Slightly different kind of book review today. Not as much of a review as a recommendation, and a plea.
I’ve had Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi (Bold Type Books, 2016) on my kindle for a while, but I hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Which made it a perfect choice for my parenting group’s reading challenge pick for a book that’s been sitting around on our shelves (or digital shelves) for a while. I’m glad my copy was digital; had I been able to flip through a paper copy, I would have been intimated both by the size (592 pages!) and the academic writing style. Instead, I clicked on the icon on my kindle and dove in.
This is a history of racism and racist ideas in the United States from the beginning of the country up until the present (or at least until the book was published in 2016). Whatever you think you know about racism in this country, it’s worse, and this book pulls no punches. That historical figure you always admired? Racist, and disgustingly so. That president you considered a decent guy? Yeah, he said some horrible things and signed off on policies that mirrored those things. History looks a little different than the stars-and-stripes-waving rhetoric that American grade school textbooks push, and if you haven’t really looked into history beyond that, you need to. This book is a good place to start.
This book is extremely comparable in tone and depth to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, so don’t go in expecting an easy, relaxing read; this is a book you work for. There were sentences and paragraphs I needed to reread to make sure I was understanding them fully. There were times when I paused and looked things up online to get some extra information. And on nearly every page, there’s a story that made me want to hurl the book across the room in a total rage. How are people like this? Why? How are they still like this? This book doesn’t answer those questions, but it does provide a fuller picture of the suffering that people who look like me have caused to Black people, and it provides impetus for doing better NOW.
I know over the summer this was free as an audiobook on Spotify; I don’t know about now, but most libraries should have it available. I don’t normally make the suggestion of audiobooks, since I myself don’t listen to them (not enough quiet time here, plus at least for fiction, my brain tends to wander), but if those are your jam, I highly, highly recommend this on audiobook as an easier way of making it through the book, because this is an information-packed, intense read, and I so want everyone to read this book. It’s 2020, people. We should have been beyond racism a loooooooooooonnnnnnnnnnnnng time ago, and instead, we’re still…here. We have to do better. And we can.
Start here. Start with this book. And then go out and do better and be better.
I had the privilege of attending a Zoom webinar on continuing Holocaust education a few weeks ago, presented by a local university and given by professors, a rabbi, and Holocaust educators. It was fascinating and deeply moving, and one of the things that a Holocaust educator said struck me, about how in order to understand the Holocaust, one must be religiously literate, and she made the suggestion of reading Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t by Stephen R.Prothero (HarperOne, 2007). I put it on my list and grabbed it on my last library run (can you tell how slow my reading has been lately? My last library run was before Thanksgiving *sob*).
Stephen Prothero shines a light on America’s disturbing lack of religious literacy in this book. No, Jesus did not part the Red Sea. No, Joan of Arc wasn’t Noah’s wife. And if you can’t name any of the Five Pillars of Islam or describe the Eightfold Path of Buddhism, you’re not alone- most Americans can’t, either, and what’s even worse is that far too many people can’t describe most of the basic tenets of their own faith’s theology. This is especially true for Christianity, it being the dominant religion in the US, and Mr. Prothero provides many examples of this.
When exactly did we become so religiously literate? It goes much further back than the 1950s and 60s, and some of the history of how we lost our taste for in-depth religious knowledge- even of our own faiths- may surprise you. Stephen Prothero makes an excellent case for becoming religiously literate- we can’t truly call ourselves educated without understanding religion (and not just our own!)- even if we’re not believers ourselves. Religion permeates every aspect of our society, our literature, our history, and our politics, and religious literacy is a necessity for full participation in an educated society.
This book is more about shining a light on our problem of religious illiteracy and how it came to exist, rather than providing solutions (other than pointing out the need for classes in the basics of world religions for high schoolers). There’s a lot of history here, from America’s earliest days of Puritans and Deists, the Protestant/Catholic divide, religion’s role in such historical events as the abolitionist movement, Prohibition, the New Deal, and more. Mr. Prothero rightfully argues that American and world history cannot be understood without at least a basic grasp of religion. Imagine trying to study the Crusades without knowing what each side was fighting for. Imagine reading about the Spanish Inquisition without previous knowledge of the beliefs and history that led that society to that point. Imagine trying to read The Grapes of Wrath or Les Misérables without any knowledge of Christianity- the biblical allusions and allegories would go entirely over the reader’s head, and they would miss out on so much. Being religiously literate gives people a fuller, richer, more thorough understanding of nearly everything.
