and mega corporations, American grocery is built on the suffering of people around the world, including Americans.

This is one heck of an exposé, and it’s a pretty depressing read- it’s a necessary one that will change the way you look at grocery stores and the products on the shelves, but it’s a book that will have you questioning your participation in such a terrible system. (I didn’t plan it this way, but the book I picked up immediately after finishing this discusses ways to extricate oneself from this system to the extent possible, since we’re all bound to it in some part.) I did wonder how the pandemic’s affect on the supply chain would have affected the book (toilet paper, anyone?); an additional chapter in future editions would definitely make a great addition, but that might actually be its very own book.

The Secret Life of Groceries will force you to examine the ways you participate in a system that harms so many, and it’ll have you pondering exactly how these stores and corporations are manipulating you through their marketing strategies. Ethical consumption is the responsibility of everyone who can financially manage it, but the modern grocery store has made that a massive, massive challenge, and Mr. Lorr has proved that in this book.

Visit Benjamin Lorr’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz

Sometimes books end up on my TBR because people I love have read and raved about them, and that’s how I came across Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz (Vintage, 1999). My friend Sandy had read it years ago and mentioned it in my parenting forum- she may have even recommended it directly to me as something she thought I’d like. Onto my TBR it went! To be honest, if I’d seen the publication date, I may not have read it; I was a little iffy about starting it when I did see it. Not because I have anything against older books, but sometimes older nonfiction can be out of date and irrelevant. Not so with this book; if anything, this book reveals how long today’s problems have been simmering. It should have served as a massive, massive red flag when it was first published.

The American Civil War, fought from 1861 to 1865, is still a source of deep fascination for many Americans (and some non-Americans, as Mr. Horwitz shows!). From amateur history buffs to hardcore reenactors, from condescending politicians to red-faced parents screaming in stuffy high school gyms about Confederate flags and racist high school mascots, so many people think they know exactly what the Civil War was fought for and what happened at every step of the way. Some of these people get it. Others have rewritten their own version of history and have dedicated their lives to living in a way that honors that revised history. For so many people, for a multitude of reasons, the Civil War didn’t end and it’s still being played out in various forms today.

Tony Horwitz travels all over the South, visiting battlefields, gravesites, reenactments, museums, and the people who are still living out the consequences of Americans fighting Americans. He covers the tense racial climate that persists in this country, that we never really dealt with and that will continue to persist until we do. He follows a few hardcore reenactors who wear grimy, period-appropriate costumes (that they don’t wash, for authenticity, right along with their bodies…ew) as they tramp across various battlefields in the heat of a southern summer. He profiles a murder that happened because of a Confederate flag, a woman makes a career of performing as Scarlett O’Hara (and is beloved by the Japanese, who apparently adore Southern culture), and visits dusty museums with sometimes bizarre period relics.

There are so many times where this book fairly screams out, “You should have seen this coming, 2021 reader!” The hatred, the racial tension, the division, the utter selfishness and concern for no one but oneself, all of this is right there in the text and makes it fairly obvious that the rise of Donald Trump and the cult that follows him was inevitable and shouldn’t have surprised anyone. It wasn’t a surprise to me, based on other things I’ve followed for most of my adult life, but this book lays it all out there and makes it utterly, utterly obvious in a way that’s honestly pretty depressing.

You don’t have to be a history buff or love the Civil War in order to read this, but it helps. Tony Horwitz has an almost jovial writing style that makes the reader feel as though they’re riding in the car next to him, tramping along beside him on a Virginia battlefield, and listening to him interview his various subjects. He goes places that I wouldn’t feel safe or comfortable in, even after his interviewees make hideous antisemitic comments (Mr. Horwitz was Jewish), and his bravery here is to be admired. This book is a fascinating look at what some people take away from history, what they choose to cling to, and what we as a country can’t move on from. Perhaps we don’t really want to.

There are other Tony Horwitz books that I’d like to read, but as he died, far too young, in 2019, my brain is already screaming at me to space them out, to make what he left for us last, so I don’t know when I’ll pick up another of his books, but this definitely won’t be my last. His style and clarity really spoke to me, and I’m looking forward to reading more of his insights.

