nonfiction · true crime

Book Review: Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession by Sarah Weinman

A few years ago, I read The Real Lolita: The Kidnaping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World by Sarah Weinman, which only made sense thanks to my earlier reading of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. It (the first book!) was a fascinating and compelling read, and it put Sarah Weinman on my radar. So when I learned about her new true crime anthology, Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession (Ecco, 2020), I slapped that bad boy onto my list.

I went into this anthology expecting the book to continue as it starts, with stories that recap true crime tales like a finely-tuned episode of Dateline (which I occasionally listen to as a podcast). The anthology starts out strong, only to get even better. Beyond delving into stories of murder and deception, this book also takes a hard look at the true crime genre as a whole. Whose stories are told- and whose aren’t, and why? What does it mean that we as a society are so fascinated by these real-life stories of terrible, violent death? What happens in the aftermath of these stories? And what does cleanup look like after someone picks up a gun?

This is a lot more than whodunnit, than a voyeuristic peek into blood-spattered rooms and chilled interrogation chambers. This is intriguing reporting that asks hard questions and demands that we ask ourselves hard questions. What are we getting out of this ethically dubious genre? Look harder at the aftermath of these crimes, at the broken families plagued by grief and the unknowns, at the hospitals struggling to keep up with the trauma victims and the survivors whose wounds stay with them long after the gun stops smoking and the knife is cleaned off. Think a little harder; examine what pulls you so strongly to this genre and why, and what you can take from it in order to make our society a more just place for everyone.

My goodness, this was incredible. There’s some powerful writing in this book, both in terms of narrative ability, and in terms of straight-up journalism that strikes all the right chords. There’s an article about a trauma surgeon tasked with repairing gunshot victims; you may be surprised at how not-linear their recoveries often are. A piece on the impact of the band Soul Train’s early 90’s video for their hit song ‘Runaway Train’ is deeply moving; I had actually read this article before but appreciated coming back to it, as the song and its accompanying videos (plural) of missing and exploited kids, still tugs at my heart. And a story of a murdered mother who turned out not to be who she said she was fascinated me- it’s near the beginning, and I bet it’ll pull you in as well.

If you enjoy the true crime genre, this is truly an anthology you cannot miss. I blew through the whole book in one afternoon and am sorry that there aren’t 23748324032 other volumes to accompany it. This was phenomenal.

Visit Sarah Weinman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction · memoir

Book Review: My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past by Jennifer Teege and Nikola Sellmair, translated by Carolin Sommer

My library sends out a quarterly newsletter to everyone within its service area, informing the community about scheduled programs, updates on the new library building currently under construction (completion scheduled for late fall of next year!), book clubs, activities for kids (still lots of virtual storytimes and take-and-go-crafts), and new services they’re offering. I look forward to this newsletter at the dawn of each new season. I learned about My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past by Jennifer Teege and Nikola Sellmair, translated by Carolin Sommer (The Experiment, 2013) from one of these newsletters, as it was a book club pick. While I wasn’t able to make the book club discussion centered around this book, I still wanted to read it, and onto my list it went.

Jennifer Teege, a German woman of mixed-race descent, grew up as the adopted child of a white family. She spent the first three years of her life in an orphanage, with her biological mother visiting her on occasion, and spending time with her maternal grandmother. At age three, she became the foster child of the family who eventually formally adopted her at age seven- and after the adoption, as was the norm for the time, all contact with her biological family ended. Jennifer struggled with feelings of abandonment and trauma; trust wasn’t easy for her. And in her late 30’s, she happened upon a book about a woman grappling with her father being Amon Goeth (as it’s spelled in the book), one of the most vicious Nazis and head of the  Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp. That woman was Monika Goeth, Jennifer’s biological mother.

Already suffering from depression and struggling to define her life, Jennifer was thrown into the depths of despair. Who was she, if that’s what she came from? What did this mean for her life, for her two sons, for her relationship with her adoptive family, for her relationship with her Israeli friends? How much of ourselves can we assign to those who came before us? Jennifer struggles terribly with the implications of this discovery, and it takes a lot of work, soul-searching, therapy, and thousands of miles of travel and years of research to come to terms with who her biological grandfather was.