This book has really got me thinking. My husband prefers that our daughter be raised without religion, which is fine with me, but I do feel she needs to be religiously literate in order to be fully educated (I was raised Catholic, am in the process of converting to Judaism, and I have a decent grasp on both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, plus I’ve read books on various sects of Christianity and other religions, and I’ve taken a fantastic comparative religions class. I’m not worried about myself here!). I’ve read several books on world religions to her, and I point stuff out to her all the time, but I don’t necessarily feel like that’s enough, and I’m unsure of how to instruct her further in the cultural aspects (stories, practices) of religions I don’t follow, since most of the materials out there about religion that’s geared toward kids are for kids being raised in that religion. We’ve read books like A Faith Like Mine and One World, Many Religions: The Ways We Worship, both really great books that give overviews of the major world religions, but I’d like to go a little more in-depth, and I’m not sure more resources are out there on ‘this is what we believe and here are some of the stories in our scriptures’ without ‘This is why you should believe this, too!’ for kids. If you’re aware of any books that cover this kind of stuff- for any religion- that’s geared towards kids, leave a comment below, because this is definitely something I’m interested in learning about! When life goes back to normal, I’ll have a chat with our children’s librarians and see what they can come up with.
To sum it all up, Religious Literacy points out a major flaw in both the American educational system and in the way American religious institutions handle their deeper doctrinal and theological teachings. If you’re interested in religion in any manner (or education!), this is a great book. It’s information-dense, however, which is great for normal times when it’s quiet and you can focus, but makes for a slower read when, for example, you’ve got all of first grade blaring out of an iPad several feet in front of you. 😉
My fascination with strict, cult-like (or straight up cult) religious movements extends to the Christian Nationalist religious right that has taken over much of American politics (and boy, is there a lot of overlap between the cultier groups and this political movement), so I was excited in a kind of want-to-read-it-but-dreading-it-at-the-same-time kind of way to learn about Katherine Stewart’s latest offering, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism(Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020). Along the same vein, I deeply enjoyed her The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children and highly recommend that one as well. I had to wait to read this one, though, until I was in a better place, mentally-speaking. It’s difficult to read about the power-seeking people who think my friends and I are close to the pinnacle of evil and everything wrong about this country, especially when these people are the ones in charge.
Katherine Stewart has once again penned a deep dive into the members of the far religious right who want nothing more than power, power that includes the ability to force everyone to live the way they think is right, according to their extremist interpretation of their religious scriptures. It doesn’t matter if you’re a different religion or of no religion at all; you still need to follow their precepts because that’s what their religion says, and according to their interpretation, they and no one else should be in charge of the government.
Her calm, measured style exposes the lengths to which they’ll go in order to achieve their goals; nearly everything they do is based on lies- easily disproven ones about the founding of the United States and the goals of the Founding Fathers, but they’ve twisted the meanings of these original sources to fit their warped ideas of how American society should function. Women should have little to no place in public life. Gay people should be executed, rape and slavery are totally cool (to be fair, these views are somewhat more of a fringe belief even in their groups, but I’m well acquainted, through my years of cult-watching, with the awfulness of one of the men who has publicly stated these things. He was ousted from his now-defunct ministry after being sexually inappropriate with a nanny. So Christlike and God-fearing, amirite?). Our nation has become ‘pussified,’ as one of these pastors has claimed, and he goes on to say that when Jesus returns, his sword will be an AR-15. I wish I were making this up, but it’s all in the book, and all documented.
