fiction · YA

Let’s Call It a Doomsday- Katie Henry

I’ve loved Katie Henry ever since I read Heretics Anonymous last year, so I was super excited to read Let’s Call It a Doomsday (Katherine Tegen Books, 2019)- as soon as I learned of its existence, it went straight onto my TBR, despite the fact that its pub date was months in the future. I’ve been looking for it at the library for ages, but it had always been checked out (which is good! I never mind waiting; I’m happy that other people are enjoying the books I too want to read, and I always have a list of books I want to read that unfurls, rolls out the door, and heads for the Pacific Ocean, so, you know. No hurry). But this time, BINGO. It was in, and into my stack it went.

Ellis Kimball is obsessed with the end of the world. Nuclear disaster, earthquake, massive snowstorm, fires that wipe everything out, plague, she knows them all and she’s prepared for each scenario, keeping go-bags stashed at home, in her backpack, and in her locker. But her obsession is affecting every part of her life, including her family, and it’s after a session with her new therapist that Ellis meets the mysterious Hannah, who claims to have been having visions of the end of the world- visions that involve Ellis.

Buoyed by her acceptance into Hannah’s friend group, Ellis helps Hannah search for a young man she refers to as Prophet Dan, all the while preparing for the massive snowstorm that Hannah claims will bring the end of the world as we know it. But things get a little more complicated when Prophet Dan’s identity is revealed, and Ellis’s need to inform the world of its impending doom becomes urgent. Desperate times call for desperate measures, but faith, new friends, and the family who has been there for her all along might just be the answer to avoiding certain doom.

There’s so much to love about this book. Katie Henry obviously knows well what it’s like to live with anxiety (if not personally, than through excellent research and a deep sense of empathy), because there were quite a few times I was reading along and stopped to chuckle because Ellis sounded so much like what my brain does when I don’t stomp it back down. Her fears aren’t necessarily mine, but the thought processes are so similar, along with the constant negative self-talk, that I understood her well- though there are times when she and her mother, who is frustrated by a daughter she doesn’t understand and doesn’t know how to help, get into it, and Ellis eventually handles it in a more understanding and mature way than I would have. If your anxiety does center around disaster scenarios or the end of the world, however, Let’s Call It a Doomsday might either help or set off your anxiety, so please be careful.

I loved that Ellis’s faith and religious life- she and her family are active members of the LDS church- is woven into every aspect of the story. Family Home Evening is discussed multiple times, her family’s lax (so she feels) attitude towards food storage plays into her fears, multiple scenes are set before, during, and after church services, and how her religion may add to and help her anxiety is a huge theme throughout the novel. It’s not too often that you read stories where a character’s religion just is, without the novel having any ulterior motive, so I really appreciated this look at a religious teenager doing her best to live out her faith because of and in spite of her mental health challenges.

Hannah’s friends are great people; they’re smart, helpful, kind guys who protect the members of their group well, and this is demonstrated in multiple scenes, starting off when Ellis is warned in the beginning about Hannah having been through a hard time recently, and later on when Ellis overhears one of the boys trying to get Hannah to back off of something she and Ellis are doing that’s affecting Ellis negatively. The scenes with the guys were some of my favorites simply for eliciting such warm fuzzy feelings of friendship and trust. Tal, especially (who made me realized that the singer Tal Bachman’s first name is actually Talmadge, which I’d never considered before!), elicits a lot of warm fuzzies. The book is worth the read alone because he’s such a great character. That said…

I didn’t care for Hannah at all. I figured out her schtick almost immediately, and while I felt for her, she seemed too manipulative and sneaky to care as much about her as I did everyone else. To me, it felt like she was using Ellis and taking advantage of her anxiety to further serve her own needs, and that left a terrible taste in my mouth. Had I been in charge of the story, I would have changed how their friendship stood at the end, but I also understand why Ms. Henry let it play out as it did, and that didn’t change my enjoyment of the book itself.

Let’s Call It a Doomsday is a great read, to be read with some caution if you struggle with anxiety, but overall, to be enjoyed for the story of growth and self-acceptance that it is. Since it was published in August, it fits the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge prompt for a book published during your birthday month, so I can check another one off that list!

Visit Katie Henry’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

As A Driven Leaf- Milton Steinberg

I’ve been aware of this book for years. I think I even picked it up and paged through it when we lived in Nashville (the main library there is seriously awesome; if you’re ever in the area, stop in and take a walk around. The collection is pretty good- some slightly dated material, but still pretty phenomenal, and the building is gorgeous. There’s even a large outside courtyard with a huge fountain, a large stage for performances and talks, and a children’s puppet theater. It’s been almost six years since I was last there, so who knows what other updates have been made since then!), but for whatever reason, I chose not to read it at the time. But during our first week in my Introduction to Judaism class, the rabbi recommended it and I figured it was finally time to pick up As A Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg (Behrman House Publishing, 1939). I’m always a little nervous reading older books, since I still have a little bit of holdover fear from being made to read things like The Scarlet Letter in high school (I still can’t stand Nathaniel Hawthorne), and I’ve had some not-so-great experiences with dry, dusty historical fiction, but that wasn’t at all what I found between the covers of this book.

