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Book Review: The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis

Obviously, I love nonfiction. If you’ve hung out in these parts for any length of time, you know that I’m a huge, huge fan of that whole section of the library. (I do enjoy fiction as well! I promise!) And I really love nonfiction that reads like a novel. The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis (WW Norton Company, 2021) is exactly that. I learned about it from another one of those best-of-the-year book lists and added it, but I was a little worried about reading it at first. Haven’t we all had enough pandemic at this point? Was my brain too full for this? Yes, and no, respectively. This is an amazing, fabulously-written, rage-inducing explanation of how we got here and why it’s so disgustingly bad out there.

Years ago, a father who worked for Sandia National Laboratories was fiddling with a new work program when his daughter, who had been learning about the Black Death, came in and saw it, and, after realizing that program might be used to predict disease, began working with her father to learn more. They eventually developed a whole project that they managed to get in front of some important people, people who were tasked (mostly self-assigned; kudos to George W. Bush for actually understanding how terrible a pandemic could be and putting together a team to work towards formatting a response. I hadn’t known about this) with working out a nationwide response to a potential pandemic.

This pandemic team saw what was coming. They understood what could happen and began working to put in place a plan to save not just American lives, but lives around the world. The one thing they didn’t expect: that the leadership at the top wouldn’t care. That there was no leadership, that no one cared about saving lives if it meant their egos may take a hit and if the economy might struggle and so, basically, every American would be entirely on their own.

This is a truly remarkable book about a group of wildly intelligent people who understood the dangers of communicable disease and did everything they could to prepare the country, only to be ignored, mocked, and treated as though they were hysterical nutjobs. We could have cut COVID-19 off at the start, could have led the world in the response and saved millions of lives. Instead, we went with the strategy of protecting Donald Trump’s already over-inflated ego and stroking the egos of the people at the CDC (who had little interest in stopping the pandemic, only seeing what happened as it rolled out and protecting the economy instead of lives). We decided to protect the economy instead of people. Michael Lewis has thrown the curtains wide open on how there’s really no such thing as leadership when it comes to public health in the United States.

I’ve pretty much lost all respect for and trust in the CDC after reading this; it’s explained so much to me about why they’re so desperate to get kids into schools with a virus variant that has an R-naught of TWELVE. I’m completely, utterly disgusted, and I’m grateful to Michael Lewis because this book was the perfect read for right now. I understand what’s going on so, so much better now.

If you can’t figure out why the US has made these decisions (or why your country has looked to the US for leadership and has made similar decisions that have resulted in so much death and suffering), if you need to make sense out of why we’re here at this moment in history and absolutely no one gives a shit about the body count, about the trauma being foisted upon healthcare workers (who are leaving in droves because of it), about why the people in charge are insisting that you get back to work even if you’re still sick, this is the book that will grant you some insight into the dearth of empathy and leadership in the top echelons of the United States. We’re all on our own; there’s no one coming to save us.

If I could’ve given this book ten stars, I would have. It was incredible.

Visit Michael Lewis’s website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheap Goods by Amelia Pang

So much of my reading centers on learning about the world and figuring out ways to do better- to be a kinder person, to learn more about injustices around the world and what part I can play in ending them, to discover ways I can be friendlier to the earth. The global supply chain has been constantly in the news throughout the pandemic, and that’s had me thinking a lot about supply and demand and what exactly it is that we’ve all been demanding so much of. That’s how Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheap Goods by Amelia Pang (Algonquin Books, 2021) ended up on my TBR. I knew very little about how so many products are produced in China before; this book opened my eyes in a major, major way.

Back in 2012, a woman opened a package of Halloween decorations that had been sitting in her shed, unopened, for two years, only to be shocked to find a letter begging for help, detailing the gruesome conditions under which the decorations were produced. The woman hadn’t known too much about China’s forced labor system, sentencing political dissidents and ethnic and religious minorities to long sentences of slavery under hideous conditions, all to fulfill the relentless demands of global corporations, but after reading the letter, she began contacting human rights organizations in order to make them aware of what was in the letter.