The content in this book is deeply disturbing, but it’s important that people realize what’s been going on in this country, what these groups have been working towards, and how much progress they’ve already made. I don’t want my daughter’s only option for a future to be a wife and mother (and I say that as someone who is a full-time wife and mother and have been for pretty much the entirety of my adult life). I hope my son, should he choose to get married, can marry someone who has been raised to be a full partner in marriage. I don’t think everyone marching in lockstep in terms of beliefs, ideals, and actions is ever a good thing, and I fully believe that, should these people ever manage to force our society into the one they want, the infighting would start immediately, with certain denominations who helped them achieve their goals getting thrown under the bus right from the start (they team up with certain factions of Catholics when it comes to things like banning abortion, but as soon as they got into power, the Catholics- whom they don’t see as real Christians- would be one of their targets. I was raised Catholic and ran into some of this as a teenager; it took me a few years to discover exactly why that woman treated me the way she did). It would be messy and not at all the complete restructuring they want to imagine it would be; with so much power at stake, I can’t help but believe that these people would begin tearing each other down in order to grab as much power for themselves as possible.
I was pleased to see Ms. Stewart’s takedown of David Barton, who remains a champion of the Christian Nationalist movement even as his work has been debunked time and time again by nearly every history department who has taken up the task. If the only way you can make your point is by lying (which goes directly against those Ten Commandments they claim to live by), you don’t have a point, and David Barton seems like the biggest liar of all.
This is a great book, but it’s dense and packed full of information, so read it when your 2020 brain isn’t too exhausted to handle it all.
I ran across Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States by Samantha Allen (Little, Brown and Company, 2019) in the library last year and thought, ‘Ooh, that looks good,’ but at the time, I didn’t know if I could handle more political talk (I don’t remember what was going on at the time, but whatever it was was taking up a lot of my emotional energy). After stumbling upon a discussion of the book again a few months later, I remembered how intriguing it sounded and plopped it onto my TBR, where it sat until I finally grabbed it in my last trip to the library. And boy, am I glad I did.
Samantha Allen, a transgender journalist and author, has lived most of her life in the places known as red states, politically conservative areas with a history of enacting harsh measures against their LGBT population and refusing to accept them as full citizens with the same rights as everyone else. After the 2016 election, she began travelling through these red states, searching out the LGBT communities and learning how their members survive and even thrive in the places they love that don’t necessarily love them back. What makes them stay? Why not flee to somewhere where every day isn’t a struggle?
In traveling and interviewing, Ms. Allen began to clarify the feelings she’s felt about these places. Community is often stronger in places where the fight to survive is at the forefront. Supportive chosen family becomes easier to find, and more cohesive. Nothing changes if no one fights for it, and these are the people who refuse to give up, who refuse to have the places they love taken from them. She makes an amazing case for staying in places that are oftentimes hard to live in (though not always!) and being the kind of person who fights for change.
This is a powerful book, filled with people who have grown strong and resilient out of necessity, and who are using that growth to affect much-needed change in places that have been resistant to it. Ms. Allen made me check my attitude toward those red states; having lived in several, I understand how difficult it can be, and the sometimes PTSD or PTSD-like reactions that can come from the maltreatment received there, but she helped me to understand what it takes to remain there and thrive, what it takes to live there and fight, and that these people should be commended for their determination, not pitied because they choose to remain. They deserve a place at the table where they choose to live, those places they live because they love it there, and they need to be supported in their oftentimes uphill battle to be respected and treated with dignity. I think I had fallen into the trap of wondering why so many people stay in places that don’t want them there, but this helped me to understand the why of it better. (I mean, I’ve long understood having ties to a place; no matter how many times I’ve left Illinois as an adult, I always come back because I love it here so much, but my ability to live here isn’t compromised or threatened because of who I am or who I’m attracted to. I have, however, lived in a town where people are regularly threatened or ostracized due to their political leanings and their sexuality; I’ve seen it happen to friends, and I’m aware of what it takes to stay in a place like that. But seeing it through the eyes of the LGBT+ folks who are on the front lines of this was a much-needed perspective for me.)
I can’t recommend this one highly enough. Ms. Allen shares the story of her own transition in such an open, honest way, not just the physical parts, but the emotional parts, the difficulties, the fears, the triumphs, and who and what helped her along the way. If you’re LGBT+ and in a red state, or the parent/family member/friend of someone who is, or if you’re wondering why people choose to stay in places where the politicians regularly sneer at their communities (often on a national stage), you need to read this book, because it’ll help you understand the why of it all and be supportive of their choices. And it’ll also help you understand that even if you live in a blue state or blue area, you still need to fight for these marginalized communities as though you don’t.
Seriously amazing, eye-opening book. It’s inspiring and hopeful in a way that I wasn’t expecting. Thank you, Ms. Allen. I needed that.