Elisha ben Abuyah, the son of a lapsed Jew, is raised adhering more to Greek tradition in the years of Roman rule in Palestine, but when his father passes, his uncle insists he study the Law of his people. After becoming a rabbi and becoming part of the Sanhedrin, doubts about his faith begin to appear, and though he tries hard to hold on, his questions can’t be ignored. Willing to risk everything for solid answers, Elisha begins a journey of discovery, of finding irrefutable evidence of what the truth really is, but this search will have devastating effects on him, on history, and on the lives of everyone he knows and loves.

This is an incredible book, one I cannot recommend highly enough. Elisha ben Abuyah (an actual historical person, though this is a fictionalized account of his life, with much conjecture and imagining) is an engaging, thoughtful character, and the era in which he lives is vividly alive in Steinberg’s elaborate, yet not overdone, description. Elisha’s arc is tragic; his unhappy arranged marriage and his search to view faith solely through a lens of logic ends disastrously for nearly everyone, even those not immediately involved, and there are some seriously gruesome scenes in here (torture, Roman murder, and a lion-versus-gladiator fight scene that turned my stomach and had me wide-eyed while reading in public). Steinberg doesn’t shy away from the difficult realities of life under Roman rule, nor does he tone down the more hedonistic aspects of the society Elisha found himself in after his excommunication and abandoning Palestine for Antioch.

It’s difficult to elaborate how fascinating I found reading fiction set in this time period (I believe the only other book I’ve read set during Roman rule is The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth Speare George, also a fantastic read). I haven’t ventured too much into the world of historical fiction; it’s not that I dislike it, but I’ve encountered some that have been dry, and so much of it seems to be centered around World War II that As A Driven Leaf seems absolutely…modern…by comparison. A breath of fresh air in that genre, if you will, despite the book being eighty-one years old. It’s an era I haven’t literarily-traveled to that often, so I really enjoyed my journey back in time to admire Elisha’s intelligence and dedication while still wincing at his bullheaded perseverance despite the consequences. (And because of the book being set during this time, I’m counting it as my pick for the BookRiot 2020 Read Harder Challenge prompt to read a historical fiction novel not set in WWII. Finally, I’m on the scoreboard with this one!)

This isn’t an easy book to review, as there’s so much going on and Steinberg’s messages are so profound, but it’s a deeply enjoyable read, one that can be read on multiple levels. It’s a glimpse into the past, an inspiration, a warning, an encouragement to search and an injunction to be prepared for the consequences. It’s thought-provoking in a multitude of ways, no matter if you agree or not with Elisha’s final conclusions. As a Driven Leaf is beautifully written and will leave you intrigued and wanting more from this thoughtful author, or at least for the book to never end.

Milton Steinberg passed away in 1950. You can see his other books here on Goodreads.

nonfiction

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children- Wendy Mogel

I’ve mentioned before that I’m always trying to find resources to help me raise my daughter more effectively. Her personality is so very different from my son’s that I’m left scrambling 99% of the time, because I have very few tools in my box to deal with whatever she’s thrown at me. I’d heard of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children by Wendy Mogel, PhD (Penguin Books, 2001) before; she actually came through this area last year and I didn’t make it to see her (boy, am I kicking myself about that now!). But when this book showed up as one of the reading suggestions for my Intro to Judaism class, I knew it was time to see what wisdom it had to offer me.

Part Reform Judaism primer, part parenting how-to, Wendy Mogel gets at the heart of what kids need (and a little of what they want, and how the two work together). Today’s fast-paced world is tough on kids: they receive too much stuff (I don’t know a single parent who isn’t drowning in mass-produced kid stuff and constantly weeding things out), have too much input from all directions (school, family, friends, television, social media, music in the car and in stores), deal with ridiculous, age-inappropriate expectations, and get short-changed out of time with their stressed-out parents. The message they get is that in order to stand out from all of this is to behave in ways that get them the most attention, even if it’s negative attention. But Judaism has ways to teach families to slow down, unplug from the hustle and bustle around us, connect with each other, and celebrate the small, quiet moments when each opportunity presents itself.

Mogel writes about parental respect and how it’s okay and even necessary to demand it (this was HUGE for me. Like, HUGE), and how kids want to be part of the family and want to help out (and if they don’t, it’s still necessary for them to help without complaining). She discusses how to work with a kid’s nature and how to make the behavior that drives you the craziest work in your kid’s favor. She gives suggestions on how to get your kids to speak more respectfully and how to gently but firmly let them know they’ve been rude. It’s not necessarily to change a kid’s attitude toward something, she claims; change their actions first and after repetition, their attitude will follow. In Judaism, action counts more than attitude, and this applies to her parenting theories in so many different and fascinatingly effective ways.

