nonfiction

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.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control by Steve Hassan

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you know I’m fascinated by cults. Not just the cults themselves, though; I’m also fascinated by the mindset that it takes to join and stay in a cult: the beliefs and ties to reality that followers must suspend, the excuses they need to make, and the misbehavior that must be dismissed in order to continue to defend and remain within the group. What makes all that happen? What kind of perfect storm has to take place in order for a single person to convince themselves that this group above all others has it right, despite glaring evidence to the contrary? In the past few years, we’ve been able to watch- and still watch- this play out on a massive scale in real time, and when I learned about The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control by Steve Hassan (Free Press, 2019), I was interested. I’d heard interviews with Steve Hassan before on the topic of cults, and I had long before made the connection between the many, many cults I’ve read about and the behavior of Donald Trump’s most ardent followers. Onto my list it went.

Steve Hassan had once been a member of the Moonies, the colloquial name for members of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. His family recognized early on that he had been pressured into a cult; it took him several years to leave (with the help of his family, who were not members; it’s obviously much, much harder for people raised in these movements to extract themselves), and he went on to become a mental health expert who specializes in treating people who leave high-control groups. He’s well aware now of the tactics that the Moonies and other groups use in order to pressure people to join and stay in their movements, and he recognized early on that Donald Trump and his entourage have engaged in all of the same tactics in order to build their own movement.

Step by step, Steve Hassan breaks down how Donald Trump engages in the same mind control techniques that cults use, using specific examples not just from Trump and his entourage, but showing how those same techniques played out in other high-control groups (such as NXIVM, Jonestown, Waco, etc). (And this isn’t mind control like in cartoons, where people’s eyes spin around; these are psychological tactics designed to manipulate how a person thinks, to break ties with a person’s prior life and beliefs and instill new, mostly fear-based beliefs that encourage the potential convert to join the group, because the group or the group’s leader alone can fix this. Sound familiar?). The parallels are disturbing.

I enjoyed a lot of the content here. Seeing the tactics used by various cults and the Trump campaign broken down step-by-step is definitely eerie, especially seeing it all in one place. Mr. Hassan isn’t the only one to notice this; the podcast Behind the Bastards has noted this in multiple episodes, and if you’ve ever listened to the podcast Cults on Parcast, you’ll recognize the same patterns of behavior and control over and over again, used throughout all the various groups. There’s no doubt that the Trump campaign used and continues to use these unfortunately effective tactics. They work, yes, but they work by manipulation and fear. If you can’t convince people of your message without manipulation and fear, your message isn’t worth propagating.

The book did get a little dry for me at times, and there were several instances where the text veered into speculation. “Many people believe…” “Some people think…” I didn’t care for that and felt that it weakened his argument. In a book that is making such big claims (claims which I think are unfortunately accurate), I want every claim to be backed up with hard evidence. There’s no room for conjecture when you’re penning nonfiction about a presidential administration that engaged in devastating acts, and God knows there’s enough hard material to base these claims on. The speculation turned me off quite a bit, and I felt that it lessened the effectiveness of the rest of the book. It also strayed into straight-up political discussion more than I expected; I was looking for more of hard look at the Trump administration’s cult-like tactics in engaging its followers and keeping them coming back for more despite this often not being in their best interests (something we’re still seeing today throughout this pandemic, though there are definitely signs that the monster he created is beyond his control, what with his encouraging his rallygoers to get vaccinated, only to have them boo him). While it did contain some of that, it wasn’t as much as I had expected when I put this book on my list.

It’s definitely an interesting perspective, but not as in-depth of an examination as I had hoped for.

Visit Steve Hassan’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

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: 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: We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria by Wendy Pearlman

I struggle to understand a lot of things sometimes, especially the tough parts of the world. Some things are just so terrible that I find them difficult to grasp, and I have to read multiple books about those subjects in order to feel like I’m making any headway at fully getting it. The situation in Syria the past twenty years or so is definitely on that list, and I’m not sure I’ll ever fully comprehend, but I keep trying. It just so happened that after reading Other Words for Home, which dealt with a young girl immigrating from Syria, one of the next ebooks available from my library was We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria by Wendy Pearlman (Custom House, 2017). It’s the kind of book I wish everyone would read, especially those people who don’t want Syrian immigrants coming to their countries, and who boast about how THEY would stay and fight if their country went the way that Syria did. Those people have no clue, no idea what Syrians have gone through, and I wish they would educate themselves.

Arranged in a style reminiscent of the interview-style books of Svetlana Alexievich, We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled tells the story of a country and the people who loved and left it when a devastating crisis tore it apart. Each section recounts the history of the crisis through its citizens, the ones who hoped and dreamed of living in a country where their voices could be heard and they could live in freedom, the ones who worked for it and fought for it, and the ones for whom the country gradually turned into a living hell.