Remember when I read The Friend Zone by Abby Jimenez and immediately put its sequel, The Happy Ever After Playlist(Forever, 2020) on hold? That was in August, and it finally came in last week! (Doesn’t bother me. I seriously love that so many people are excited about reading the same things I am, so the wait never bothers me. Besides, my TBR is long enough that I always have plenty of other books to read. Not that I’ve had TIME to read lately… *sobs*) It was a nice surprise to be able to send that bad boy to my kindle and begin reading it the next day.
Ever since Sloan’s fiancé died, life has lost all its meaning and color. She’s mostly stopped enjoying anything about life, but that starts to change the day Tucker, a runaway dog, nearly throws himself under her car tires and then jumps through her open sunroof. Tucker turns out to belong to Jason, a surprisingly famous musician, and he and Sloan begin a flirty relationship via text while he out of the country. Caring for Tucker helps bring Sloan back to life, and flirting with Jason is shockingly exciting. Meeting him in person is even better.
But life with Jason and his fame is even more complicated than Sloan ever could have imagined. Living in tour buses, different cities every night, nothing to eat but fast food, manipulative and drama-heavy acquaintances, music companies that only care about the bottom line, giving up all of her dreams for all of Jason’s… Learning to live again means learning to compromise, and it’s not going to be an easy road for Sloan and Jason.
This ticked so many of my boxes: dual narrative, celebrity romance, cute dog (and the story didn’t immediately make me panic that something bad was going to happen to the dog!). Sloan is grieving hard at the beginning, and though the grief eases throughout the book, I love how her pain is handled throughout the book: she never abandons Brandon’s memory but finds a way to incorporate who he helped her become into her renaissance. His memory is honored at every step, and it’s bittersweet and beautiful. I loved watching her grow and find herself again throughout the arc of the novel.
Jason is a great hero, easy-going, dedicated, and not afraid of commitment. There was one spot where I felt he acted just a tiny bit out of character, not taking Sloan’s feelings as seriously as I thought he would have, but in general, I really appreciated his patience with and respect of Sloan’s grief. He never tried to rush her in anything and was content to wait for her until she was ready. And his love for his dog was beyond adorable, which never hurts.
Despite tackling the heavy subjects of grief and rebuilding a life after loss, The Happy Ever After Playlist is a light, refreshing read that made for a great escape from the world around me at a time when I really, REALLY needed it. I’ve already added the next book in the series, Life’s Too Short, to my TBR, though it won’t be out until April of 2021. Worth the wait. 😊
I’ve always been a big secondhand shopper. Even as a kid, I recognized the value in buying something for less money, and as I grew older, I appreciated that used items were less taxing on the earth’s resources. Yard sales and thrift stores have always been my jam. That’s why I was so excited to read Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale by Adam Minter (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019). What exactly happens to the items we drop off at the thrift store? What happens to the items that don’t sell? Where, exactly, does all this stuff go?
Adam Minter travels around the world, from the US to Japan, from Malaysia to West Africa, following the stream of secondhand stuff, from thrift store drop-offs and rejects, to items cleaned out from homes where the residents have died or left for nursing homes or assisted living. Our lives are full of stuff, and all that stuff has to go somewhere at some point. Japan has excelled in the creation of businesses meant to deal with possessions after the death of their owners; West Africa has done an amazing job of creating industries that repair and refurbish outdated technology, including laptops, computers, and televisions rejected by Americans. The problem of used clothing, which includes fast fashion made from cheap fabric, is a little trickier, however.
While I enjoyed this, I did find it a little dry from time to time, but I will fully admit that this may have been a personal issue due to the timing of my reading (could anyone focus well on anything the first week of November?!?!?). His criticism of planned obsolescence (one of the dumbest concepts ever created) and companies that deny their customers the right to repair the products they’ve purchased is perfection (as is his spotlight on iFixit.com, a website crammed full of repair manuals for products whose companies don’t necessarily offer them). Far too many societies have adopted an attitude of disposability, and that’s obviously a major, major problem. Adam Minter does an excellent job of focusing on this problem without condemning the reader, who has likely been guilty of these behaviors and attitudes at some point in their life, throughout the text. There are problems, yes, but there are solutions, many of which readers can actively engage in.
