memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility by Rajika Bhandari

I never got the chance to study abroad, but I was friends with people who had, or who were currently foreign students. The amount of courage that takes is incredible, and I’m even more in awe of the people who make the decision to study abroad in today’s political climate. I also have a friend who works with foreign students, and her job always sounds so interesting, so when I heard about America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility by Rajika Bhandari (She Writes Press, 2021), I knew I had to read it.

Rajika Bhandari grew up in a middle-class Indian family. Her parents weren’t rich, but they managed to give her an excellent education at various schools, including boarding school, around the country. When it came time to get her graduate degree, she decided to follow her fiancé to the United States, studying psychology at North Carolina State University. While she’d grown up speaking English, the language was still a barrier. Money was a constant struggle. The locals struggled to understand her foreign-ness, and the culture shock was massive. Studying abroad is a massive change of pace, and Ms. Bhandari illuminates every last difficulty in this eye-opening memoir.

The difficulties don’t end after graduation. Making the decision to return home or stay in the US is a challenge; finding an opportunity to stay is even tougher, with mounds of paperwork and years of waiting (and sometimes employers back out after realizing just how much work it is for them). This all takes a toll on Rajika’s relationship, but it helps her understand the students she later goes on to study and serve.

This is a really great memoir. I had no idea of the sacrifices most foreign students undergo, the difficulties placed in their paths, in order to receive an education in America. And staying in the US after graduation? The entire process sounds like a nightmare; I’m kind of in awe of anyone who makes it work. The US makes this process way more difficult than it needs to be.

This is one of those books that’s going to stick with me, especially the images of Ms. Bhandari’s first small shared apartment, learning to drive, learning to cook and struggling to afford the basics. We ask a lot of our foreign students, making it way harder than it should be merely to survive (my God, the US really seems to delight in that for just about everyone, doesn’t it?). It doesn’t have to be that way.

Visit Dr. Rajika Bhandari’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter.

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nonfiction

Book Review: Consumed: On Colonization, Climate Change, Consumerism, and the Need for Collective Change by Aja Barber

I’m not a minimalist – you’d laugh if you see how overrun with stuff I am – but my mindset is definitely heading that way. I rarely buy things that take up permanent residence in my house (books being the one exception, of course, and then most of them are read and passed on). It’s because of all of the reading I’ve done over the past ten-plus years about how bad capitalism has been for the planet. We’re trashing it at an insane rate, and the fast fashion industry is a massive part of the problem. I need that constant reminder to keep up my ‘you don’t actually need that’ mindset, so that’s how Consumed: On Colonialism, Climate Change, Consumerism, and the Need for Collective Change by Aja Barber (Brazen, 2021) ended up on my TBR. Thanks to interlibrary loan, it landed at my house a few weeks ago. It’s an intense read, with a lot of information, but despite the immediacy of its message, it’s also a fun one.

Aja Barber understands your love of fashion, because she feels it too. She loves clothes, she’s worked in the fashion industry, she gets the pull of a new outfit making you into someone new. But she’s also come to understand the environmental and human damage the industry causes: the waste, the mounds of trash produced every single second, the ooze poured into rivers, the overworked, sexually harassed garment workers, the damage caused to their lungs from inhaled fabric particles and chemicals, the low pay, the death that comes from fires and collapse of poorly-constructed buildings. If you’re into fast fashion, you’re part of the problem. Aja Barber is here to help you learn how to be part of the solution.

This is such a necessary book. I love that there have been so many excellent books in the past decade that expose the fast fashion industry for the nightmare that it is. Ms. Barber keeps the tone light, however (a few of the Goodreads reviews complain about this, but I think they’re confusing lack of editing with Ms. Barber’s style). Don’t be mistaken, however; this isn’t an easy read. There’s a LOT of information here; some of it is the story of Ms. Barber’s journey from fashion fan to fashion industry critic (and yet still a fan! We SHOULD be critical of the things we love!), but the rest is about the dangers of the industry, and the devastation. It’s something all consumers should be aware of, so we can make the most responsible choices possible every time we open our wallets.