Y’all.

You guys.

I’ve implemented quite a few things Ms. Mogel discussed in this book, with plans for more, and you would not BELIEVE the changes I’ve seen. (I’m kind of choking up as I type this.) I HAVE A NEW KID. For the past eight days, my child’s room has been clean (without me having to do it!!!) and all the toys she’s dragged to the living room have been picked up and put away, with minimal complaints, before bedtime. There’s been no backtalk, no sassing, no eye-rolling (!!!). She hasn’t argued with me about wearing shorts to school when it’s snowing. She puts her dishes in the dishwasher after asking if it’s clean or dirty, she asks to help do other chores and does some without being asked (not always effective; we had to have a conversation yesterday about why it’s not necessarily the best idea to line up the boots and other assorted winter footwear in the path between the kitchen counter and the refrigerator, but I thanked her for her enthusiasm and willingness to help and showed her a better place to line up the boots where no one would trip over them). And biggest of all?

We’ve. Had. No. Tantrums.

Like.

NONE.

This has never happened before. EVER.

I suggested that we implement a system where, each day, she earns part of an allowance (and it’s *not* a huge one) by keeping her room picked up, but her behavior is also tied to that allowance. Throwing fits, being unkind or disrespectful, not doing what’s expected of her, all that cancels out her allowance for the day. She has a calendar where she’s able to mark the day if she’s done everything she needs to. And every day, she’s so excited to mark off that she’s completed all her chores and behaved in a way that earns her something.

She’s still the same kid who gets a little too screechy indoors, the one who (of course) needs to pee the second I step into the shower and then spends my entire shower sitting on the toilet singing songs from Frozen, the kid who is slow to calm down when she’s excited and having a good time. But boy, does she snap right back into place when she gets her one warning (which is all she gets, and then the allowance is cancelled for the day), and she’s now constantly looking for ways to help out around the house.

It’s pretty wild.

I don’t know if it’s solely this book, or if she’s at the right place developmentally to finally begin responding to these kinds of measures, or maybe a combination of all that and something else, but this book has worked for us like nothing else has ever worked before. Ms. Mogel’s warning about parents who martyr themselves for their children’s sake serve no one, especially not their children, really spoke to me, and this past week, despite its business, has been the calmest, most productive, most well-behaved week of my daughter’s life, and I am deeply, deeply grateful for everything this book has taught me.

While there’s a chapter on implementing religious practice in your family’s life, you don’t need to be religious (or Jewish) to read and benefit from this book. You do need to be creative and able to apply Ms. Mogel’s lessons and ideals in a way that best fits your family. For example, you may not celebrate Shabbat weekly with a huge dinner, prayers, and songs, but maybe you can implement a weekly (or nightly, if your schedule allows for it) dinner and create your own rituals that carry weight and meaning for your family, that shape your life and give your kids something to look forward to and something they may carry on in their own families one day.

Even though I wish I’d read this earlier, I think this book came into my life at exactly the right time. I’ve got pages and pages of notes I’ll refer back to as necessary, and I’m looking forward to read Ms. Mogel’s The Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Resiliant Teenagers when the time calls for it. I’m so grateful to Ms. Mogel for sharing her wisdom; it’s really changed things for our family, and I can’t speak highly enough about this book.

Visit Wendy Mogel’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

The Color of Love- Marra B. Gad

For all its ills, social media is useful for a lot of things (like finding out my favorite Indian restaurant closed *sob*), and one of them is connecting with other bookish people in various groups. I belong to a few readers’ groups on Facebook, along with a host of other various groups, and it was from one of those groups that I learned about The Color of Love: A Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl by Marra B. Gad (Agate Bolden, 2019). The story was pitched as being about a mixed-race Jewish woman who eventually had to take care of a family member who treated her terribly. It’s that, but it’s so much more, and I’m deeply grateful I was able to obtain a copy through interlibrary loan.

Marra Gad was biologically the child of a Jewish woman and a black man. Her first mother knew she couldn’t keep her baby, and thus a rabbi helped to find a Jewish family to adopt Marra. Marra’s parents were happy to have a baby at all; the child’s skin color made no difference to them, but it didn’t take long for them to realize how differently the world around them felt, and member by member, their family and circle grew smaller. Within pages, you’ll be gasping out loud in utter shock and total disgust at the comments that family and friends thought nothing of leveling at Marra. Despite your heartbreak and rage on Marra’s behalf, read on; this is an important story.

Throughout her childhood and young adulthood, Marra is ostracized and made to feel different by the community that should have embraced her and celebrated her. Fortunately, she has her close family- parents, siblings, grandparents- to love her, fight for her, and instill a strong sense of self-worth in her. As the years go by and her family members begin to age and need care, Marra finds herself the only available family member to care for her out-of-state great-aunt, the woman who was perhaps the cruelest to Marra throughout her life. Despite the pain it causes her, she does so because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s never easy.