Whew. This is obviously a heavy topic and a compelling story, likely an adoptee’s worst nightmare. Jennifer is legitimately distressed, as would most people be. Her biological grandfather was a horrible, horrible person, responsible for the murder of thousands; her biological grandmother, whom she absolutely loved, was far more supportive of him than Jennifer would have expected, and this also caused her a great deal of strain. As someone who is a dedicated traveler, who spent years living in Israel and who is fluent in Hebrew, being a woman of mixed-race, she’s completely certain that her grandfather wouldn’t have treated her any different than the Jews he shot from his balcony at the camp he presided over.

I had some issues with this book. While it’s an intriguing story, I disagreed a lot with how the author handled some of the situations she found herself in. She obviously had very fond memories of her maternal grandmother, who had never been anything but kind and loving to her. Even after learning about her grandmother’s romance with and lifelong support of and defending of Amon Goeth, she still chooses to cling to those memories and defend her grandmother. That is absolutely not the choice I would have made. People who are nice to you but not nice to people who are different from you…are not nice people. People who defend bad people are not nice people. I could have respected if she had said, “I have very fond memories of my grandmother, but it disturbs me greatly to learn of her support for this Nazi murderer and I cannot look at her the same way anymore.” I realize I’m seeing this in a more black-and-white fashion, but something things ARE black and white, and defending Nazis is one of them.

I also really struggled with the way she treated and referred to her adoptive family (some of this may be due to social and cultural differences; adoption was looked at very differently back then. And there may also be translation issues as well- not with content, but more along the terms of differences between how Germans refer to adoption and how it’s talked about here). It seemed almost as if the moment Jennifer learned about her Nazi grandfather, that biological family became her sole family and her adoptive family ceased to exist, ceased to matter to her. This may be due to her underlying trauma that hadn’t yet been addressed, but there were a lot of places here that made me feel really bad for her adoptive family in terms of how she spoke about them (and I’m absolutely NOT of the mindset that adopted kids need to be grateful their whole lives to the family who chose them. Eff outta here with that gross BS; we’re the lucky ones for those kids being in our lives and we need to honor the trauma they’ve experienced by losing their biological family). I’m definitely willing to cut her a lot of slack in regards to this, especially as she does write about having a better relationship with her family these days, but I wish that would have been covered a little more. So this book is a wild ride that has a lot of issues. I felt terrible for Jennifer throughout quite a bit of it; she was very obviously deeply distressed on learning such shocking information. I hope she’s since figured out she’s not responsible for her grandfather’s crimes, and just because she shares a few segments of DNA with him doesn’t mean…anything, basically. We get to be our own people; we don’t have to be anything at all like the people who came before us, if we don’t want to be. That’s the beauty of it all. 🙂

nonfiction

Book Review: Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham

I was too young to remember anything about Chernobyl, only being five at the time of the accident, and information was slow to leak out in the days after the explosion (and news didn’t move as fast back then, anyway). But it’s become something that fascinates me as an adult. I read Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich in 2019, but I realized I really didn’t know much of the specifics of what happened, and in order to more fully understand, I would need to read on. A friend mentioned Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higganbotham (Simon & Schuster, 2019) after I’d read Voices, and so onto my list it went. I held back from reading it for a while, intimidated by the 538 pages, but fear not; a lot of that is footnotes, and the text in my ebook copy ended at around 50%. It’s not actually *that* huge of a book.

Adam Higginbotham has created a masterpiece here, weaving a story of incompetence, shame, national pride, and suffering that takes the reader back to the early days of Soviet nuclear innovation, where anything was possible and the USSR was large and in charge (if only in its own propaganda). The desperation of the Soviet Union to appear as a major force in nuclear power on the world stage required its architects, builders, and engineers to cut corners at every turn in order to keep up with the pace demanded by its leaders. What happened at Chernobyl was inevitable, caused by a major design flaw; if it hadn’t happened there, it would have eventually happened at another Soviet nuclear plant.

At every turn, Mr. Higginbotham shows how the wrong decision was made that cost lives and increased human suffering and environmental damage to the extreme. The truth was hidden for ages as unsuspecting citizens were exposed to massive amounts of radiation. Those in charge were loath to admit that mistakes had been made (by themselves or anyone else); what mattered more was how the Soviet Union appeared in the eyes of the rest of the world. The dangers of nationalism and pride are illustrated on every page of this remarkable book about a disaster that opened the public’s eyes to the dangers of nuclear power plants.