Amelia Pang tells the story of Sun Yi, a Falun Gong practitioner imprisoned multiple times for dissent and the injustices he and so many others suffered and continue to suffer under China’s system of forced labor. Inmates are forced to work with little food, little sleep, no adequate medical care (unless they’re being examined as a possible forced organ donor; I wish that were an exaggeration), suffering beatings and torture, working until they drop dead. What China is running is essentially a system of concentration camps, and Amelia Pang has written a scathing exposé on the true cost of our consumerism.

This book is soul-crushing, and if you’re not reading it and thinking of all the absolutely unnecessary junk you’ve bought over the years that were likely manufactured with Chinese prison labor, I question your humanity. My husband owned one of the products specifically mentioned in the book, which completely and utterly horrified me. To be honest, I’m not sure how I’m going to buy much of anything ever again after reading this book- but that’s the whole point. I’m responsible for feeding into this system of demand. You are, took, if you’ve ever bought cheap products manufactured in China. We all are. And this needs to stop.

The problem is that there’s almost no way to tell which products are made using forced labor, a point which Amelia Pang stresses and outlines multiple times throughout the book. Often, because Chinese manufacturers will subcontract their labor out to these prisons, companies aren’t even fully aware of how or where their goods are produced. All they know is that demand is high, so they need to put pressure on their manufacturers to produce more and more at lower and lower prices. And what can be better for lower prices than not having to pay your ‘employees’ and forcing them to work 22 hours per day, beating them if they don’t produce as much as you want them to?

This is a book everyone needs to read. America isn’t the only country that feeds into this filthy system, though we are one of the biggest. I’m devastated to learn exactly how much torture and starvation and pain and death has gone into the products that fill my house, but I’m grateful that my eyes have been opened by this riveting book. I’ve never been that much of a thoughtless consumer, but I’m definitely going to be scrutinizing every single purchase I make from hereon out. No one should suffer or die for cheap goods.

Visit Amelia Pang’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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Book Review: Children Under Fire: An American Crisis by John Woodrow Cox

Boy, what a timely read. If you’re a parent in the US, you likely heard of Friday’s security threat to schools around the country, which stemmed from a TikTok video. While there were no specific schools named, every parent I know of received emails from their school systems reassuring them that schools were taking this seriously, ramping up security, and urging them to talk to their kids about speaking up if they heard anything. What a nightmare. This happened just after I’d finished reading Children Under Fire: An American Crisis by John Woodrow Cox (Ecco, 2021), so you can imagine how I was shaking my head at all of it.

When news articles discuss school shootings in the United States (because where else does this happen with such regularity?), they tend to focus on the casualties (which includes both deaths and those wounded) and the survivors. The survivors are the lucky ones, but having survived doesn’t mean having escaped without harm. John Woodrow Cox has written an excellent book that documents the trauma of two young victims of America’s fascination with guns. Neither were shot, but both were harmed in life-changing ways. Ava’s elementary school in Townville, South Carolina, was attacked a fourteen-year-old shooter; her best friend, six-year-old Jacob, was shot and died three days later. Ava developed C-PTSD and was unable to return to school even two years later. She rarely left the house, was heavily medicated, and had to wear headphones everywhere she went because loud noises took her back to the shooting and Jacob’s death and furthered her trauma. She struck up a pen-pal- and later video chat-based relationship with Tyshaun, a child living in Washington, DC, whose father had died after being shot. His trauma affected everything about his life as well, including his behavior and performance at school. Life for the two children suddenly became nothing they could trust, and the two developed a close bond based on the dual nightmares they suffered.