Starvation. Rape. Beheadings. Explosions. Gunshots. Imprisonment in the most deplorable conditions imaginable. Torture. Constant fear. All this and more are what the citizens of Syria lived with every day before many of them fled the country for a chance to live in safety. Some of the testimonials are lengthy (though not more than a few pages); others are just a few words, but each eloquently describes nightmarish situations that will break the heart of even the most jaded reader.

The style makes this an easily readable book; the content makes it difficult. Ms. Pearlman makes it easy, however, to place yourself in the shoes of the Syrians interviewed, however, and I learned a lot that I hadn’t known before about just how terrible the situation was before so many people made the difficult decision to leave their country (difficult in that it’s always hard to leave your home, and the conditions they traveled in were bleak and often deadly; leaving was likely the best decision out of a handful of terrible options). The prisons weren’t something I’d known about before; the conditions in them were shocking to read about, as were the accounts of torture (if you’ve ever read anything about Iraqi prisons, it’s similar). When people fighting for a better life in Syria were captured by the government, the soldiers would go through their phones and begin rounding up all their contacts. And that’s just the beginning of the reign of terror that so many Syrians needed to flee.

I’m glad I read this, though it’s a heartbreaking book, and it’s one I’m going to be recommending every single time I see people crowing about how people fleeing desperate situations should just stay and fight. That’s something that’s extremely easy to say from the comfort of your own home in a stable country, and when you have a better understanding what people are fleeing, statements like that sound even more appallingly callous. If you don’t have a great understanding of what caused so many Syrians to leave home, We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria should be on your list.

Visit Wendy Pearlman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Antisemitism: Here and Now by Deborah E. Lipstadt

I believe I learned about Antisemitism: Here and Now by Deborah E. Lipstadt (Schocken Books Inc, 2019) while combing through the library’s digital card catalog for Jewish-related books at one point (remember actual, physical card catalogs? I miss those things. In what may be my nerdiest story yet, I actually have a scar on my left hand from when I was 12 and the H drawer of the card catalog fell out of its place and the metal parts of the underside of the drawer sliced my finger). It’s a topic I’ve encountered before plenty of times in my reading, but this was a recent publication, and I knew I needed to read it. I’m so glad I did.

Antisemitism is a lot like racism, in that it’s everywhere. It goes far deeper than Nazis and concentration camps, and there are a lot of ways to be antisemitic (if you’re unsure of exactly what that means or can’t think of more than one or two, this is likely something you should read). Structuring her book as a conversation over email with a student and a colleague, Deborah Lipstadt, a professor and historian, discusses antisemitism: what it is, what it looks like in its many forms, how to respond to it as a Jew and a Gentile, how to process feelings about it. She clarifies a lot of information on the topic, including a discussion on people who may not necessarily be antisemitic themselves but who enable those who are (a massive problem these days, unfortunately, and again, if you can’t think of any examples of this, you’re the target audience for this book, because it’ll open your eyes). The section of Jeremy Corbyn and the antisemitism of the Labour Party disturbed me deeply- I knew things weren’t great, but reading all the examples Ms. Lipstadt laid out helped me to understand how big the problem is there. I don’t know too much about British politics, so I really found this helpful in understanding what has been happening there.

This is not and should not be a comfortable read. Go into this prepared to learn, to recognize antisemitic statements and actions in yourself, in your friends and family, in your favorite politicians (yes, on both sides, and she doesn’t shy away from that unfortunate truth. Both sides absolutely do have an antisemitism problem), in the media you consume, and be prepared to be honest with yourself and change your ways, or call out antisemitism in those around you (they won’t like that. Big deal; do it anyway). Creating a better, safer world is everyone’s responsibility, yours included, and books like this are an important resource in doing just that.

I will say that while this is a deeply serious subject and one that isn’t necessarily pleasant to read about, the tone of this book is kept as light as possible, making it, while not the easiest of reads, a deeply engaging one. I flew through this book, always looking forward to the next chapter and appreciating the education on every page. It’s a book I wish I could get everyone I know to read; it’s that important. If you know and love Jewish people (or even just know, to be honest- and if you’re reading this, you know me! Hi!), if you were horrified by the tiki torch-waving alt-right marching through Charlottesville while screaming antisemitic garbage a few years ago, if you’ve read stories about the uptick in antisemitic events (including the stabbing of a rabbi in Boston last week), and especially if you fit into none of these categories- this is the education you need to be a good friend, a good citizen, and a good ally.

Visit Deborah E. Lipstadt’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

graphic memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden

If you’ve been following the news lately, you’ve likely heard a lot about Israel and the fighting that’s been going on. And odds are, you have an opinion on it, whatever that is. I’m not going to get into the many sides there are to this millennia-long story, but there are a lot of them. Israel and its history and politics are complex, and I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand it, but I can keep trying, and that’s how the graphic memoir How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden (Vertigo, 2010) wound up on my TBR.