I won’t lie; this book brought me to tears multiple times. I kept turning back to Ms. Gad’s picture on the back inside flap and wanting so badly to both travel back in time and protect the vulnerable child that she was and to hug the adult she is now. I’m no stranger to racism; when I was young, my maternal grandfather was deeply, hideously racist, and I’ve heard racist comments coming out of family members’ mouths as recently as last year (you better bet I step in and say something these days, though. As a child, I didn’t, though I knew my grandfather was wrong. I’m not sure how well my correcting him would have gone over, but I remember having conversations with my mom on the way home from his house about why he was so awful regarding people of certain races). But the hateful comments directed toward Marra are just…soul-crushing. To have had such vitriol spat at you as a child and emotionally survive and still come out kind on the other side is an absolute miracle; I weep for the ones who did not.

Taking care of her hurtful great-aunt was difficult; there are many descriptions of tears and heartache on the journey to and from her care facility, and I deeply admire the fortitude of character Ms. Gad possesses to have kept returning and providing care in the face of such a difficult challenge. It may not have been what she wanted to do, but doing so was the kind of person she wanted to be, and so she did. This is something I strive for in my own life, though normally under much less challenging circumstances, so I understand her motivation and I applaud it.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful and a deeply emotional read, and will challenge any reader in just how far they’re willing to take their devotion to kindness and generosity.

I’m going to count this as the book for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt for a book by a woman of color, but it won’t be my last for the year, not by a long shot (my next review is also for a book by a black woman, and my reading list for the year is bursting with diversity, as it should be). Read on, friends. 🙂

Follow Marra B. Gad on Twitter.

fiction · YA

All-American Muslim Girl- Nadine Jolie Courtney

I usually remember the process by which a book ends up on my TBR. I may not remember which friend recommended a book to me, but I’ll remember it was recommended by a friend. I may not remember which blog I saw that book on, but I know a fellow book blogger raved about it. But for the life of me, I can’t remember where I first learned about All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), only that it went immediately onto my TBR. And that was absolutely the right action to take, because this book was ah-maaaaaaaaaa-zing.

Allie Abraham is Muslim, nominally. Her family- Dad was born Muslim, Mom converted- doesn’t pray, doesn’t attend mosque, doesn’t fast for Ramadan. Dad, a native speaker, never taught Allie Arabic or the Circassian language, and has always tried to downplay his religion and heritage. Allie’s pale skin and lighter hair don’t necessarily clue people in to her heritage either, and thus, not only does she feel out of place amongst her more devout extended family, she’s also the dumping ground for anti-Muslim bigotry that non-Muslims dump on her when they think they’re in good company. As a result, Allie has spent her life hiding who she really is, never truly comfortable with her background, becoming a different person each time her family moves for her father’s work.

This new town in Georgia, however, feels different. It’s meant to be permanent, and Allie almost immediately catches the eye of Wells, a supercute guy in her grade. Their attraction is mutual, but there’s one major catch: Wells’s father, a majorly conservative TV host who spreads Islamophobia, amongst other horrors, on his TV show. Allie could go on hiding who she is, just as she’s always done, but she’s increasingly drawn to Islam, its practice and its meaning, in a way she’s never been before. Via study and her new involvement with her school’s Muslim Student Association, Allie’s discovering things that speak to her soul and help her define who she truly is…but how will her father, who has always subtly encouraged her to pass as non-Muslim, react?

Ohhhhhh, how I loved this book. In Allie, Ms. Courtney has given us an Every Girl, a teenager used to changing her image to fit in like so many teenagers do, unsure of who she really is and who she wants to be. YA novels with strong teen characters who know exactly who they are are so necessary (and there are so many great examples of those out there!), but characters who are searching for identity and a sense of self reflect the experience of the majority of adolescents, and Allie’s character arc throughout the novel is a beautiful one of growth, in tentative baby steps, trying out what works for her and working up the courage to present that part of herself to the world (a world that isn’t always friendly and is often downright hostile to those parts). While her religious journey may not be something every reader can identify with, her search for identity is, and Ms. Courtney has created a sympathetic and sharply intelligent character who will have readers cheering through her bravery and triumphs, and rooting for her in her pursuit of identity.

A very basic understanding of Islam would be helpful in reading this book, but as Allie is learning as she goes (even buying and hiding a Qu’ran from her parents! The irony of a teenager sneaking religion, of all things, along with Arabic language lessons, was…I don’t want to say humorous, but given all the things she could have been hiding in her bedside table, well…), the reader should be able to learn right along with her. Allie’s entire extended family is warm, inviting, and deeply supportive, and should have any reader wistful for such a welcoming group. I also enjoyed the trajectory of her friendship with the girls from her Qu’ran study group. While they often disagree with each other on different issues (dating and relationships, how to best practice Islam, etc), there’s room for disagreement within their friendships while still remaining close and having each others’ backs.