I’m careful about the clothing I buy- I stay away from fast fashion (especially after having readOverdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Fast Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline; I cannot recommend this book highly enough); I don’t buy dry-clean-only clothing; I make sure what I do purchase (which is almost always secondhand) are things I can repair if necessary (I’m trying to learn how to darn socks, but so far I stink at it. I am, however, awesome at patching over holes and stains, and I’m working on my embroidery so as to make visible mending more aesthetically pleasant), but Secondhand has definitely inspired me to keep going with all of that. The amount of secondhand clothing in the stream is too high for us to do anything other than take good care of what we own.
Sometimes you’re just in the mood for nonfiction. I was in that kind of mood the day I began combing the new releases over on NetGalley. When I stumbled across Nazi Wives: The Women at the Top of Hitler’s Germany by James Wyllie (St. Martin’s Press, 2020, I knew I needed to read that. How could they? Why would these women support something so heinous? What was wrong with them that they were all in on such devastation? My request was accepted, and, with some trepidation, I began reading. This is *not* an easy subject to read, and James Wyllie pulls no punches in laying it all out there. He’s never gratuitous and there are only a few sections where he goes into any graphic detail, but brace yourself, because this is a tough read.
The last names of Hitler’s most loyal followers are known to those who are familiar with the history of World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust, but those last names also belonged to the wives of those monsters. Emmy Goering, Magda Goebbels, Gerda Bormann, Lina Heydrich, Margarete Himmler, these were the women married to the men who perpetrated untold horrors upon their fellow man, and most of the wives were fierce antisemites before marrying their husbands. They were all in on their own, zero convincing necessary, a thought that will chill you throughout the book.
Because this book is chilling. Knowing the outcome of their attitudes makes Nazi Wives an emotionally difficult read, but what makes it even harder is Mr. Wyllie’s pairing of the horror with the wives’ more blasé complaints about the disappointments and difficulties of such mundane things as their husbands’ work schedules and their marital struggles- things for which readers might have had sympathy if not for the untold deaths stemming from their husbands’ blind allegiance to Hitler. At least some of these women knew what their husbands were doing and how Jewish people were being slaughtered; that Mr. Wyllie is able to contrast so effectively the wives’ selfishness with their inability to view the humanity of the people suffering around them, makes the book that more gut-wrenching. The one wife who seems to have some tattered shreds of humanity remaining is shown to be dismissive and cavalier at the book’s end; there are no heroes in this story.
There’s also not a lot of hope to it. None of the surviving wives (the ones who survived past the war and who gave interviews and wrote memoirs) seemed to grow past their attitudes that got them married to such awful people. There’s also not a lot of information on what led them down such disgusting paths to begin with (understandable due to a lack of sources other than their personal diaries and whatever writing and interviews they left when they died), although Mr. Wyllie does state that several of them were products of their time and fully bought into the antisemitism of the day, rather than arriving at it on their own. Because of this, Nazi Wives is very much a cautionary tale. Check your attitudes, check your biases. Are your thoughts, attitudes, biases, and beliefs hateful? Could they lead to violence against other people, groups that are different from you? Could stating them out loud inspire others to commit violence? If so, you need to participate in some heavy self-reflection and decide if that’s really the person you want to be- again, there are no heroes in this story, and it ends in a lot of death and destruction for everyone.
If you’re looking for nonfiction that reads like a novel, Nazi Wives isn’t *quite* there, but Wyllie’s literary treatment of unfathomably horrible people is engaging- though stomach-turning- for the average reader who’s looking to expand their knowledge on the history behind the monsters responsible for World War II and the Holocaust. You’ll want to send your copy of the book flying across the room multiple times per chapter because the stories inside are just so awful, but you’ll walk away with a clearer picture of who these monsters were, and a sense of dread for what we’re once again facing as fascism rises again around the world.
Nazi Wives: The Women at the Top of Hitler’s Germany was originally released in 2019, but it’s up for a re-release on November 3, 2020.
Huge thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a review copy!