Visit Aja Barber’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears by Farah Stockman

I don’t remember when I learned about American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears by Farah Stockman (Random House, 2021), but I do know it appealed to me right away. A few years ago, I read Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein and really enjoyed it, and that was the book that really opened up my eyes to what the economic landscape of so much of America looks like. I read it as part of a reading challenge; it’s not something I would have picked up on my own, but I’m eternally grateful that I did, and my picking up American Made stems directly from my having read hat book.

So much of the image America has of itself involves people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, getting a job that allows them to work with their hands and earn enough money to live a good life, and to feel pride in what they do. And a large part of this story involves jobs in factories, jobs that you can learn from the ground up and walk into straight from high school, then not leave until you retire at 65. But the landscape has changed. NAFTA opened up the world to trade with Mexico and China, and one by one, these factories picked up and moved overseas. They could pay their employees far less there; operating costs would be less; safety measures wouldn’t be as stringent (thus, upping production); the company wouldn’t have to deal with stupid unions and expensive health insurance. Win-win, right?

Not for the American people who were losing their jobs. The exodus of these manufacturing centers leave the towns they’re located in economically depressed; the former employees are left scrambling to survive. Often, their skills aren’t transferrable, and the only other options for employment leave their pocketbooks nearly empty long before the end of the month. Those jobs most presidents brag about creating don’t often pay a living wage.

Journalist Farah Stockman follows three people who flounder in the wake of the closing of the Rexnord manufacturing plant in Indianapolis: John, a white union head; Wally, a Black man who dreams of opening a barbecue joint; and Shannon, a white woman caring for her disabled granddaughter and schizophrenic son. The moving of the plant to Mexico disrupts their lives in every way imaginable, and the consequences stretch far and wide.

Farah Stockman covers their stories with sympathy and understanding. There are times when the people she follows aren’t entirely sympathetic, but Ms. Stockman never wavers in her work to understand what they’re thinking and feeling, and why they’re reacting and making the decisions they do. Her exploration of the reasons behind Rexnord’s move to Mexico opened my eyes to the long-term consequences of NAFTA, something I hadn’t been fully cognizant of before, and I so appreciate that new understanding. I’ll definitely be reading these stories of plant closings around the US with new eyes from now on.

American Made is an incredible look at the devastation wrought by a more expanded world trade. There are human consequences to what we think of as progress, and it’s so important to understand the whole story. What a great book.

Visit Farah Stockman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized America by Ryan Busse

I had the privilege of attending a virtual presentation a few weeks ago featuring author and activist Ryan Busse, discussing the US’s massive gun violence problem and his book, Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized America (PublicAffairs, 2021). I hadn’t been able to get a copy of his book before the talk, but it came in soon after and mirrored a lot of what he spoke about in his presentation. He shared slides, some of which came from testimony he’s given to Congress (like half of them care…), and all of it was shocking and terrifying, like so much in this book.

Ryan Busse grew up loving the outdoors. His father taught his brother and him to hunt and fish, but he shared with them the importance of handling guns safety, and that no gun was worth a human life. Thanks to his strong ties to hunting as a child, Ryan grew up wanting to work in the gun industry and made that happen for himself, securing a position with Kimber and helping the company grow exponentially over his time there.

But Ryan’s goals for the company and where the NRA was steering the firearms industry as a whole began to diverge along the way. Whereas Ryan stood by the values of safety and nature conservation he’d grown up with, the radicalization and violence fetishization the industry pushed, along with its commitment to toxic masculinity and profits above human lives, alienated and horrified him. For years, he fought back from the inside, until the damage was too much for one man to even begin to control.