Allie’s relationship with Wells is very sweet and mature without seeming forced. Wells is nothing like his father, and their relationship seems strained at best, as does his parents’ marriage. He’s an easy character to feel sympathy for, even when his and Allie’s relationship isn’t quite going the way they had hoped (that’s not a spoiler; teenage relationships have their ups and downs, as we all know!). He’s kind and supportive and a great match for Allie.

Content warnings exist for Islamophobia and religious bigotry and hatred, microaggressions, on-page panic attacks, on-page death of a family member, and strained parent-child relationships. Nothing is graphic.

There’s so much good in this novel. I’d never heard of the Circassian people before and Ms. Courtney has helped to begin filling in that gap in my knowledge. Her voice is so natural and so readable, even during the more tense scenes (such as between Allie and Wells’s father, or Allie and her own father during their confrontations over religion), that her novel of growth and identity is an absolute page turner. If you’re looking for a lovely novel on the intersection of family, faith, and identity, All-American Muslim Girl needs a place on your TBR list.

Visit Nadine Jolie Courtney’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia: From Abraham to Zabar’s and Everything In Between- Stephanie Butnick, Liel Leibovitz, and Mark Oppenheimer

My current podcast obsession is Unorthodox, the world’s leading Jewish podcast (as the opening goes, and available on whatever app you use to listen to podcasts; Podbean works well with my devices, although it takes up a LOT of space…), by Tablet Magazine. It’s funny, it’s fascinating, it’s at times reverent and irreverent in the best ways, and I love it so much that not only have I been listening to it at night, I also listen to it when I’m cooking and cleaning (well, not so much when the kids are home. It’s hard to listen to anything when I’m interrupted every six seconds to pull something down from a closet shelf, load the WiFi password into another device, cut a string off a sock or an itchy tag off a new shirt, and answer yet another question about the location of some random item). I’ve learned so much from it and added so many books to my TBR because of it, and I look forward to every single new episode (new episodes are out on Thursdays; I listen to those as they come out, but I’m also making my way through the back episodes). And the hosts don’t necessarily always agree with each other on everything, and I don’t always agree with them, but they seriously make it feel like there’s room for disagreement, and I love that. Those hosts, Stephanie Butnick, Liel Leibovitz, and Mark Oppenheimer, have come out with an awesome book, The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia: From Abraham to Zabar’s and Everything in Between (Artisan, 2019), and a few episodes in, I slapped that baby on my TBR, requested it via interlibrary loan, and squealed loudly when it came in.

The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia is history, culture, food, religion, sadness, and joy. Its entries stem from religious figures- biblical, historical, and current- to pop culture (I had zero idea that Michael Landon was Jewish! His given name at birth was Eugene Orowitz), to history (biblical, Israeli, world) and beyond. It covers all aspects of life, because wherever life happens, Jewish people are there, too, changing the world and managing to not just survive, but flourish despite the odds.

You’ll learn Yiddish terms (shpilkes describes my inner state about 99% of the time, LOLSOB), read about horrifying incidents in history (the MS St. Louis, anyone? Babi Yar?), piece together a picture of the founding of Israel and some of its struggles to survive, and be jonesing for a really good bagel by the time you reach the acknowledgements. My sole complaint is that the book came to an end! Fortunately, the authors included in the entries many, many titles to books by Jewish authors and about Jewish subjects, along with movies and documentaries that cover everything from agunot to the Holocaust, that my ravenous appetite for more knowledge will have plenty to feast upon.

This is yet another book that I’ll probably end up buying in the future. Quite a few of the entries had me laughing out loud, and at other times, I was flipping back and forth to reread an entry or glean more information. Having a copy of this on my own shelf to refer back to whenever I want (and I can imagine that I’d pick it up again and again, both because it’s interesting and because my memory tends to be a little Swiss-cheese-ish…) definitely makes sense for me.

If you’re at all interested in any aspect of Judaism, or even if you’re just a student of history and culture, The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia deserves a place on your reading list and your bookshelf.

memoir · nonfiction

Unfollow: A Journey From Hatred to Hope- Megan Phelps-Roper

The second I learned about Unfollow: A Journey From Hatred to Hope by Megan Phelps-Roper (riverrun 2019), I went running to Goodreads and smashed that Want to Read button. I’ve been a rubbernecker at the nightmare that is the Westboro Baptist Church for years, and I’ve also read and enjoyed both Girl on a Wire: Walking the Line Between Faith and Freedom in the Westboro Baptist Church by Libby Phelps with Sara Stewart, and Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain. So it was only natural that I read what Megan had to say, and as luck would have it, Unfollow appeared the next day on my library’s “These books are coming out next week, reserve them now!” shelf. I did indeed reserve it immediately, and I was the second person on the list (who ARE you, other cool local person??? We could be such good friends!).