This book is a LOT. A lot of history with which I wasn’t familiar (I was born in 1980; I vaguely remember learning bits and pieces about the USSR when I was growing up, but I very much remember having a class discussion after the USSR fell and what that meant), a lot of explanation about the science behind nuclear power that I will admit flew right over my head, a lot of Russian names I struggled to keep straight (part of this is due to the fact that I read it as an ebook; I have a harder time reading nonfiction on my kindle. There IS a handy guide to who’s who in the front of the book, and I would really have liked to have been able to flip back to that!), a lot of anxiety-inducing scenes where the radiation levels were off the charts, and days upon days where leaders failed to evacuate anyone and instead let them marinate in radiation in order to save their own stupid pride. While I couldn’t explain anything about nuclear physics or engineering, I definitely have a better sense of the story of Chernobyl: what happened, what was covered up and lied about, and why.

This has all left me with a massive disdain for nuclear power, although Mr. Higginbotham is clear that things have gotten safer since then, with better design and different sources of power that are much less likely to melt down. But that’s still not zero danger, as Fukushima has shown us, and I’m not sure I’ll ever feel totally relaxed when it comes to the subject of nuclear power plants at all. I’m definitely glad I read this, though, because I absolutely feel better informed about the disaster and tragedy that was Chernobyl.

Visit Adam Higginbotham’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

Sometime late last winter or early last spring, one of my online friends posted an article discussing A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling (Public Affairs, 2020). The premise sounded wild, and I added it to my list, and there it was at the library on my latest trip. I only have forty-some books left on my TBR that are available at my local library branch, so it’s less mood-reading these days and more reading-what’s-available-at-this-particular-moment in terms of my list. Which is usually fine (although there are certain things I know I can’t handle at the moment, so those sit a little longer on my list).

The town of Grafton, New Hampshire became the focus of a group of Libertarians (an American political party that emphasizes freedom above all, oftentimes without the corresponding responsibilities. Wikipedia article on Libertarianism here). They chose this town as the site they were going to ‘liberate’ from the tyranny of taxes (I hope you can hear my eyeroll) and began to move there in sizeable droves. They liberated a lot of things, including the town from fire protection, road repair, and wildlife management.

Bears began to become a huge menace in the town, aided by certain residents actively feeding them. Bear attacks, uncommon even in the worst of times, took place on several occasions, including bears coming into people’s homes (many townspeople looked for any reason to blame the victim; apparently, cutting up meat in your own kitchen makes you responsible for being mauled by a bear). Houses burned down because the fire department had been so gutted. Roads crumbled. The library suffered, both in terms of the hours it was able to operate and the building itself. The libertarians fought amongst themselves, and the town continued to suffer. To only certain people’s surprise, a higher-taxed town not too far away continued to thrive and grow, while Grafton crumbled and its population shrank.

While nothing in this book was surprising, in terms of outcome, it still made for an interesting, if occasionally slightly dry (more due to subject than the writing style, I think; I don’t necessarily find Libertarianism all that interesting and definitely not appealing, since the thought processes of its adherents is just a whole lot of cringe for me. The book intrigue me because of the strong consequences of seeing this line of thinking through). Mr. Hongoltz-Hetling does a good job of digging down into the essence of the psyches of the libertarians who took over the town, showing their goals and thought patterns and their expectations for Grafton’s eventual tax-free utopian status under libertarian rule. A rule-less (or nearly rule-less) society depends heavily on its citizens always making the morally correct choices, and as this book shows (and common sense dictates), that’s just not something that happens. People are people; they quite often make terrible decisions that are entirely against even their own self-interest, not the mention the interest of the community around them (see: pandemic), and in case after case, this is illustrated throughout this book.

This is a fairly entertaining, occasionally amusing, and often face-palm-inducing read that I think serves as interesting reading material to readers who understand that this particular philosophy makes for a great ideal, but that put into action, the outcome will never match up with its prior vision. Will it convince anyone already married to the ideals of Libertarianism? Having known a few people that prescribe to that particular philosophy, I doubt it; I think they’d be more along the lines of assuming that the Grafton crowd made mistakes that they wouldn’t, that “That wouldn’t possibly happen to me because REASONS,” entirely discounting the fact that living without regard to the society around you makes for a very dangerous society altogether (see: pandemic).

I enjoyed this, and while I assume that it was at least partly written to serve as a warning, I think it’s more of a warning for people to be on guard against these ideals from taking hold and destroying their communities. Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling has painted a picture of a community turned into a pretty bleak place to live; it should serve as a warning to everyone who doesn’t want to end up being mauled by a bear in their own kitchen, and struggling to call for help afterwards due to collapsed town services.