This is quite a damning look at the firearms industry as a whole and how the NRA has poisoned it along with American politics, and has fanned the flames of xenophobia, racism, toxic masculinity, and violence as a whole, all under the guise of making money. “Who benefits from this?” is an important question to ask when you’re consuming social media of politicians and reporters who are doing their best to drum up fear; the answer is very often the firearms industry, as more and more Americans purchase more and more guns and weapons. It’s a disturbing, sickening industry with no morals or integrity, and it makes me ashamed that we as a country let this happen.

I’m not a gun person; I have no interest in them (I’ve been shooting multiple times in my life and I’m actually a pretty good shot, but it’s not a hobby I’m interested in pursuing), and I can’t say this book did anything to make me more interested in guns as a whole, despite Ryan’s obvious respectful fascination (I did appreciate his devotion to conservation and protecting the lands he obviously cherishes, however!). If you’re not into guns, you should definitely know there’s a lot of information in here about them. I can’t say I’m any better informed about makes and models, but I am walking away with a much better look at how dark the gun industry has become in the US, and how they’re a massive part of the problem, if not the majority of how and why we’re where we are today in the US. It’s shameful, but I’m glad to have this understanding now. I wish everyone understood this.

If you’re looking to shed more light on why the US is such a horrific mess, and you want to know how we got here, with mass shootings every ten seconds and no one doing anything about it, look no further. Gunfight by Ryan Busse will explain it all.

Visit Ryan Busse’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books by Mark Glickman

I can’t actually remember how Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books by Mark Glickman (The Jewish Publication Society, 2015) ended up on my TBR; likely a mention by one of the many Jewish pages I follow on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Books and reading have always been an important part of being Jewish (we are the People of the Book!), and so learning about and understanding what happened to Jewish books during and after World War II was something that piqued my interest. Boy, did I learn a LOT from this book!

So, almost everyone knows that the Nazi burned books. Most of us have seen pictures of people throwing books onto a huge bonfire, and we use Nazi book burning as a metaphor for the dangers of censorship. But most of us probably don’t know that their book burning phase didn’t last very long; they quickly moved on to collecting books. That’s right. The Nazis stole, then collected Jewish writings even as they mowed down the Jewish people during World War II. They planned to study the writings of the culture they had wiped out. Fortunately, they lost, and afterwards, one of the many questions to be answered at war’s end became, “Now what do we do with all these millions of books?”

In order to help the reader understand the importance of this question, Rabbi Mark Glickman begins the book with a fascinating look at the history of Jewish texts and the emphasis on reading and study that has always been central to Judaism. The second section segues into the many heartbreaking ways the Nazis stole and desecrated our texts; the third, how so many people worked for years to return said texts to their rightful owners, or, barring the ability to do that, to send the texts to the places they would again be loved and cherished. This was obviously a massive amount of work; millions upon millions of books and papers had been stolen and hidden away, or stored in places that ranged from caves to castles. Moving these books involved multiple organizations working tirelessly for years.

This is an incredible book that tells a story I hadn’t heard before. I had no idea about the Nazis stealing books; even with all the reading I’ve done about history, World War II, and the Shoah, I had been under the impression that they burned books and nothing else. I had no clue about the massive troves of Jewish literature that lay hidden after the war, nor of the incredible effort of so many people to return these books to communities and organizations that would recognize them for the treasures that they are. This book presented a brand-new understanding of history to me, and I’m grateful to Rabbi Glickman for having penned such an interested, eye-opening work. I always appreciate being able to be better informed about anything, but especially Judaism and Jewish history.

nonfiction

Book Review: You’re the Only One I’ve Told: The Stories Behind Abortion by Dr. Meera Shah

Abortion has been in the news lately for obvious reasons, and I wasn’t sure if I had the spoons to read a book about it; it’s not always easy to engage with a subject that’s so important but which is also under assault at the moment. After volunteering with a local organization to pack comfort care bags for our local Planned Parenthood a few weeks ago, however, I was ready to pick up You’re the Only One I’ve Told: The Stories Behind Abortion by Dr. Meera Shah (Chicago Review Press, 2020).  