Megan Phelps-Roper was born into the Westboro Baptist church, famous for their signs with foul statements about who or what God is currently hating, used to picket such occasions as funerals of dead soldiers. Despite the family’s constant spewing of hatred making international news, Megan’s upbringing seemed this side of normal. Her extended family lived mostly on the same block, she and her siblings were pushed to excel in school, and she never longed for company, as she was one of many children. And Megan had no reason to question her family’s aggressively hateful messages: she loved and trusted her parents and grandparents. Why wouldn’t they be telling her the truth about God? She happily and eagerly participated in their protests that caused so many others such pain.

Her story of growth and escape aren’t an immediate one. Through her use of social media to spread the church’s message, she gets to know her followers on Twitter and several of them plant seeds of logic that begin to germinate in her mind. Things begin not sitting quite right over a period of time, and eventually, Megan and her sister find their way out, striking out on their own in a world they’ve never really lived in. It takes time, but eventually she finds what she truly believes and how wrong her church was. Through it all, though, she never loses sight of how much her parents loved her, and how difficult this very necessary break is for everyone.

Megan Phelps-Roper has written what I think is the strongest so far of the post-Westboro memoirs. She shies away from nothing, including the more hideous parts of Westboro’s protests and her eagerness to take part in them, and for that, I give her a lot of credit. It’s really not easy to admit when you’ve been so wrong about something that has hurt so many people, and she makes it obvious that she’s done the work to extricate herself from the hurtful beliefs she grew up with (also something that’s not easy). Her pain at losing almost her entire family is obvious, and it was easy to feel compassion for her. Her writing really does an amazing job of separating the parents we know from TV interviews and footage (her mother is Shirley Phelps-Roper), and the mother who cared for her when she was sick and lovingly answered her many questions. That takes some serious writing skill to pull that off, as I’m obviously no fan of Shirley’s.

Her exit from the church and from her family is really the most intriguing part of this. The relationships she developed over Twitter and the thoughtful replies from these people were the beginning of the end for her, although she never would have thought of it that way when she first began connecting with them. It made me think about how I respond to those with whom I disagree on social media (usually with facts and pointing out the gaps in their logic; sometimes snark leaks through…), because without these people (and no spoilers, but there are two really interesting ones!), Megan might never have left. That’s pretty huge.

What a fascinating book. Is it okay to say you’re proud of someone you’ve never met? Megan Phelps-Roper seems like a genuinely decent person who was born into a bad situation and never had any reason to question it until just the right people came along and threw up some flashing neon signs that her brain wouldn’t let her forget. I’m proud of her for having the courage to be true to who her heart and soul told her she really was, and for taking the time to learn all that she has once she left. Leaving the majority of her family behind was no easy choice, and I’m proud of her for choosing truth and integrity despite the cost.

Follow Megan Phelps-Roper on Twitter here.

judaism · memoir · nonfiction · religion

Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion by Danya Ruttenberg

Have you ever read a book solely because you follow its author on Twitter? (Okay, maybe that wasn’t the only reason; I follow authors I haven’t read yet simply because I like their personalities. I definitely need to be interested in the subject or story of a book to read it!)

That’s how I found Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion by Danya Ruttenberg (Beacon Press, 2008). I caught a few of her tweets since they were liked or shared by others that I follow and ended up following her because I enjoyed her voice and her message so much. And then she mentioned the book she wrote in one thread, and I was like, “A BOOK, YOU SAY????” Not only did I immediately add it to my TBR, I requested it via interlibrary loan as well.

Danya Ruttenberg decided she was an atheist as a young teenager. The Judaism of her childhood didn’t make sense to her, and so she continued on with her life, not believing but still trying to connect with something bigger than herself, a sense of connectedness with something spiritual or divine. She tried by partying with her friends, convening with nature, and delving deep into yoga practice, but while she occasionally got close and found certain glimpses of holiness and states of ecstasy, nothing was quite enough for her. Being a religious studies major gave her insights into other belief systems and the demands of each; connecting with other friends seeking the same helped her not only to see the beauty of the religion she was born into, but to recognize that not everyone’s path is the same, nor should it be. Hers is a gradual journey to faith and practice, replete of any sudden “A-ha!” moments, but it’s that slow, steady exploration before the eventual arrival at rabbinical school that lends her story such significance.

I really loved this book. Before ending up in rabbinical school, Rabbi Ruttenberg majored in religious studies (can you feel my jealousy??? I find religion so fascinating that, were I able to go back to school, this would be a heavy contender for my choice of major) and quotes some of the great historical and modern religious thinkers of every religion throughout the book. She mentioned something about Martin Buber’s ‘I-Thou/I-it’ theory that led me to a better understanding of it, which I’ve been pondering all week (I even shared that article on Facebook, where I rarely talk about religious matters, because I found it so infused with meaning for me). While she does get a little into the more mystical aspects of yoga practice, something that, while I’ve done plenty of yoga to help with my back, has never appealed to me, I still appreciated her description of what it meant to her in order to further my understanding of what it meant to her and means to many others.