Visit Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Fixation: How to Have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet by Sandra Goldmark

I’m a big fan of frugality, and also a big fan of taking care of the environment, whether that means consuming less, consuming better and/or smarter, or taking care of what you already have. So it’s no surprise that Fixation: How to Have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet by Sandra Goldmark (Island Press, 2020) ended up on my TBR. Even when you’re fully committed to something, it helps to have a reminder every so often of why you became committed to that ideal in the first place, and this book certainly served as the kick in the pants that I needed.

Sandra Goldmark has a background in theater, and in the design and creation of many theater sets and costumes, she’s learned many skills in the repair of various items that have brought her shows to life with minimal budgets and objects that have been used, reused, and reimagined in many ways. Those skills helped fuel the repair pop-ups she and her husband and a work crew ran around New York City, taking in broken items (everything from toys to furniture to appliances and clothing, and likely far more) and doing their best to repair them. And along the way, Ms. Goldmark learned a few things.

A lot of what we own is poorly made, with plastic parts that break easily and aren’t easily repairable. Spare parts for quick repairs are often entirely unavailable, and thus whole items, for want of a tiny, tiny part, become complete trash. Often, items are legally unrepairable by the consumer; even when they are able to be fixed, it’s often cheaper (but not a better use of our resources) to throw the whole item out and buy a new one. How many broken items do you have sitting around your house, waiting for the day when you finally decide to try to fix them? Our throwaway culture is a massive problem, affecting the climate and the environment in ways we’re only beginning to pay for, and while darning our sweaters and replacing our worn bike gears isn’t going to solve the problem that is climate change, when we pay attention to even the little problems, the big problems begin to fall in line, or at least make more sense. Repairing our broken items, taking better care of what we own, buying used (and better!) when we can, and ensuring that the items we no longer need get into the hands of people who do need them are all things we can do that make a difference when done on a large scale.

This is a quick read, but it’s also a swift kick in the pants if you’re looking for some motivation. My repair skills are limited, but I’m continually learning and I use the skills I do have when necessary. That said, things back up and I put them off, but this week, I stitched holes in a pillow, a blanket, a pair of pants, and a shirt, and I crocheted a rip in a seam of a store-bought blanket, all because of this book. Ms. Goldmark is right that we need to take better care of the things we own, that creating new things is great, but that there’s a limit to what we need, and that repairing the things we own needs to be a bigger focus than creation.

She has a lot of great ideas of what companies can do in order to become leaders in this movement- what would it be like if Ikea dispatched on-the-go furniture repair people to come fix your table or bookcase, or if they had places in their stores where you could bring in your lamp or duvet cover for a quick fix? Some companies such as Patagonia or REI are already working to close the loop, as she puts it; more need to follow in their footsteps, but we can help by supporting the companies who are already participating in these more sustainable business practices.

I liked this a lot. It got me thinking about the things I can do to better care for what I own, and the skills I need to learn to better repair. My husband is pretty awesome at this and has learned to fix a LOT of broken items around our house (he repaired a backpack strap this week- the plastic part had broken and he mended that, saving the entire backpack. I was impressed); I’m more in charge of things like basic sewing repairs, but I definitely have room for improvement- I’m wanting to learn how to darn socks, because that’s such a useful skill. That’s on my agenda soon, and I’m looking forward to it.

Follow Sandra Goldmark on Twitter.

nonfiction · true crime

Book Review: The Family Next Door: The Heartbreaking Imprisonment of the Thirteen Turpin Siblings and Their Extraordinary Rescue by John Glatt

Do you ever look back and wonder how you missed out on major news stories? I’m old enough to remember the Challenger explosion, but I have no memories of it. I’m not sure if that’s because my parents shielded me from the awfulness of it, or because it wasn’t much on their radar, but nope, I don’t remember it at all. The more recent story of the Turpin family is similar for me. I vaguely knew who they were- a mega-family who had at least some sort of Christian trappings who ended up abusing the kids terribly- but somehow the details of this story remained off my radar. But someone on a messageboard where I lurk suggested The Family Next Door: The Heartbreaking Imprisonment of the Thirteen Turpin Siblings and Their Extraordinary Rescue by John Glatt (St. Martin’s Press, 2019), and I knew I needed to read it in order to fill in the gaps (I think things were so crazy politically at the time that all my attention was going to other things, and that’s how this one slipped by me. We can’t pay attention to everything…)