Interspersed with Ava and Tyshaun’s stories are stories from the teachers and family members affected by the violence (including Ava’s younger brother, who was feeling the brunt of so much of their parents’ attention and resources going to his big sister), statistics and data, and how we got here to a place where we’re entirely dismissive about our regular sacrifice of human lives, including babies, on the altar of the Second Amendment. (And if you don’t think we’re casual about it, let me know everything you remembered about the Townville, SC school shooting in the comments before reading this. This is an issue I care deeply about and follow closely, and it’s just at the point where I can’t even remember or keep straight all the incidents of murder at our country’s schools.)

Mr. Cox’s writing flows like a novel, but the story he writes is one of horror and despair, so while it’s an easy read in terms of style, the picture he paints makes it tough to get through. Many times, I had to pause and look out the window, and take a deep breath because of the information he shared. But truly, this is one of the best books I’ve read this year. What we’re doing to our children even by having them practice lockdowns traumatizes them and keeps them living in a constant state of anxiety that they’re going to die at one of the places they should be safest- the place where they’re mandated to be 180 days out of the year. This is going to have ramifications for generations, and we’re creating a society of traumatized children who will grow into traumatized adults. This isn’t healthy, and John Woodrow Cox proves over and over again how badly American society needs to take a hard look at itself and stop being so disgustingly selfish.

If you’re American, you need to pick up this book when you have the mental space for it, and join the fight to stop allowing our society forcing our kids bear the cost of the Second Amendment. Our future depends on it.

Visit John Woodrow Cox’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

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Book Review: White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color by Ruby Hamad

It’s been another busy week around here, so I haven’t gotten a ton of reading time, but I’m immensely glad I made some time to finish reading White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color by Ruby Hamad (Catapult, 2020). If you are lucky enough to have Black and brown friends who use their time, energy, and voice to share with you their experiences and their knowledge, listen and take to heart what they say. I have several of those women in my life and I’m deeply grateful for their presence and the way they teach in the hopes that things will get better. It was one of those friends who recommended this book (thanks, Jo!); I put it on my list immediately, because no matter how much work I’ve done to free myself from the racist messages I’ve absorbed simply by growing up and living in a culture as racist as ours, the work is never done. We can always do better. And white friends, we have to do better.

Ruby Hamad has written an incredible book about how white feminism leaves women of color behind, how white women continue to marginalize women of color. It’s not just our words and actions; it’s the way we cry, as though we’re the victims, when called out on our behavior. Instead of listening, considering, and realizing that what we said or did was wrong, we break down in tears (and not tears of regret, tears of anger) and lob “How can you SAY that? How can you be so mean?” at the woman or women who had pointed out our harmful behavior. And that’s the problem- unfortunately, we don’t always know our behavior is hurtful (again, living in a racist culture, we absorb messages and behaviors we don’t necessarily think of as racist, but they still are, and they’re still hurtful. It doesn’t matter that our intent wasn’t hurtful if it still harmed someone), and we react with anger, vitriol, and accusations, turning the person who was trying to prevent further harm into the aggressor.

Example by example, using history to back up her narrative, Ruby Hamad illustrates exactly how poorly white women handle matters of race, and the harm it inflicts on women of color. There can be no true sisterhood of women until white women understand the gravity of their harmful attitudes, and it’s up to white women to unlearn these attitudes, to listen and change their ways.

This is an incredibly necessary book. Women of color may benefit from it as well, having their experiences validated and feeling not so alone when they read that other women have gone through these things as well. But if your heritage is primarily from a European background and you check the box marked as ‘Caucasian’ on forms, you need to read this book. Because we HAVE to do better. We HAVE to be better friends, better allies. We need to stop the white woman tears, call out racism and bad behavior when we see it (even if that upsets other people- sorry, but it’s the right thing to do. The right thing isn’t always the easy thing, and really, if someone is hurting people and refuses to recognize that, you need to reexamine how much you want someone like that in your life). Tell your racist uncle to shove it at Thanksgiving dinner; cut off your best friend mid-sentence; and more than anything, when a Black or brown friend tells you something you said hurt her, SHUT UP AND LISTEN, AND THEN DO BETTER.