Tony Horwitz, who was married to author Geraldine Brooks, died in 2019. Visit his website here.

graphic novel

Book Review: Banned Book Club by Kim Hyun Sook, Ko Hyung-Ju, and Ryan Estrada

I needed a graphic novel for my parenting group’s reading challenge. My TBR list had a graphic novel on it. Coincidence? Nah. I like graphic novels; I just kind of tend to forget about them until I hear about one that sounds really awesome. Mostly because they’re tucked away in a corner of the library where I rarely have any reason to go. I do hope that when our new library is built next year (or, let’s be fair, combine Covid and the regular hassles of construction and I’m sure we’re looking at longer than that, but that’s okay with me, IT’S COMING!!!!), they’ll have a more accessible, more prominent place to display the graphic novels. Banned Book Club by Kim Hyun Sook, Ko Hyung-Ju, and Ryan Estrada (Iron Circus Comics, 2020) came to my list from either a book list or another blogger, and it was definitely worth the wait- there were quite a few people on the waiting list before me at my library!

It’s 1983, and all new South Korean college student Hyun Sook wants to do is bury herself in her studies. But almost immediately she gets pulled into an underground world at school, one full of fellow students who have been arrested, books and writings that the government has banned, and newfound information on things she never expected to be true about her own country. Her extracurricular activities extend to participating in the protests her mother warned her about, and Hyun Sook learns she’s smarter and stronger than she thought. Braver, too, as she finds the government has her and her friends in their sites.

This is a true story of what Hyun Sook experienced as a college freshman in Korea during those years. Truth be told, my ideas of South Korea have mostly been shaped by survivors who fled North Korea’s murderous regimes (to them, it was a glorious bastion of utopian freedom, and any criticism was left out of the commentary); it’s not a country I know much about on its own, so this was a surprise to read. I had no idea that South Korea had this kind of recent history of censorship, of heavy-handedness, hiding the truth and imprisoning its people for political reasons. Hyun Sook’s awakening to the reality of what’s happening around her kicks off a story centered on growth, change, bravery, friendship, and the courage to take a stand for what’s right.

The drawings are more of a manga style than I’m used to seeing in graphic novels, so if you’re a manga fan, this should definitely be on your list. I usually prefer the more cartoony-style of drawings, but it’s always nice to switch things up, right? Reading this did make me want to browse the shelf where the graphic novels are kept at our library, but I’m not doing a lot of shelf wandering these days, so that’ll have to wait.

Anyway. Banned Book Club is a really fascinating introduction to some modern South Korean history that I knew nothing about, and about which I realize I should know more. We’ve been lucky so far in the US; nothing has *really* been banned…yet…but like Hyun Sook and her friends, we’ll have to fight to keep it that way.

Follow Banned Book Club on Twitter.

nonfiction

Book Review: Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Secret Soldiers in America by Debbie Cenziper

I like nonfiction. I like history. I like justice. All of these come together in Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Secret Soldiers in America by Debbie Cenziper (Hachette Books, 2019). (And huh, I’m just now seeing the discrepancy between the Goodreads title and what’s on the cover of the book!) I believe this came to me from a book list- either a list of amazing nonfiction, or a list of Jewish-themed books. Either way, it hung out on my TBR for a bit, until I made my latest order-for-pickup at the library, and then I dove right in as soon as I picked it up. Be warned, though: even if you’ve read plenty about the Holocaust before, this is a rough read.

Citizen 865 tells the story of the OSI, the Office of Special Investigations within the Department of Justice. It focused on bringing to justice former Nazi soldiers and collaborators who became naturalized US citizens under false pretenses, after lying on their citizenship documents about their activities during World War II. Because alongside Holocaust survivors who had lost everything and who had journeyed to America to start all over again, hundreds of former Nazis who had spent their war years carrying out Hitler’s orders to torture and murder slipped into the country as well.

Debbie Cenziper recounts the difficulties of puzzling out exactly who these men were and what they did during the war, a task made even more challenging because many countries refused access to identifying records and documents. The historians and lawyers who staffed the OSI worked long hours and traveled long distances in order to ensure justice was served to the millions of murdered souls and the survivors who fought so hard to rebuild after everything had been stolen from them. While not a simple or easy job, it proved a satisfying one.