Dr. Shah is a doctor who provides abortion care to patients who seek it out. Because being able to decide when to become a parent is an important part of bodily autonomy, planning one’s future, and in some cases, remaining alive, she is passionate about her work and seeks to help others understand the importance of what she does. Each chapter focuses on one person who, for varying reasons, chose to end a pregnancy; Dr. Shah includes the important medical knowledge necessary to fully understand each situation, and the difficulties that our national climate surrounding abortion adds to what is already often a tense and heartbreaking decision.

The reasons behind the abortion in each chapter are various and complex; from abusive relationships (who wants to be tied forever to a man who has hurt you multiple times???), to a doomed pregnancy where the baby will live maybe minutes after being born (if it survives that long without killing the parent carrying it), to pregnancies that occurred at the worst possible time, to a pregnancy that would render life next to impossible for the entire rest of the family (“Here, person already struggling to pay the rent for you and your three kids! Here’s another new baby; now you can also add $1200+ per month in daycare fees! I’m sure you can handle that!”), there are so, so many reasons why these women choose abortion, and Dr. Shah is respectful of them all, without judgment. Throughout each chapter, she illustrates and emphasizes the importance of being able to examine one’s life and come to the conclusion that becoming a parent (often becoming a parent again) at this moment cannot happen, and how important it is that this procedure remain legal.

So many heartbreaking decisions in this book. Often, the pregnancies were desperately wanted; nature, however, had other ideas about how the fetus would develop, and the parents were faced with the awful knowledge that there was no chance of them ending up with a child even if the pregnancy were continued. At other times, the parents simply realized that bringing a child into their lives was the worst possible thing they could do at the moment. Being allowed to make that decision allowed them to go on to have the lives they wanted – lives that often included, eventually, having more children.

If you’ve never read a book about abortion and are curious as to what could possibly lead a woman to make the choice to have one, this would be an excellent place to start. I’ve noticed that doctors tend to fall into two camps: either they’re terrible writers, or they’re great. Dr. Shah is one of the great ones; her style is engaging and never wanders into stiffy, stodgy medical writing. Her respect for the people she treats is obvious in her gentle handling of the stories in this book, and it’s obvious her patients are lucky to be served by her.

nonfiction

Book Review: Not a Crime to Be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America by Peter Edelman

Poverty is a subject I’ve read a lot about, in vain attempts to understand our societal reaction to it. People are struggling and suffering, and we just…do nothing? And sometimes, we actively make the situation worse, because in the US (and I’m sure in other countries around the world), we see not having money as a moral issue. It was because of this inability to understand the way we view poverty that Not a Crime to Be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America by Peter Edelman (New Press, 2017) ended up on my TBR. It’s a gut-punch of a book, but if you’re looking to understand exactly how difficult it is to be poor in the US, it’s a sock to the stomach that you need.

In a book reminiscent in tone and in the intellectual heft of Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, Peter Edelman chronicles how poverty is systemic the US: the pointless fees and charges that are meant to keep poor people poor; the next-to-impossible roads necessary to make to climb out of poverty; the punishment that we inflict upon those who are already struggling in an attempt to discipline the poverty out of them. We fill our coffers and profit off the backs of people barely managing, or not managing at all; we see them struggling; we enact more laws and regulations meant to drain their accounts. And the cycle continues.

This isn’t history. What Peter Edelman writes about is here and now: court systems enacting hefty fees and fines, prisons charging for anything and everything they can, law enforcement writing tickets, which come with a heavy price tag, to homeless people. In every way we can, we make it harder to be poor. It’s not all without hope; plenty of people are fighting back, and fighting back hard. But this is a systemic issue; it’s baked in deeply to our laws, our law enforcement, our court systems. But in order to make things better, first, you need to understand just how bad it is, and that’s why you need to read this book.