The future of our world depends on this.

While I don’t *think* I’ve white woman tear’ed (as the book refers to it) anyone, I am aware of several times in my life I didn’t speak up when family and friends, both in person and on social media, were saying racist things. Three specific incidents came to mind as I was reading this book, incidents that I didn’t think of at the time but that I now recognize I should have stepped in and said something. I’m saying this here because I’m guilty as well; so often as women, we’re taught that we need to keep the peace, we need to not rock the boat. But there are already people rocking the boat so hard that Black and brown women are being thrown overboard with reckless abandon. Perhaps by speaking up when we see other white women engaging in racist behavior and white woman tears, we’ll not be so much as rocking the boat but steadying it, making it a safer place for everyone.

This is one book I’m begging everyone to read. Read it, learn it, live it. Recognize your own shortcomings and racist attitudes. Be honest with yourself about when and how you’ve been wrong. Listen to your Black and brown friends, take their words to heart, and be the kind of friend and feminist they need you to be. Because we may all be in this together, but the stakes are a lot higher if your skin isn’t white, and for too long, white women have been okay with grasping for even miniscule scraps of power while throwing darker-skinned women under the bus in order to do so. No more.

Follow Ruby Hamad on Instagram.

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Book Review: The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live by Danielle Dreilinger

Home economics. Many of us had some form of this in our middle or high school education; the more modern name for it is Family & Consumer Sciences. Budgeting, cooking, sewing, child care, and basic home repair are all skills that young adults need to know before heading off into adult life, but how did this come to be part of the school curriculum, and where has it gone these days, and why? Back in the day, the science of home economics was women’s foot in the door to a career, and in The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live by Danielle Dreilinger (WW Norton Company, 2021), you’ll learn about how much more home economics has given not just the US but the world.

So often throughout history, women have been shut out- from decisions about their own lives, from government, from school, from the workplace. With the advent of the field of home economics, women finally had a in to not just a career, but the STEM fields. Suddenly, women were earning not just Bachelor’s degrees, but Master’s degrees and sometimes PhDs and working for gas companies, as nutritionists, in high-level teaching and administrative positions (although this last one didn’t happen nearly enough). And not just white women, either; home economics opened the door to education and careers for Black and Latina women as well.

Danielle Dreilinger recounts the full history of home economics in the US, from how it allowed women a place in the world, to how hypocrisy set in and working women began to tell younger girls that their place was in the home. She covers the many innovations and favorites credited to home economists: green bean casserole and sweet potato pie, clothing care labels, school lunch, Rice Krispie treats, the federal poverty level, and so much more. Home economics has always been more than high school sewing classes and cooking classes; it was a step up for women to embark in studying chemistry and engineering and holding positions of power. It’s never quite gotten the respect it deserves, but this book finally shines a spotlight that both showers the field with praise and spotlights its occasionally egregious missteps.

This is a dense, information-packed book that took me an entire week to read (granted, I had more than usual going on, so less time to read in general, but I still needed a lot of time to process everything in here). This isn’t a lighthearted glance at women in aprons, pearls, and heels doing the dusting; this is a history-heavy text that examines a field that, for the first time, really allowed women to access higher education- not always without a fight or a struggle, or without some sneering from men (who nevertheless enjoyed the fruits of home economics *eyeroll*), but it allowed women to more fully participate in the world and earn money for work they found fulfilling. That’s pretty huge.

Ms. Dreilinger makes an excellent case for home economics remaining a part of the school curriculum. In theory, I absolutely agree with her. These are skills everyone of every gender needs to learn for a happy, productive adult life, and she rightly points out that in today’s ridiculous world, parents are already tasked with doing and being everything; it’s impossible for some families, especially low-income families whose parents work multiple jobs, to find the time to teach your kids to cook, etc. I’m just not sure where to cram it in to the school curriculum either. We already demand so much from our schools and they’re not always able to fulfill those demands (often for very good reasons; it’s hard to teach kids who come to school suffering from various forms of trauma like hunger, poverty, abuse, grief, etc) even with the best of resources- which, as we all know, most schools don’t even have.