In early 2018, a 17 year-old girl, whose physical appearance made her appear closer to ten years of age, secretly dialed 911 to report that her parents were abusing her and her twelve siblings, several of whom had been chained to their beds for months. When the police arrived at the house, what they found was nearly beyond belief. Children from the ages of two to their late twenties who hadn’t bathed or changed clothing in over a year, in various stages of starvation, cachexia, and psychosocial dwarfism.  None of them had ever visited a dentist; doctor visits had rarely happened. Most of them displayed severe signs of abuse. None of the neighbors realized there were that many kids living in the house, because most of the children never left. The oldest had been pulled out of third grade in public school; they had all been ‘homeschooled’ since, but most of them had less than a first-grade education, even the adults (the daughter who had called 911 had even misspelled her own last name).

The kids were taken and hospitalized; the parents were sent to jail to await trial. The children, even the adults, were badly stunted in physical and social development; educationally, they were all years behind (with the exception of the two-year-old, who was, while still not perfect, in better shape than anyone else). The younger children eventually went to (I believe) a foster home; the adult children went to a secret home to begin focusing on all the things they needed to learn to function as adults, since none of them were even remotely able to care for themselves. The parents were eventually convicted and sentenced to twenty-five years to life in prison; the children will be battling the effects of the torture their parents afflicted upon them forever (at least two of the girls are unlikely to be able to have children themselves, so extensive was the damage they’ve suffered).

If you followed the case as it unfolded, there probably isn’t anything new here, but if you’re like me and missed this, it’s a good primer as to what happened. I hadn’t really known any of the details, so it was a worthwhile (if horrifying) read. My heart broke over and over again for the damage these kids have suffered (I refer to them as kids, but the oldest is in her early 30’s by now; the youngest is maybe 5 or 6). Their parents stunted their entire lives; whatever they go on to do, it’ll be in spite of their parents, not because of them, and though they may heal, even in the best-case scenario, there will still be massive, massive scars. I’m so sad for all of them.

There are several fundamentalist mega-families on my radar (not the Duggars; we already know what a mess they’ve made…) that have exhibited strong Turpin-esque qualities. One has stated she’s not worried about her homeschooled kids obtaining ‘worldly knowledge;’ in a recent video the mom posted, her oldest kids (somewhere around 11 or 12) didn’t know what year it was or who the President was (both questions my seven-year-old answered immediately with no help). The other family’s kids are very obviously malnourished and the quality of their ‘homeschooling’ has looked pretty poor as well. (I’m a former homeschooling parent; even when I was actively homeschooling, I wished there were better oversight. If you’re doing what you need to be doing, a yearly check-in to make sure your kid is on track is no big deal, and I made my kiddo WORK. Better oversight would have prevented the Turpins from ruining their kids, and it would keep those other families I’m thinking of from inflicting potentially irreversible damage on their children. It’s incredibly difficult to become a functional adult when you were denied the skills it takes to be one throughout your entire childhood.)

The writing in this book isn’t anything special; it’s a really fast read, though a depressing one. You’ll be horrified and disgusted and heartbroken through the whole thing. I pray those kids are able to repair what their parents worked so hard to destroy, and to create beautiful, functional lives for themselves, and that this world makes a safe, patient space for all of them.

Visit John Glatt’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Equal America by Carol Anderson

This review will look a little different than my usual reviews.

A few years ago, I read White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson. It’s American history with a spotlight on how deeply and violently racist this country has always been to Black people, and while I knew of many of the stories Ms. Anderson recounted, the details she included and the stories I hadn’t known about were shocking. I was appalled, and this has since become one of the books I recommend the most, because it’s history that everyone needs to know about and understand. Because of that well-written, beautifully researched, and eye-opening book, everything Carol Anderson has ever written is on my TBR- though I’m spacing them out; they’re a lot to handle, but they’re such important books- and next up was The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021).

The Second Amendment, which gives Americans the right to bear arms, has never been applied equally. We’ve seen that play out time and time again, when Black people (usually men, though not always) who are legally in possession of a weapon and are acting in a responsible manner with it are shot and killed (whereas white men who have murdered people as part of an active shooter situation are taken into custody alive and unharmed). Think of Philando Castile or Tamir Rice, both now dead- one had a legally registered gun, which he had informed the police about; the other had a toy gun. Both are now dead. Compare that with all the perpetrators of mass shootings we’ve seen in the US that have been taken into custody alive, even after murdering people. There is a history to all of this, unfair rules that were harshly applied to the Black community, who were never allowed to defend themselves against anything or anyone, and Ms. Anderson meticulously documents it all in the pages of this book.