I identified with so much of Rabbi Ruttenberg’s feelings throughout her journey, her search for meaning and a sense of connection with the Divine. Her slow, measured journey to a deeper spiritual awareness resonated deeply with me, along with making me a little jealous. I’m not sure mine will have such a well-defined end goal or landing place, but I’m thankful that she shared her story with the world. Her view of life, of the sacred, of justice and of what connects us all is beautiful and inspiring, and I’m deeply grateful to have read her thoughtful insight, which has given me a lot to ponder, and a lot of what she’s written has given me a sense of peace I’ve been needing lately.

I’m very much interested in reading her latest book, Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder and Radical Amazement of Parenting. It sounds like a book I could definitely use in my life!

Visit Danya Ruttenberg’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Without a Prayer: The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult- Susan Ashline

Cult books! Cult books everywhere!

Without a Prayer: The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult by Susan Ashline (Pegasus Books, 2019) was a new one for me. I made a trip to another local branch of the library in order to pick up a DVD for my son’s Oceanography and Meteorology class (seriously, when did high schools get such interesting classes? It was huge deal that my high school got Psychology my senior year. My son is also taking Sports and Entertainment Marketing, and a class called Incubator, which is basically Shark Tank for teenagers, it’s wild), and of course I trucked in with my list of books from my TBR that were on their shelves. This was on the New Books shelf (because you know I had to stop and browse that!), and I grabbed it right away, because, well, cults.

Word of Life Christian Church in upstate New York seemed like a fairly normal church when it first started out, but after a while, neighbors noticed that it had become more secluded, more secretive: a gate went up, church members went in early mornings and didn’t come out until late in the night. What was going on behind those gates and the closed doors was a long, drawn-out indoctrination of its members, over whom control would be passed down from pastor father to pastor daughter, and which would directly lead to the members and leaders beating a teenager to death, along with prison time for many of the members and leaders.

While the recounting of the recordings and texts does occasionally become repetitious and wearying, Ms. Ashline has written a chilling work that shows exactly how people get involved with groups that eventually morph into something entirely different. There’s a LOT of weird stuff going on in this book, including moving a dead body across state lines and attempting to revive it, squalor (some of it involving animals and animal hoarding), demons (SO much talk of demons. I didn’t know I could get sick of hearing about demons, but hooooooboy, can I ever) and the constant verbal abuse of a flock by its pastors. If you’re at all interested in cults and secluded religious (or otherwise!) groups, this strange tale is one you won’t want to miss.

I was really struck by Bruce Leonard, the father of Lucas Leonard, and how weak-willed he was. He’s probably the stereotypical sheep-like cult member that everyone thinks of as being most likely to join a group like Word of Life, as opposed to the more firebrand people who are all in, lock, stock, and barrel from the get-go in a big and vocal way (although no one ever really joins a cult, so to speak; they join a church or a self-help group, something they think is going to meet their needs and improve their life. It’s the manipulation of the leader or leaders that turn it into a cult, and far too often, the members don’t realize the danger they’re in until it’s too late), being entirely unable to make decisions on his own or think for himself, and thus he turned to a stronger, more powerful leader to make those decisions for him, and his wife was only too happy to follow. He’s also an excellent example of people who stay in cults despite the terrible mistreatment they receive from the leaders. Bruce and his wife and children were insulted and ostracized from the small group on a regular basis, and still they stayed, and it’s deeply fascinating to see them constantly come back for more. There’s a bit at the end where another local religious leader talks with Bruce, who eventually figures it out, and the way that religious leader’s help affected Bruce intrigued me.

Content warning: there are quite a few mentions of child molestation. During the ‘counseling’ session that lead to Lucas Leonard’s death, he and his brother Chris admitted to molesting some of the children in the church. Investigations showed no evidence of this, and I believe Chris admitted that he only said it to get the beatings to stop, and because he thought that’s what the other church members wanted to hear. Ms. Ashline also mentions that, as in many cults, some words have definitions peculiar to that particular group, and in this group, it seemed that even changing the diaper of an opposite sex child counted as molestation. So while there’s never anything graphic mentioned that isn’t confessed under extreme duress, beware that this is a topic of frequent mention in the latter parts of this book.

I hadn’t heard of this story before (I seem to miss a LOT of stuff like this!!!), so I’m glad i stumbled across this book. All this constant reading and learning about different cults has made me start feeling like everything has the potential to become a cult (much like listening to Dateline via podcast makes me feel like murder is everywhere! Egads, I need to go read something about fluffy kittens and puppies frolicking in a sunshiny meadow…).