This is an information-dense book; it’s not something you’re going to want to kick back with after a long day at work when you’re looking for relaxation. Not a Crime to Be Poor is a book you open because you want to understand what’s going on, and because you want to challenge yourself and your preconceived notions. After you turn the final page, you’ll close the book with a righteous sense of anger, a healthy dose of empathy for those who are set up to fail in this wretched system, and hopefully, a strong desire to be part of the solution. Read this book in small chunks if that’s what it takes: a chapter at a time, a few pages a day. This is information that all Americans should be aware of, an understanding we should all have.

Not a Crime to Be Poor throws the curtains open on a reality that far too many of us find it convenient to ignore.

nonfiction

Book Review: Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker

Little scares me more than schizophrenia. It attacks seemingly without warning; there are very few treatments; science isn’t even completely sure what causes it. I’ve seen the devastating toll it takes on families, thanks to my friend’s openness on her son’s struggle and ultimate death due to the side effects of the medication he took (a not-uncommon outcome; meds for schizophrenia are hard on the heart and various other organs). But I feel a need to keep reading about it, keep trying to understand, maybe in the hopes that one day I’ll read something positive, a sunnier outlook, an amazing breakthrough. When Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker (Doubleday Books, 2020) came out, it sounded like my worst nightmare, and it immediately went onto my list.

CONTENT WARNING: Sexual assault and child molestation.

Don and Mimi Galvin appeared, on the outside, to have an amazing family. An Air Force family, they had twelve children (ten boys, two girls), but perfection evaded the ever-growing family. As the boys grew older, one by one, they became stricken with serious mental illness. Schizophrenia took down one son after another, until six of them were affected, most of them so severely that they lived in hospitals, at home with Mimi, or in supportive housing arrangements. Where had it all gone wrong?

Combining scientific research, the history of mental health research and treatment and schizophrenia in particular, and the story of the Galvins and the tragedy that befell them, Robert Kolker has crafted a deep narrative that spans multiple decades of science, from ‘Schizophrenia is caused by overbearing mothers’ to ‘This is likely due to a complicated combination of genetics and possibly some outside factors.’ Due to the large size of the family, the Galvins became research subjects for multiple studies. The results won’t be available for decades, but this family just might be partly responsible for future breakthroughs on the disease.

My God, this was fascinating. CONTENT WARNING: there is a LOT of sexual abuse mentioned in this book. If you’re unable to handle reading about this subject right now, it’s okay to skip this one. Abuse ran rampant throughout this family; both the daughters and the sons were victimized by both family and people in the community. It’s difficult to read about, so if this isn’t something you can handle right now, it’s okay to take care of yourself and choose a book that will allow you to breathe a little easier.

Hidden Valley Road is about a family unexpectedly stricken with multiple cases of one of the most complex mental illnesses out there, who likely did the best they could at the time with what they had (which wasn’t always much; even today, schizophrenia and how to best treat it remains an enigma), and whom society has often failed. It’s social and scientific history, and despite its large size, it’s an absolute page-turner.

Visit Robert Kolker’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Worn Out: How Our Clothes Cover Up Fashion’s Sins by Alyssa Hardy

Back when I was pregnant with my daughter, I read Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline and was shocked by it. I had never really thought about clothing and the damage it does to the earth, and to the people who made it, before. The book was fascinating and needless to say, I haven’t looked at clothing the same way since. Browsing through NetGalley made me aware of the existence of Worn Out: How Our Clothes Cover Up Fashion’s Sins by Alyssa Hardy (New Press, 2022) and it got me wondering: what’s changed? How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the world of fashion? Has anything gotten any better? I hit the request button and was delighted to receive my acceptance just hours later. Huge thanks to NetGalley, Alyssa Hardy, and New Press for allowing me to read and review an early copy of Worn Out.

What happens to all our used clothes? We bag them up, drop them at Goodwill or another thrift store or bin, and then…what? Alyssa Hardy begins Worn Out with a bang, describing the secondhand markets in Ghana, where over fifteen million items of clothing, mostly from Europe and North America, end up. Western society is incredibly wasteful, habits that extend to our clothing usage as well, and this has not just ripple effects, but entire tsunami effects, around the world. Homegrown garment industries collapse because our garment industry overwhelms them. Children work these secondhand markets. Women die for low-paying garment factory jobs, as we saw in the Dhaka garment factory collapse in 2013, and for what? So we can buy an item of clothing made with such cheap materials that it falls apart in the wash within a few months. This has to stop, Alyssa Hardy argues, and she backs up her argument with devastating example after devastating example.