The Second isn’t a long book (there are a lot of footnotes; her research is meticulous, and I ended up flipping to the back quite often out of curiosity as to what sources she was using, and also because I wrote down a few quotes and wanted the original sources), but there’s a lot to digest here, a lot to wrap your brain around, and I had to keep stopping and rereading passages to make sure I understood them. American history as we’re taught in school is usually about brave patriots who stood up to tyrants; they leave out how often we were the tyrants ourselves. We leave out how racist our founding fathers were; we leave out most of the laws and court rulings that told Black people in no uncertain terms that they weren’t human beings, that their lives were worthless, that they weren’t entitled to self-defense or the rights of citizenship. Carol Anderson doesn’t leave these things out; she’s the education you should have gotten before, but likely didn’t. I was actually lucky and had a few grade school teachers that didn’t hold back when it came to speaking truth about American history; even so, there have still been many things I missed, and I’m grateful to Ms. Anderson and other writers like her to help fill in the gaps and help me understand exactly how deep the injustice in this country runs.

This review is more to make readers aware that this book exists- I’m not a historian and can’t review it as such, but the history she relates is heartbreaking and infuriating- and that Ms. Anderson’s writings are important and deserve your attention and consideration. The US has a lot of work to do to clean up the messes it’s made. To be honest, I’m not sure we have the willpower to do it; there are a frightening number of people out there who seem to revel in being as cruel as possible to as many groups as possible. But the decent people among us know that it’s a fight worth fighting, no matter what the odds, and the first step is being aware of exactly how much work there is to be done. Books like The Second and White Rage are excellent places to start.

Visit Carol Anderson’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Live as TV’s Most Influential Guru Advises by Robyn Okrant

I love yearlong experiment books (AJ Jacobs, anyone?). There’s something that seriously fascinates me about committing to a project for a full calendar year, for taking on a project around which you wrap your entire life. That’s how I stumbled across Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Live as TV’s Most Influential Guru Advises by Robyn Okrant (Center Street, 2008). For so long, Oprah reigned as the queen of daytime talk. She was so universal that even my good friend- a guy!- watched her in high school and would come into work and school discussing what he had seen on the show. My mom subscribed to O! magazine- maybe she still does, I don’t actually know. And as readers, we all know about Oprah’s book club. So this book immediately sounded fascinating to me. I missed out on Ms. Okrant’s project when it was ongoing, but I wasn’t going to miss out on her write-up of it!

An artist, actress, writer, and Chicagoan, Robyn Okrant knew about how far-reaching Oprah Winfrey’s influence stretched. But what would following all of her advice do to a person’s life? Not just some of it; ALL of it- if Oprah said to do it or buy it, watch it or consider it, Robyn would comply. And that’s how her Living Oprah project came to life. For one full calendar year, Robyn would take all of Oprah’s suggestions to heart, buying the products and clothing that Oprah claimed everyone neeeeeeeeeeeded, regardless of how Robyn felt about them, participating in the activities Oprah pushed, including exercise, reading assignments and webinars, watching movies, and of course watching The Oprah Winfrey Show and reading O! magazine cover to cover- taking notes the whole time, of course.

Some things worked well. Some things didn’t. And some things got really, really awkward. But along the way, Robyn learned a lot- about herself, about the way society markets certain things to women by first ensuring that they feel unsatisfied with their lives, and about the power of one person’s influence.

This is a really fun, thoughtful book. Ms. Okrant’s project lives right at the intersection of one-year experiments, pop culture, psychology, self-help, celebrity worship, and feminism, and her lighthearted, occasionally self-deprecating tone keeps the narrative moving without ever getting too bogged down by what was occasionally a slog of activities. This wasn’t at all a simple project; so much of what Oprah directed her audience to do involves a lot of exhaustive self-reflection and inner examination that might not always be comfortable, nor is the constant focus on weight and improving or making changes to your body something that’s health for everyone (a topic that Ms. Okrant, a yoga instructor who suffers from scoliosis, returns to several times throughout the book). She’s not afraid to criticize Oprah- she doesn’t *love* doing it either, but her criticism is fair and even-handed, and she brings up a lot of good points that made me think about the little bits of Oprah I do remember seeing.