This is a book that will take you on a journey through women’s history and make you look at the field of home economics in a completely new way, and will leave you wondering where it will go in the future. Awesome read.

Visit Danielle Dreilinger’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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Book Review: Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America by Eyal Press

There’s a lot in the news right now about work: supply chain issues, fights over minimum wage, unions, strikes, and of course, the worker shortage. None of these are truly new issues, but the pandemic has exacerbated them all. And to get at the heart of these issues, you need to understand work culture in the US on a deeper level. It’s not all briefcases and meetings; sometimes, work means doing jobs that are looked down upon, but are deeply necessarily for society’s survival. I added Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America by Eyal Press (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021) to my TBR as soon as I learned about it, but a segment about the book on NPR a a few days later really had me looking forward to reading it. And I wasn’t disappointed, though this is by no means an easy or comfortable read.

Think of a job you would never want to do. A scary job, a dangerous job, maybe one that turns your stomach. How much would you have to be paid in order to perform that job? How much do you think the people who perform it are paid, and do you think they’re afforded the respect they deserve? What do you think it costs them on a personal level to work that job? Eyal Press takes a look at some of the jobs and industries that are lowest on the proverbial totem pole in America- some that might immediately come to mind, such as prison guard and slaughterhouse workers- and some that probably didn’t, like the members of the military responsible for drone strikes, and oil rig workers. These jobs are highly underpaid, often leave deep scars on the psyche of those are employed in these industries, and aren’t often discussed in polite society, because we’d rather forget that such dirty work is performed in our name, and that we benefit from so much suffering.

Eyal Press interviews workers in each other these industries, human beings who suffer because of the jobs they often had little choice but to take (this is one of the many examples of inequality in the book; these industries are often located in rural, poverty-stricken areas where survival comes before morals, which ends up costing us all). The suffering is immense, and we all bear guilt for it; it’s just that so many of us choose to ignore it. Dirty Work will have you reexamining your views on class, work, and inequality in America.

This was an extremely emotionally difficult read. It broke my heart multiple times to read about how easily our society dismisses suffering and how ready we are to use people until they’re broken and then throw them away entirely, without a second thought to what they need or how to ease their pain. Disabled from work that we benefit from? Too bad for you, go somewhere I can’t see you and don’t have to think about it anymore, is the general attitude. Mentally unwell because of the killing you did in America’s name in the military? Stop talking about it; our thanks for your service should be all the balm you need. America’s attitude of ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’ is on full display in this book, because America just doesn’t do anything for the Americans who are harmed by it.

It took me almost a week to get through this book, because I kept having to stop reading in order to take a mental break. The problem, Eyal Press reminds us, is systemic, and individual acts aren’t going to make much difference at all. It’s going to take the actions of the majority of us, loud, constant voices screaming that this isn’t right and demanding change, for conditions to better. I don’t know that we have it in us, to be honest; far too many of us are happily willing to accept that others suffer and sometimes die so we can have things like cheap meat. I don’t think we’re all that good at deep self-examination and reflection as a society, as this pandemic has emphasized.

This is an impressive, hard-hitting book that should shock a reader into deep contemplation, and will hopefully help you rethink what you may have learned before about the kind of work that you may not like to think about, but that you definitely benefit from, or that is done in your name. It’s a tough, tough read, but it’s a necessary one, and I hope it sparks a national conversation about the suffering we’re willing to tolerate, and why.