Beyond giving the fashion industry, from cotton field to salesroom floor, a hard look, Ms. Hardy turns her criticism on the fashion consumer. We’ve lost the inability to distinguish need from want, she points out, and in shying away or refusing to examine our lives and habits, we’ve created entire identities based on what we purchase, assigning ourselves in-group status based on what we wear. And in doing so, we’ve helped to create abhorrent conditions not only around the world, but in our very own backyards. American sweatshops exist. Women, who make up the majority of garment workers, make $4-6 per hour, working sixty-hour weeks. They’re sexually harassed and raped by the bosses who threaten to fire them if they speak up. Some make as little as $3.75 per day. “The bottom line is that we want too much at a cost that feels low but is expensive in other ways,” writes Ms. Hardy, and she’s correct. This is a mess that we as a society have created.

Worn Out is a reckoning for the fashion industry and the western consumer. From #metoo’s impact on the fashion industry as a whole, wage theft and wretched working conditions in garment factories around the world (such as Nike paying workers 12 cents per shoe, or Shein forcing 75-hour workweeks from their employees and having no emergency exits in their Chinese garment factories), the lack of inclusion in the fashion industry when it comes to plus-size and disabled models and thus lack of appropriate clothing for these groups, the damage done by influencers and what they should *really* be doing, the use of forced Uyghur labor (about one-fifth of all cotton garments around the world contain material from the Uyghur region in China; odds are, something in your closet was made by Uyghur slave labor), the environmental cost of the industry, Alyssa Hardy shines a light on it all. It’s not all hopeless, though; there are steps we can take, she tells us, to force the industry’s hand…but it’s not going to be easy, and it may be more collective effort than we have in us.

An incredible book that will change the way you shop. Read it; live it; tell your friends. Garment workers around the world deserve a better life, and only we as consumers can help make that a reality if we push the fashion industry, hard.

Worn Out is available September 27th, 2022.

Visit Alyssa Hardy’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields by Wendy Lower

My second book lately by Wendy Lower (the first being The Ravine). She’s an amazing researcher and fabulous writer, but her books are heavy, so beware. I added Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields (Chatto Windus, 2013) as soon as I learned about it, but it took me a bit to get to it, due to life business and waiting to be in the right mental space. It does share a lot in common with James Wyllie’s Nazi Wives, so if you’re looking to learn more about that aspect of World War II and Holocaust history, both these books should be on your reading list.

When we learn about the history of Germany in the 1940’s, the names in the books read like a long parade of men. It’s men who did the killing, who perpetrated all the harm, who were responsible for the mass death and suffering. But is that true? Using well-honed research skills, interviews, and original source documents, Wendy Lower says no. Not only were many, many German women supportive of the mission, especially on the Eastern front, more than a few of them participated in the murders and created suffering and pain for many others.

Many were there to support their husbands; others signed up to be stationed on the eastern front out of a sense of adventure. For whatever reason they came to be part of the Nazi killing machine, plenty of women supported Hitler’s ideals and bought into the antisemitism and hatred that was par for the course at the time. And far be it from learning anything; these attitudes followed many of these women – few of whom were prosecuted for their actions – long after the war ended.

Not an easy read. The women Lower portrays are the furthest from ‘sugar, spice, and all things nice’ as one can possibly be. These women are hateful and murderous, finding the death of human beings funny and entertaining. They delight in the suffering they cause, only to deny and weep when brought to trial. While women were often looked at as weaker and unable to perpetrate such horrors, Ms. Lower shows that this was absolutely not the case. Women were just as disgustingly brutal, and in some cases more so, than the men.

Rough book, but an important one.