Like many Americans, I’ve spent the majority of my adult life on the move. At age 40, I’ve lived in seven different towns; this February will mark six years in my current location, which is the longest I’ve stayed anywhere since life in my hometown my first eighteen years. And this is a good thing; I love it here. But I haven’t always loved the other places I lived in, and that’s why This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live by Melody Warnick (Viking, 2016) appealed to me so much. Could I have done better? Could I have learned to love the other places I lived? I wanted to know.
Like me, Melody Warnick has spent her adult life as a Mover, packing up every few years in search of a better place, a city that feels like Home with a capital H. Nothing ever felt quite right; happiness always lay beyond, in a different city- maybe one with a waterpark? A better arts festival? Maybe a city with more nature would do the trick. But after her husband accepted a job in Blacksburg, Virginia, and Melody’s first reaction upon arrival was, “Ugh…”, she began to wonder if she could train herself to love a place- if the problem wasn’t with all these cities, but with her avoidance of putting down roots.
Step by step, Ms. Warnick began to devise means of falling in love with her city- in order to love a place, you need to act like someone who loves it, and that means getting involved in a lot of different ways. Part memoir, part personal experiment, part how-to, Melody Warnick instructs a society not used to staying in place on how to enjoy- and maybe even love- the place you’re in, even if it’s not your forever home.
This is absolutely the book I wish someone had handed me before my first big move at 18. I don’t know that it would have made *all* the difference- not where we lived in Tennessee, I’m sure. That town was lovely, the area had so much to do, and I made some wonderful friends, but the city itself is very much run by a Good Ol’ Boys club that terrorizes even lifelong residents; if your vision of what the city could be doesn’t match theirs, you’re no one, and they’ll not only let you know, they’ll let everyone else know, too. It’s hard to love a place like that. But the other places I’ve lived? Ms. Warnick’s book makes me realize I could have and should have done better.
Get involved, Ms. Warnick urged (advice that may not be all that possible right now, or that may not be safe; one of the reasons it took me so long to read this book- over a week!- was that it was just hard. Hard to read about all the things that aren’t possible to do right now, all the things we’re missing out on to keep ourselves and our families safe, all the things that won’t be possible for the foreseeable future…), and she offers suggestion after suggestion of the many possibilities to take part in the running of or enjoyment of your city- from the largest to the smallest, from tiny towns, to your neighborhood or block in a massive city. Putting down roots and feeling attached to a place takes work, and if this isn’t something that comes naturally to you, this book is a road map to falling in love with the place you live in.
I’d been trying to implement some of her suggestions pre-pandemic, and I’ll continue on with new inspiration whenever life resumes as normal (not anytime soon, so it’s a good thing I’m patient and have a plethora of available reading material to wait this out…). Despite my struggles reading it during this pandemic, This Is Where You Belong is chock-full of great advice and should be issued to anyone who packs up a moving truck and heads off in search of happiness in a new city. This is the book that will help you find it.
Do you love where you live? Have you tried? What’s worked for you?
I’m perpetually about ten years behind in my reading. I mean, pretty much every book in the world is on my TBR, so I’m never actually caught up, but if something is popular at a certain point in time, that basically ensures that I will ignore it for the next decade in favor of reading things people read ten years before now. Reader problems, amiright??? I never got around to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper, 2007) when it first came out, but I grabbed a copy at a used book sale last year, since I figured the price was right (man, I miss those book sales, but it’s giving me a chance to catch up on reading from my own shelves!), and this was what came on next on my by-the-TV shelf.
Author Barbara Kingsolver and her family moved from their home in Tucson to the farm property her husband owned in Virginia in search of a more authentic life in which they could grow their own food and eat more locally, taxing the earth’s resources less. They began a year-long experiment in growing their own food in sizeable gardens, raising chickens and turkeys (and doing the slaughtering themselves), and eschewing almost all food products that didn’t come within a hundred (or so) miles of their home. Starting in the spring, they realized they’d have to give up a few staples- no more bananas, fresh fruit was hard to come by at that time of year and they had to substitute with locally grown rhubarb, etc.- but they soon realized that almost everything they needed or wanted could be grown on their land, obtained from a local source, or foregone entirely. It wasn’t easy- it involved hard word, sacrifice, occasionally paying a little more or doing a lot of research to find a local source- but it changed the way her family saw their own abilities, their community, and the world.