Much like AJ Jacobs’s long-suffering wife, Ms. Okrant’s husband is a decent sport- mostly-about the way Robyn’s Living Oprah project takes over their entire life, which added an interesting perspective to the narrative and makes you wonder about how this works in marriages where one of the partners really does get obsessive about following the advice of another celebrity guru. This project took over Ms. Okrant’s entire life and sucked up so much of her time (and even wormed its way into her diet, clothing choices, workout routines, and sex life!), and it’s always interesting to see how it affects the partners (and children, if applicable) of the people who take on such all-consuming routines.

I was never a huge Oprah-watcher, solely because I was either at school or asleep when she was on (I believe she used to be on at 9 am here in Central Time Zone, but in my defense, I also lived in the Eastern Time Zone for five of my adult years and my sleep schedule was REALLY messed up, so I was often awake most of the night and sleeping in the morning), but I did enjoy the shows I was able to watch. At least I did until she got into her Eckhart Tolle, self-help-your-way-to-a-more-perfect-you spiel. I have no particular issue with that sort of thing; it’s just not my thing. But Robyn Okrant’s account of living through a full year of diving deep into the Tao of Oprah completely and utterly fascinated me. She did the work that I wasn’t interested in doing- but reading her account of it all was a lot of fun, and I truly, truly enjoyed every last bit of this book.

Visit Robyn Okrant’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books by Aaron Lansky

Right along with books, I’ve long been obsessed with languages. I learned a bunch of Japanese when I was in grade school, took four years of Spanish and of French and one of German in high school (our school schedule was structured in a way that made this possible), have been through Duolingo’s Norwegian tree five times now, and am currently picking up some Hebrew. The many different Jewish languages fascinate me as well (there are more than just Yiddish and Hebrew!). And where Jewish language and books meet is Aaron Lansky, founder of the Yiddish Book Center and author of Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books (Algonquin Books, 2005). I’ve known about Mr. Lansky since my son was very young and I read him a children’s book about how Mr. Lansky saved Yiddish books, so when I learned that he had written a book for adults, it immediately went onto my list (and my library had an ebook copy!).

As college students learning Yiddish, Aaron Lansky and his classmates had a difficult time finding reading material. New Yiddish books weren’t really being published, and most libraries didn’t have much, if anything, on their shelves. And then he learned the terrible fate of many of the Yiddish books in existence: they were being thrown out. When elderly Yiddish speakers died, their children, who often couldn’t speak or read the language, didn’t know what to do with the books and so they got tossed. Horrified, Mr. Lansky began collecting these books. As more and more books piled up when people learned that he wanted them, he opened the Yiddish Book Center and began racing against time (and weather, and terrible storage conditions) in order to preserve the literary traditions and history of a world that no longer exists.

It wasn’t an easy job. Funding was always an issue. Space was another problem. Vans that broke down, elderly folks who overfed Mr. Lansky and his crew while sharing the stories of their lives and their books (and putting them hours behind schedule!), people who didn’t seem to understand what he was trying to do, trips to pick up books that were downright dangerous, there were a lot of obstacles in the way, but things always seemed to work out, and today, the Yiddish Book Center is an amazing institution that has helped the modern-day study of Yiddish flourish.

This was such a great read. It’s right at the intersection of a bunch of things I care deeply about- books, languages, Judaism- and Mr. Lansky tells the story of his life in a truly engaging way. The Yiddish language has never been dead; it’s still in use today as a living language, though mainly among the more Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) groups, who, in general, don’t engage with the mainly secular literature in the books Mr. Lansky was trying to save (which is why it was so important he collected them; these books are history, culture, linguistics. They’re the legacy of a people who survived some terrible times, but who left behind a rich literary treasure trove). And Yiddish has seen a bit of a resurgence among this current generation of non-Haredi Jews (are there any non-Jews engaging with the language on a widespread basis? I don’t honestly know). There are Yiddish classes in the city near me; the University of Chicago also offers Yiddish courses (my kingdom for a winning lottery ticket so that I could afford to attend!). It makes me happy that non-native speakers are continuing to engage with this beautiful language (to me, it sounds a little like Norwegian, which I think is gorgeous!). (I really love parentheses, if you couldn’t tell. Eesh.)