Visit Eyal Press’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

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Book Review: How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France

I was born in 1980; for people born in my generation, there’s never been a time where AIDS hasn’t existed. I remember first learning about the deadly virus in fifth grade, when my class watched a video featuring Magic Johnson, and my teacher (who was one of the best teachers I ever had) led a class discussion afterwards. In my life, AIDS has gone from an absolute death sentence to a chronic health condition that can be managed with one pill a day (for some folks). The implications of that are enormous. One of the books I recommend most is And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts; it was because I love that book so much that I wanted to read a more recently-written story about the people behind the long, painful journey to an effective treatment for AIDS. I knew as soon as I heard about How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France (Knopf, 2013), I had to read it. At over 500 pages of narrative, it’s a dense, hefty read, but it’s well worth your time.

David France has chronicled the emotional odyssey of the late seventies through the mid-nineties for the New York gay community, from the first few deaths that rang alarm bells and alerted people that some terrible new illness was going around, to the final triumphant moments when an effective treatment was finally on the horizon. The path to that triumph is littered with dead bodies, pain, horrific suffering (both physical and emotional), ruined lives, and grief; it was also lined with friendship, camaraderie, infighting, broken friendships, and young adults coming into their own amidst terrible tragedy.

The government ignored them (“It only affects gay people, so just let it take them out”). Their families abandoned them. Their health providers often turned them away. Hospitals refused AIDS patients treatment. Funeral homes refused to care for their wasted bodies. Scientists didn’t see their suffering as a priority. But the gay community refused to face death sitting down; their voices rose to a fever pitch and remained there, even throughout their grief and suffering, until finally, finally, after so much loss and death, the people who could help began to listen. It would take over 100,000 American deaths for an effective treatment to finally arrive.

This is a moving, tragic, infuriating, and beautifully written narrative of a time in history that should never, ever have happened. It’s horrifying how easily the United States is willing to throw its own citizens away (and this happens in so, so many aspects); it was more than willing to write off the endless suffering of the gay community, telling them they had brought this on themselves and it was God’s punishment (in Judaism, there’s a term for this kind of behavior, which translates to ‘desecration of the name of God;’ I think it fits in this instance. Using God to justify someone else’s suffering, while you stand idly by and mock them? Yeah. It fits).

Author David France pops into the story now and then, as he was in the midst of it all, attending meetings and protests, caring for sick friends and lovers, and grieving many, many losses (people losing hundreds of friends wasn’t uncommon). This adds a personal touch to the story which gives it emotional depth; it’s not all protests, emotionally charged meetings, and observations from afar. This is a story observed up close; it’s personal to him, and he makes sure the reader knows it.

How to Survive a Plague is a heavy, emotional read, but it’s well worth your time.

Visit David France’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

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Book Review: Broke in America: Seeing, Understanding, and Ending U.S. Poverty by Joanne Samuel Goldblum and Colleen Shaddox

Poverty is a special kind of hell, and it takes a special kind of miracle to unearth oneself from its depths. The myth of working hard in order to better one’s station in life is some Horatio Alger-type nonsense; how can you work hard enough when the rent alone is over half of your take-home pay? How is it possible to get ahead when you’re barely keeping up and a blown tire or a minor medical emergency is all it takes to put you behind yet again? Salaries haven’t kept up with increases in cost of living, and if you don’t understand poverty well or have never picked up a book on the subject, Broke in America: Seeing, Understanding, and Ending U.S. Poverty by Joanne Samuel Goldblum and Colleen Shaddox (BenBella Books, 2021) is an excellent place to start.

In this well-researched and aptly argued primer on poverty in the United States, authors Goldblum and Shaddox lay out the case for exactly how dire the situation is- bad for some, worse for others (and notably worse for nonwhites in every case). The system is stacked against people to move up out of poverty; those who come from money are likely stay there, and those who don’t aren’t statistically likely to get ahead. Those who do manage to claw their way out end up nowhere near those who are born into money in terms of assets. It’s a terrible, vicious cycle, one that is unmistakable throughout every chapter of this book, with example after depressing example and even more disheartening statistics.