Ms. Kingsolver is a master storyteller; The Poisonwood Bible is one of my favorite books, and I have a copy of The Bean Trees waiting for me on my downstairs shelves. The stories she tells in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle are lovely; they make me want to plow up my entire lawn and plant a massive garden (how is it that I always manage to read these books at the end of the season???), and it definitely got me thinking more about buying local products and paying attention to where my groceries come from. It doesn’t always make sense to purchase products that come from thousands of miles away when there might be a similarly-priced alternative that comes from our own area, that doesn’t have as much packaging and hasn’t used up so much fossil fuels to land on our doorstep (sometimes only to liquefy in the crisper bin, yikes!). Ms. Kingsolver makes a good point that we must do better eating locally; our climate and the future of our planet depends on it.
What I didn’t particularly care for were the sections on meat and her proclamation that vegetarians would totally chow down on meat if they could see the happy lives of the animals on the farms where she purchases her meat products. That felt dismissive and reductive; I stopped eating meat and cut way back on the animal products I consume in general after a bad cholesterol test a few years ago. I don’t sit around eating tofu burgers, as Ms. Kingsolver claims (and what little tofu I do consume comes from about twenty miles away anyway); my diet consists of legumes, vegetables, fruits, and grains (not much of the fancy stuff like quinoa, either, it’s usually outside our budget), and that wouldn’t change even if Happy Lamb Farm took their lambs to Disneyland every other week and bought them all Mickey Mouse shirts and balloons. I’m doing the best I can for what my body is telling me it needs, and I didn’t appreciate having my health concerns dismissed in this manner. It seemed a bit self-righteous and didn’t mesh well with the rest of the tone of the book.
The other bone I had to pick was about farmers’ markets. We have a lovely one here near us that sells a lot of really awesome local produce and locally made products; we haven’t been since last year, because it just gets SO crowded, but I really enjoy going. That said, Ms. Kingsolver seems to be attending different farmer’s markets than I do in terms of cost (as do the majority of people I’ve seen singing their praises). I do understand that local food is often going to cost more, but I can’t afford to pay six dollars for a pound of strawberries or tomatoes. So many of us are doing the best we can with our food budgets; a lot of Americans live life on the edge, paycheck to paycheck, and asking us to pay more for the food we eat isn’t always a tenable suggestion when you can either buy a pound of local strawberries, or apples and broccoli and a head of cabbage from the grocery store to feed your family for the week for that same price. It’s a terrible choice; we need those local farmers and their produce, but we also need full tummies and a varied diet. It’s frustrating to read that her experiment saved her money in some areas and her meals cost so little, when I’ve seen some of the prices of produce at our famer’s market and thought, “I could buy that and no other vegetable for the week.” Doing our best here, but there’s only so much we can do.
But the rest of this book absolutely put me in a warmer state of mind, in lush gardens with sun-warmed soil, in steamy kitchens with pots of tomato sauce bubbling on the stovetop with sterilized glass jars glinting on the counter nearby. The weather is turning here; we’ve got rain in the forecast for most of this week and chilly temps in the 40’s and 50’s, so it was lovely to curl up on my reading chair and follow Barbara Kingsolver into her barn and kitchen as the rain streaked my living room window.
I love it when a good title catches your eye, draws you in, and makes you go, “Ooh, what’s that about?” That’s how I felt when I saw the cover of Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis: How Jews Craft Resilience and Create Community by Jodi Eichler-Levine (University of North Carolina Press, 2020) on NetGalley this spring. “Is this about rabbis doing needlepoint?” I wondered, until I caught sight of the subtitle and went, “Ohhhhh, fascinating!” As an occasional crafter, I understand how important making things can be to one’s identity, and as my (Re)Introduction to Judaism class was winding down, I definitely wanted to keep reading and learning. And to my surprise, I was quickly approved for the book! Totally made my day.
Jodi Eichler-Levine has penned an academic deep-dive into the intersection of arts- and craft-work and Jewish identity, a study that spanned three years and included not only interviews but observation and research into online crafting communities (Pinterest, anyone?). Her focus is not necessarily on individual artists- although plenty of those are celebrated as well- but on what crafting means as a collective and for the collective. How do crafters express their Judaism and connect with it on a deeper level through the things they create? How does the process of creation help them connect with other Jews? What messages do their various forms of creation send when viewed through the lenses of Judaism? Her study answers all these questions and more in a way that artists and crafters will appreciate.