This graphic memoir chronicles Ms. Glidden’s Birthright Israel trip. (Jews under a certain age- I’m too old!- qualify for a free group trip to Israel, via this donor-funded group. I have a younger friend who just had his Birthright interview.) Ms. Glidden goes into the trip deeply conflicted about her feelings on Israel and its struggle with the Palestinians over territory. Isn’t how Israel treats the Palestinians wrong? Is this trip just going to brainwash her and be full of propaganda getting her to take Israel’s side without further introspection? She’s skeptical from the very start.

But traveling throughout the country and hearing multiple perspectives makes her realize the trip is a little more balanced than she had expected, and that the situation is indeed complicated, possibly even more than she had originally thought. And while she doesn’t come away from the trip with any concrete answers, it’s given her a lot to think about.

I really enjoyed this. The artwork is lovely, and I enjoyed the literary field trip the book took me on. I did learn a lot about the country and what a Birthright trip looks like, which was pretty awesome (because I’ve heard a lot about them, but nothing as in-depth as this). There’s a lot of history in here, and a lot of different perspectives on many of the issues that still divide opinions on Israel today. You’ll come away with a slightly more nuanced understanding of how complex the topic really is.

What you won’t come away with is answers. Ms. Glidden doesn’t preach or offer up set opinions on what you should think or feel; what she does offer, however, is confirmation that Israel’s problems are exactly as confusing as you think, and maybe there are no good solutions, but that there are definitely people working to better things and to create a more peaceful life for everyone who lives there. At one point, she attends a presentation put on by both Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost children to the conflict; while this book was published in 2010, this organization is still working for peace, as I heard an interview with several parents from the group on NPR a few days ago. I’m glad they’re still out there; I’m sorry that they still have to be.

This graphic memoir is a lovely take on something that confuses the majority of us, and for which there truly may be no perfect solution that will work well for everyone. But it does encourage you to keep thinking about it, and that’s something I really appreciate.

Visit Sarah Glidden’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era

I didn’t know that this would end up being such a timely read.

Civil rights are a cause that’s near and dear to my heart. Everyone deserves the full rights of citizenship in the country of their birth or the country they’ve adopted as their own, and the fact that America still hasn’t managed to get it together in this aspect and is actively trying to move backwards is a filthy stain on our collective soul. But there are people out there fighting to right these wrongs (Stacey Abrams, you are an absolute jewel!), and some of them write books about their experiences. When I heard about Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era by Jerry Mitchell (Simon & Schuster, 2020), I knew I had to read it. Bless my library for having a copy on their shelves.

During the 1960s, white supremacists decided that their right to feel special was more important than anyone’s civil rights or right to live, so instead of getting some therapy and examining why they felt that way, they decided that murder was the answer. Members of the Ku Klux Klan plotted, planned, and carried out the murders of white and black civil rights workers, along with everyday people- including children- who were just living their lives. And far, far too often, the perpetrators and the planners of these murders walked free, even when they bragged about what they’d done to everyone with functioning eardrums. Even when some of them were Christian clergy. Think about that.

Jerry Mitchell, an investigative journalist working for Mississippi’s Clarion-Ledger, knew that there were plenty of wrongs that needed to be righted, so he set about unlocking the clues to the past. Interviewing family members of the victims, former and current KKK members, and anyone who had anything to do with these cases where justice wasn’t served, he began to help the state piece together legal cases against the alleged killers. It wasn’t easy; so many witnesses had already died, more were suffering from diseases of old age, and the ones who were still full of life made Mr. Mitchell acutely aware that his life was as expendable as those of their earlier victims. But with his well-honed journalist skills and a deep-seated sense of justice and integrity, with well-timed articles that brought crucial and long-buried information to light, Jerry Mitchell aided in the prosecution of some of the dirtiest murderers of the Civil Rights era.

This is really an incredible book. Mr. Mitchell’s dedication is deeply admirable, and his bravery is oftentimes both commendable and shocking. I can’t ever imagine a situation in which I would feel even remotely safe traveling to and going inside Byron de la Beckwith’s house (he was the man who murdered Medgar Evers), but Mr. Mitchell did. He repeatedly made contact with various people whose pasts were infuriating and frightening, who said disgusting things in his presence. Some of them had since reformed and expressed regret over their actions. Many had not, and yet Jerry Mitchell still persevered in order to get the information necessary to pen the articles that would change everything.

He’s quick to point out that he failed more times than he won, that there are still plenty of cold cases where justice was not served and where the families of the victims never received any kind of closure. But the cases he was instrumental in helping bring to court- the murder of Medgar Evers, the murder of the three civil rights workers portrayed in the movie Mississippi Burning, the murder of the four little girls in the 16th Street church bombing, and the murder of civil rights worker Vernon Dahmer- were high-profile, and while individual cases don’t make up for the lack of justice overall, the conviction of these killers is deeply satisfying. Mr. Mitchell tells the story of his work in these cases in a fast-paced read that will keep you racing through the pages in order to learn the final verdicts of each case and how they were reached.

An excellent book, and so timely for today. May we all be Jerry Mitchells in our pursuit of justice, every single day.

Visit Jerry Mitchell’s organization, the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting here.

Follow him on Twitter here.