The people who gave Mr. Lansky their books are deeply moving. So often, they had already lost far too much in their lives; they understood the importance of the books they loved, and they shared their lives and their stories (and their homecooked food!) with the Yiddish Book Center crew. Elderly as they were, many of them went on to help collect books for the Center. You’ll be moved by their stories, their pain, their joy, and their enthusiasm for and dedication to their book collections (seriously, as literary people, we ALL get how important books are! The thought of any books ending up in trash heaps, regardless of whether or not I can read them, makes me scream inside my heart!).

Outwitting History left me in awe of everything Aaron Lansky has accomplished. He saw a problem- a whole culture and history being erased- and dedicated his life to solving it. And in return, scholars of Yiddish visit and contact his center every day. The Center sends Yiddish books all around the world, and Yiddish literature was the first to be digitized. He has done the world a massive service by preserving so many books, and though I don’t speak the language (though at some point, I’d like to learn some!), I’m deeply grateful to him for the books he and his crew have rescued. Imagine what the world would have missed out on had all those books been lost forever.

Visit the website of the Yiddish Book Center here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq by Ariel Sabar

Combing through the selection of ebooks on my library’s website one day, I came across a book titled My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq by Ariel Sabar (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008). UM, YES! I’m always fascinated by the diversity of Jewish communities around the world and I love reading further about ones I’ve only ever heard mentioned by name (like the Jews who fled to Shanghai, China during World War II, which I hadn’t really known much about until I read Someday We Will Fly by Rachel DeWoskin). And lo and behold, this book was in as I’ve been working my way down the ebooks on my TBR. Win all around. 😊

Ariel Sabar wasn’t the greatest son growing up. He never connected with his dad and treated him terribly, especially as a teenager, but as an adult, he became curious. Who was this father of his? Yona Sabar is one of the world’s foremost scholars of neo-Aramaic, a language of which he happens to be a native speaker. He grew up in Kurdish Iraq, in the mostly Jewish town of Zakho, the last generation to live there in the years before modernity reached the town. His family fled to Israel in 1951, where he struggled to learn the language and live in a way that was entirely different from everything he’d ever known. A hard worker and a good student, Yona earned a place at Hebrew University, where his studies of the linguistics of his native language, via the folktales and lullabies he grew up with, propelled him into a career that would take him around the world and have him consulting with Hollywood when they needed help with Aramaic translation.

This is the story of a man whose life has undergone numerous massive changes. Time and time again, Yona has had to reinvent himself and learn how to survive and thrive in entirely new societies, in entirely new languages, and he’s always risen to the challenge, though maybe not to the level of coolness his teenage son desired. His son worked hard to understand him as an adult, however, to research and pen this riveting account of a fascinating life, and to do what he could to make up for the ways he felt he had failed his father. My Father’s Paradise is a beautiful account of a son’s understanding of his father, but it’s also a look at how the world has changed over such a short period of time, and what’s necessary for survival when times are difficult.

Wow. This was truly a fascinating book. Imagine growing up in a small Iraqi village with no electricity, with dirt roads full of sheep, where clothes are still dyed by hand and washed in the river, and by the time you’re verging on retirement, your life consists of air travel, credit cards, air conditioning, the Internet, all viewed from your modern home in Los Angeles. Yona Sabar grew up thinking he would likely take over his father’s dyeing business or work some other small job in his village of Zakho, and because life happened, he’s a world-renowned scholar and professor. That much change is absolutely mind-bending. How anyone could even begin to process all these changes is mystifying.

Ariel Sabar truly captures the spirit of the Zakho his father grew up with, a Zakho to whom modernity has finally arrived. It’s a place that exists only in memory now, with modern buildings and American pop music a part of its current landscape, but through the power of Ariel’s writing, the Zakho of old comes back to life. If you enjoy writing with a strong sense of place and books that will transport you to another world (especially worlds of the past), this is a must-read. But more than a sense of place, he captures the strength and determination of his quiet, humble father, a man who, despite circumstances that haven’t always been easy or pleasant, despite coming from a family that has suffered trauma along the way, has always risen to the challenges presented to him. He’s a father to be proud of, with a proud past and a proud history, and watching his son recognize all of this is heartwarming.

This is a lovely, fascinating book. You’ll learn a lot- about the Kurdish Jews of Zakho, of course, and what their lives were like, but also about strength, perseverance, and what it takes to mend a frayed father-son relationship. I really enjoyed this.

Visit Ariel Sabar’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.