Horror vacui, the fear or dislike of leaving empty spaces, especially in an artistic composition, is discussed in terms of a crafter’s need to create and fill their friends’ and loved ones’ lives with the fruits of their hard work, as is the fact that creation, by necessity, also means consumption, something that I’ve been trying to come to terms with over the years. Keeping one’s supply stash under control and down to a manageable amount while still ensuring that you have what you need in a pinch (or a pandemic when the stores are closed!) is a never-ending battle for every crafter; do you overbuy and run the risk of never using those materials, or do you save money and not buy but potentially regret it later? “Things ground, though they can also overwhelm,” she states succinctly, something that I very much understood. Another quote summed it up perfectly:
“Acts of creation are never simple. They are not isolated from the act of consuming, and consuming in a hypercapitalist culture has itself taken on a religious valence. Those who can afford to do so revel in their possessions but are also possessed by them, leading to a sense of claustrophobia that sparked the latest minimalism purge.”
(And yes, Marie Kondo does earn several mentions!)
The sections that resonated the most with me were about parenting and how one’s identity as a crafter, an artist, a creator, is often dashed to the ground once the task of caring for tiny humans becomes front and center. Everything falls to the side, leaving parents, particularly mothers, feeling lost and like overworked automatons. She acknowledges that even as we celebrate these new lives, there is grief as we mourn for the loss of ourselves and the identities that kept us afloat Before Parenting. Ms. Eicher-Levine’s analysis of Heather Stolz’s work, Hanging By A Thread (viewed here in Ms. Stoltz’s Kveller article, Being Jewish Kind of Sucks Now That I’m a Mom), very much hit home for me. Her piece has to do with the difficulties of finding a connection to her Judaism when her more immediate responsibilities are to ensuring the safety and well-being of her children, but it’s something to which most moms will be able to relate. I know it took my breath away. A quote from another crafter echoed another familiar, sobering realization:
“I tried to embroider a Hebrew wall hanging for my son when he was born. That was before I realized that having children would end, for a while at least, my embroidery career.”
This is the circle of women I needed when I first began having children, but I’m grateful that a new generation will have Ms. Eicher-Levine’s words to reassure them that these feelings are normal.
Stories of craftivism; of religious restrictions on creation during Shabbat and how artists deal with that; the juxtaposition of two craft movements that seem to be, on the surface, different, but have more in common than they first appear; Ms. Eichler-Levine covers so many different topics in this book with a scholarly look, but one that has heart. One of the most poignant sections deals with Jewish crafting in the wake of the Holocaust and the urgency to fill the void of having no family heirlooms, and whether there’s a deeper meaning to it. That wasn’t an aspect of the Holocaust that I’d ever really considered, so I especially appreciated her work making me aware of that.
There is some discussion of infertility in the book, and how that affects one’s artwork and identity. Infertility can be a painful subject to read about for many people, while others find comfort in seeing they’re not alone in their struggles and feelings. Be kind to yourself and never feel ashamed about waiting until you feel ready to read subjects that may be difficult for you.
While the book is more academic than literary, it’s definitely enjoyable if you’re interested in how artistry and crafting intersect with identity- Jewish identity specifically, but if needlework or painting or quilting is a part of who you are, you may find much with which to identify in these pages regardless of your connection to Judaism. Terms with which the non-Jewish or non-Jewishly educated reader may not be familiar are defined, making this book accessible for readers of every background.
Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis is a lovely take on how what Jewish women (and some men!) create furthers their Jewish identity. Maybe it’ll inspire you to pick up or continue your own work! It absolutely did for me. I’d been working on this blanket for a while and had put it down after getting close to finishing it. But reading this book put me in the crafting mood again, and I finished the last few rows and the border. The blanket, laid out on the floor, takes up half my living room! Thanks for the inspiration, Ms. Eicher-Levine!
Much thanks to NetGalley and the University of North Carolina Press for allowing me to read an early copy of this.
Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis: How Jews Craft Resilience and Create Community by Jodi Eichler-Levine is due out on October 19, 2020. Order your copy here (not an affiliate link), or from your local bookstore.