Are you or were you familiar with this story? If you learned about this on the news, I’d love to hear your take on it.

Visit Susan Ashline’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Saints and Misfits- S.K. Ali

Another book from my TBR! (I know, I know I’ll never tackle it completely, but at least I have a GOAL, right???) I managed to grab a copy of this right after my son went back to school- I live in a really amazing area (I know I say this a lot, but I really do love it here), and Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali (Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2017) was on several school summer reading lists here, so every time I looked for it at the library during the summer, it was checked out. But when the kids went back to school, BAM- there it was on the shelf and I snatched it up like a ravenous seagull who has spotted a French fry in a McDonald’s parking lot.

This isn’t the easiest book for which to write a synopsis, so this will look a little different than my usual reviews. Bear with me here, because this book is SO. WORTH. IT.

Janna, a young hijabi, is struggling. Struggling with her parents’ divorce, struggling with her brother moving back home and taking over her room (forcing her to bunk with Mom), struggling with her brother’s Little Miss Perfect possible-future-wife, struggling with a crush on a non-Muslim boy, struggling to remain true to her convictions even when it’s hard, and most of all, struggling with having been sexually assaulted by a Muslim boy that everyone thinks is the most pious member of her community. To say that her plate is full is the understatement of the century.

The story centers around Janna navigating her school year, attempting to manage all these different parts of her life, with the assault and the young man who committed it looming largest over all the others. Janna’s identity as a Muslim is strong; though she sometimes makes decisions she later regrets in regards to her hijab and her crush on Jeremy, it’s her faith in herself, her confidence that her truth will be listened to and taken seriously by her own community where her crisis lies. When everyone loves the person who harmed you, whom can you tell? I think we’ve all seen in news stories these past few years that far too many people are willing to wave away any evidence, no matter how damning, when a woman comes forward about being sexually assaulted, and Janna’s fears here are both troubling and all too real.

I love-love-LOVED Janna as a character. She’s absolutely not perfect, and I was so able to relate to her- if we’re being honest with ourselves, I think most people will be able to. We’ve all made decisions that go against what we believe; sometimes, we later realize we were wrong in those decisions, and other times, we learn that we need to redefine what we believe because it no longer fits who we are, but we’ve all been Janna. What made me want to scoop her up and hug her forever, though, was the paragraph where she stated that she would rather suffer in silence than have people blame her community because of her assault. I can’t speak from personal experience here, but I know it’s not easy being a member of a community that far too many people (people who have zero personal experience with Muslims and who have even less knowledge of Muslims or of Islam itself) mindlessly vilify, and while I understand and applaud Janna’s need to uphold and protect her community in that way, it broke my heart that she understood that pressure well enough to name it, and it furthered my commitment to help make this world more accepting and loving for anyone who has ever found themselves on the outside. A teenager who’s suffering but who understands that her community doesn’t need more bad press- the sheer reality of this is so heavy. We’ve got to do better.

I’ve got to do better.

I loved Ms. Ali’s portrayal of Janna’s Muslim community- the fun, the warmth, the activities, the varying degrees of practice and piety, it all felt so very alive and real. The way Janna’s non-Muslim best friend Tatyana fit right in in mosque activities was so sweet, and I adored Sausun (who works up to wearing niqab, the full face covering) and her brash personality- I learned SO much from her. She’s such an empowered character, and I loved how much she made Janna think. She made me think, too, and those are the kinds of books I LOVE.

This is a seriously important book- because of the Muslim author, because it features a teenage Muslim girl who wears hijab as a main character, because it centers around a Muslim community, because Janna is every teenager who has ever struggled with family, friends, and crushes, because it covers sexual assault (I wish so hard I could introduce Janna to Melinda from Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson; they would understand each other and could help each other heal), because of all these reasons and more. Nothing I say could possibly do this jewel of a book proper justice, because its truths and beauties run so very deep.

If you’ve made it this far, there are obvious content warnings for sexual assault; Janna has flashbacks throughout the story and is most likely suffering from PTSD related to the assault. There are also constant microaggressions (her gym teacher insisting on calling her hijab a hajeeb no matter how many times she was corrected drove me NUTS; it’s so disrespectful and I’m so, so sorry that anyone has to put up with crap like that); if these things are too much for you, wait for a better time to read it and be kind to yourself. If you’re able to handle these subject matters, this is an utterly amazing book that will allow you to see the world maybe a little differently than you’re used to, but so much of it will still look familiar, because we all have so much more in common than we have differences. 🙂

Love From A to Z by S.K. Ali is also on my Goodreads TBR, and after reading Saints and Misfits, I’m looking forward to reading that more than Christmas and my birthday and the first warm day of summer combined. I’m so, so glad I was finally able to get my hands on a copy, and I truly hope Ms. Ali never, ever stops writing. So many people, myself included, need stories just like this one.

Visit S.K. Ali’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.