But poverty is a choice, the authors argue- not a choice made by the people living it, but a choice we as a society are making. We choose to allow this; we choose to maintain a system set up to sentence people to intense suffering and hideous living conditions. We don’t have to live like this, and myriad suggestions point out how easily (and not so easily) things could change. If you’re looking to make a difference in the landscape of American poverty, Broke In America should be on your reading list.

This is an intense book, one that will definitely open your eyes if you’re unaware of what life is like for people who live at or under the poverty line (currently defined as $26,200 for a family of four). Children going hungry and sitting in full diapers because parents can’t afford more. Women using toilet paper and old rags because they can’t afford menstrual products, and missing work and school because of it. Medical conditions that go untreated due to lack of insurance or money to pay a doctor. Families living in unheated homes and apartments in brutally cold winter temperatures, and children going without winter coats in the snow.

Charities aren’t enough; societal problems take societal solutions (you can’t personal responsibility your way out of a societal problem, as Twitter is fond of pointing out), and there are plenty, but Goldblum and Shaddox make the reader aware that it’s going to take a lot of action, and a lot of long-term action. We’ve let society become this kind of mess over a long period of time, and it’s going to take an immense amount of effort and political will that I’m not sure we have to solve this. The American myth of people deserving the situation they’re in is deeply baked-in here, and I don’t have the slightest idea how to disavow people of that, when not only is it something so many have believed all their lives, but the kind of people who believe that are most often not the kind who would pick up a book like this. They’re more interested in policing people already suffering (as evidenced by the woman I saw on social media the other day, complaining about how she always *insert eyeroll* saw people on food stamps buying shopping carts full of steak and lobster. I told her that was pretty nosy of her to not only monitor what other people were buying but to get close enough to check what kind of card they were paying with, and did she not have any more productive hobbies? Reader, she did not respond).

Broke in America is a sobering look at the way far too many of our fellow citizens live, and it’ll make you consider what you can do to make a difference. I already have some ideas.

Follow Joanne Samuel Goldblum on Twitter.

Visit Colleen Shaddox’s website here.

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Book Review: Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy by Talia Lavin

I wanted to read Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy by Talia Lavin (Legacy Lit, 2020) from the moment I first heard about it. Homegrown terrorism, nationalism, and white supremacy has been a huge and growing problem in recent years, as witnessed by constant news reports of attacks, bomb threats, shootings, mass shootings, synagogue and mosque threats and attacks, and plots against various political organizations. It’s been terrible watching all of this, and I knew I needed to learn more about who these people are.

Talia Lavin is an outspoken feminist Jewish journalist. All that would have made her a target online as it is, but she began investigating the far right and its online activities, and that made her even more of a target (to the point where she’s had to hire security to protect her family, because these people are so disgusting). Her investigations led her to visit some incredibly dark places on the web, where alt-right reading materials are passed around, groups develop new slurs for the people they hate (if you’re not straight, white, Christian, male, and deeply conservative in your political beliefs, they hate you and would rather see you dead), and plots to murder are planned out. These aren’t just people living in tin-can shacks far out in the woods. These are your neighbors, the people you pass by in the city every day. Biotech employees, working professionals, educated people. People who appear to be normal, but who are hellbent on the destruction of everyone not like them.

This disturbing exposé is tempered by Ms. Lavin’s self-deprecating humor and bolstered by her strong writing skills and quick-witted intellect. Oftentimes, I reread a particularly well-crafted sentence twice, just to admire it. But the content is difficult to consume; she’s reporting on the true dregs of society here, dregs that span the globe and show up in multiple countries and on multiple continents. The hatred of the people she writes about runs deep: Muslims and Jews feature heavily (being Jewish herself, Ms. Lavin brings personal history and expertise to the narrative), but women are also a major target, especially when she delves into the incel movement (short for involuntary celibate, this is an internet movement of men that has turned their inability to develop a decent and attractive personality into a rage-filled hatefest of women, because of course they’re owed women’s time and attention simply because they exist. *eyeroll* Men affiliated with this movement have engaged in assault, murder, and mass shootings).