This is a rough, rough read. I kept having to put the book down and scroll through Twitter or Facebook in order to get a bit of a mental break after reading some particularly heinous detail about how the Jews of Poland were tortured and murdered by people who took such glee in it. No matter how much I read about the Holocaust, I don’t think I’ll ever, ever understand how one person could perpetrate such horrors on another human. Ms. Cenziper doesn’t go into graphic details, but the stories the OSI digs up are nightmarish in nature. If you’re sensitive, be sure to balance this book with something lighter. These stories deserve to be heard, lest we ever forget, but they’re not easy to read.

While grief and despair are definitely feelings that Citizen 865 evokes, rage is also prevalent, so be prepared for that. There were plenty of American politicians who defended the Nazis, who thought that enough time had passed and that the victims should just get over it and move on from the murders of their entire families,- unity, amirite? (STOP ME IF YOU’VE HEARD THIS ONE BEFORE *eyeroll*). I’ll give you one guess which political party these Nazi defenders belonged to. I spent a lot of time taking deep breaths and trying not to explode in a fiery ball of fury. So, so little has changed. What are we even doing???

Debbie Cenziper makes digging through historical documents to build a legal case deeply intriguing. Under her treatment, the historians are detectives, justice- and truth-seekers of the highest degree, and their jobs go beyond poring over decades-old documents. The survivors’ stories are treated with the utmost of respect, and while I feel it’s a bit clichéd to note when nonfiction reads like a novel, this absolutely does. It’s difficult subject matter, but it’s one worthy of your time, and Ms. Cenziper’s writing will keep readers turning the pages.

(I apologize if this review isn’t up to my usual standards. This is an amazing book and I don’t feel like I’ve done it justice. It’s a bad day for pain here and I’m struggling to come up with words. When the pain gets this bad, it’s the equivalent of trying to focus on the television with someone blaring the radio right behind you at full volume. ☹ )

Visit Debbie Cenziper’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett

I first learned of Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett (Celadon Books, 2020) from my friend Sibyl, who came to my parenting group’s book forum to tell us all about a new memoir written about a man’s aftermath of being raised in a cult. I was intrigued, but kind of forgot about it for a bit (I think there was a lot going on at the time) until I started seeing it pop up on Twitter, and that’s when I added it to my TBR. And since one of the challenges from my parenting group’s reading challenge this year is to read a book recommended by another member, I turned to Hollywood Park. Whew, this is a sad one.

Mikel Jollett and his brother Tony were born into the Synanon cult, which started as a drug rehab and was good until it wasn’t, as everyone in the book said. (Big shout-out here to the podcast Cults, on Parcast; this is where I had learned about Synanon a few years back. I hadn’t heard of it before. If you’re not familiar with Synanon and you want to read this book, I highly suggest you listen to their episodes on this cult before diving in.) His parents, who were no longer together, escaped when Mikkel was five and Tony was about six. You may wonder why the cult affected them so deeply the rest of their lives, since they were so young, and this is because by the time Mikel and Tony were infants, Synanon had a policy of separating children and parents, because in the cult’s way of thinking, children shouldn’t have parents, they should be ‘children of the Universe.’ Thus, Mikel and Tony grew up, like other kids in Synanon, being raised in what seemed like those awful Romanian orphanages of the 1990’s under Nicolae Ceaușescu, unable to form attachments to other people. It gets worse from there.

Their mother has either borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder and spends their childhood gaslighting them, denying their feelings and experiences, and making everything about herself. Poverty abounds in their household, and their mother brings a parade of men through the house, trying to form the family of her dreams. Both boys turn to substance abuse to cope with the dysfunction; Mikel manages to escape this early on, but Tony falls into full-blown addiction. With a massive amount of hard work and therapy, Mikel and Tony manage to forge healthy lives, but the drama along the way is worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster.

My goodness. This isn’t *quite* at the levels of dysfunction seen in The Glass Castle or Educated, but it’s just as raw and painful. Mikel’s father, though rough around the edges, had his heart in the right place and was an effective parent, and his stepmother Bonnie is an absolute gem, so it’s not all tension and pain, but the chapters with his mother are…they’re rough reads. She’s dismissive of everything Mikel and Tony feel, everything they experience, and won’t anyone think of how hard this (this being anything from leaving Synanon to the death of someone Mikel loves) is on HER??? She’s the kind of person you just want to grab by the shoulders and shake in order to force some sense into her and get her out of her own head. I have a feeling she’s going around these days, talking about how hard the publication of this book has been on her, and I can’t say I have any sympathy.

This is also a story of addiction and the toll it takes, and how it’s passed down the line, how we continue to act out our family traumas so that the next generation repeats them. Both Mikel and his brother have taken the steps to break this chain, but not without some damage already caused. It’s a painful read and may be even more painful if you’re struggling with addiction or you love someone who is or has struggled. It might also be a tough read for anyone who has lived with a narcissistic parent. But it might also be enlightening, seeing what Mikel and Tony go through, and how hard they work to rebuild healthy lives for themselves. Take into account what you’re ready for before you read, and be kind to yourself. Recovery of any sorts is a long, difficult process.

Hollywood Park is a painful story of growing up amongst massive dysfunction coming at the author from nearly every direction, but it’s also one of growth and triumph for those who are willing to put in the work, arduous and challenging and daunting though it may be. I flew through this one, but I’ve heard from others that they didn’t care for Mikel Jollett’s style. It’s not an easy read, emotionally-speaking, but it’s worth it. His life is a fascinating story, and I flew through this book. If you’ve read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Follow Mikel Jollett on Twitter.

nonfiction

Book Review: An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz

What do you know about Chicago? The Sears Tower (it’ll never be the Willis Tower, dammit!), the Magnificent Mile, Lake Shore Drive, our sports teams, corrupt politicians…and violence. Maybe Chicago’s violence was the first thing to come to your mind. But whatever you think you know, the story most likely goes deeper, and one of the very best people out there telling the story of the devastation suffered by Chicago’s Black and brown communities is journalist and author Alex Kotlowitz. He’s probably best know for There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America (if you haven’t read that, I highly recommend it). I’ve admired him for years, and I was excited to read his latest, An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago (Nan A. Talese, 2019). There aren’t a whole lot of people out there writing books about Chicago, but Alex Kotlowitz’s masterful writing and storytelling is the equivalent of a thousand lesser authors.

An American Summer begins with Pharoah (not a misspelling), one of the boys profiled in There Are No Children Here, giving an update on his tumultuous life. Mr. Kotlowitz then delves deeply into Chicago’s most violent communities, expanding upon the stories that make headlines, the ones people blow off because they read ‘gang member’ and immediately dismiss the victim/s as unworthy of sympathy. The story, as always, goes far deeper than that. These are real people, loved by their family, friends, and community; they’re parents, friends, employees, students. They’re people who have spent the vast majority of their lives being traumatized over and over again by the violent deaths of their loved ones and community members, and being dismissed by the world around them as not worth caring about. The phrase ‘hurt people hurt people’ comes to mind often when reading their stories, and while it’s difficult to grasp this level of violence, this book illuminates what daily life looks like for the people who live it.

Alex Kotlowitz paints pictures of bleak, isolated neighborhoods full of run-down homes, often abandoned, full of bullet holes and grieving families. These communities aren’t without hope, though it’s occasionally difficult to find. There are high schoolers who have witnessed multiple deaths by gunshot- of friends, of family members, of strangers, often right in front of them. These are entire neighborhoods of people with the worst forms of PTSD and no hope for treatment, because unemployment- and thus lack of health insurance and an income high enough to pay for regular therapy and medicine- is so high that comprehensive treatment is often out of reach.

An American Summer is nonfiction that reads like a heartbreaking novel, but this is all tragically real. I could get into my car and be in some of these neighborhoods in less than half an hour. The massive difference between their lives, their neighborhoods, and mine is unfathomable, and it should never, ever have become like this. These people deserve so much better than what racist America has afforded them. They need jobs, fully funded education, healthcare (including comprehensive medical care)- the same thing the rest of America needs, but the situation is desperate here, and no one makes this clearer than Alex Kotlowitz.

If you think you know Chicago, read Alex Kotlowitz’s work. He’ll show you another side, the people behind the headlines, the trauma lived there every day. It’ll break your heart in a thousand different ways.

Visit Alex Kotlowitz’s website 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.