Culture Warlords is an emotionally taxing book to read, but it’s an important one. If you’ve never heard of any of the content Ms. Lavin covers here, you’ve likely been in a coma for a very long time, or you’re not one of the groups targeted by the people she infiltrated (and in that case, you very much need to read this book and understand what life is like when you become a target). White supremacist groups are a major problem; I truly hope that this book shines some light on the danger they present and help us as a society take the necessary steps to stamp out such disgusting hatred.

Jewish Women’s Archive hosted a great talk with Talia Lavin about this book in February of 2020; you can view that video here. It’s worth the watch.

Follow Talia Lavin on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation by Eboo Patel

One good book leads to another.

If that’s not already something people say, it should be! I was fortunate enough to attend a virtual presentation by Wes Moore, author of The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates (amazing book; highly recommended), and at the end of that presentation, the woman who heads the program hosting him reminded us of another author event happening in the spring: our local parent education program will be hosting Eboo Patel, author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Beacon Press, 2007). I already had this event in my calendar- it’s not until the spring- but I was reminded that I needed to read the book, so I immediately put it on hold via interlibrary loan. It didn’t take too long to arrive at my local library branch.

Eboo Patel is an American of Indian heritage and an Ismaili Muslim. He grew up the next town over from me (making his upcoming visit extra exciting!) and graduated from the same high school system (though not the same school) that my son did. A slacker at first, his competitive nature came out during middle school and he began to take full advantage of his intellect. His diverse friend group, however, was a little harder to manage when it came to heavier issues such as religion, something he didn’t quite realize until he was older. College came close to radicalizing him, until he veered in a completely different direction, winding up a Rhodes scholar focusing on the sociology of religion.

Dr. Patel realized how often, in discussions of diversity, religion is left out of the conversation. He wasn’t serious about more formal religious practice until later on in life, but being Muslim was nevertheless an important part of his identity, and the way he connected to his faith was through service. Realizing that putting faith into action often highlighted the values all religions share, he set off down a path that eventually led him to form the Interfaith Youth Core, a service organization that brings together young people of all faiths to participate in service projects and connect via their shared values (and to learn about and from each other!). In example after example, he illustrates the tragedy of religious extremism and how the extremists don’t neglect the young people, but pull them in early and radicalize them in order to have them carry out the groups’ nefarious deeds. Why shouldn’t the good guys pull their youth in early as well and fill their hearts with the pressing need to not only serve their fellow humans, but to connect with each other and recognize that we’ve all got so much more in common than what separates us?

What a fascinating man. Dr. Patel seemed to grow up in such a normal way, slacking off in school to the point where a middle school science teacher was irritated to find he had him in class (a turning point for young Eboo, who realized he didn’t want to be *that* student). His college years were really interesting to read about, where he fell in with a group of friends who were just this side of radical. He could very well have veered off the path here, but other influences pulled him back in, and he seemed almost shocked to find himself at Oxford, where he finally discovered his passion and set about building an organization that would lead him to serve on President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships, as well as change countless lives.

Dr. Patel brings up so many good points in this book: so many faith communities tend to ignore their young people (and then are shocked, shocked! when those same young people don’t stick around as adults. There are some who do a great job at keeping their youth involved, though- the LDS Church is fantastic at this!). The extremists know that young people are the ones with the energy, who will turn their religious feelings into action, and Dr. Patel questions why we aren’t using their energy and enthusiasm for good. Why not put their desire to change the world into action, all the while forging stronger connections with each other and learning how to navigate and appreciate their differences? As Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her amazing book Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, understanding and appreciating other religions can very much lead to a deepening of our own faith practices, and a deeper understanding of the world. Why not teach our kids early on about how beautiful and beneficial this can be?

What an inspirational, hardworking man Dr. Patel is. I’m very much looking forward to hearing his talk this spring. He’s given me a lot of things to think about.

Learn more about Eboo Patel at the Interfaith Youth Core website.

Follow him on Twitter here.