fiction · YA

Book Review: In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Kaplan Carlton

Another book list gem! I picked up a copy of In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Caplan Carlton (Algonquin Young Readers, 2019) on my last trip from the library (during which I looked at my stack of like six books and went, “Well, that’s gonna take a while to get through…” and I’m already going to have to go back today and pick out a few more. BUT…I have an idea for a new project. I’ll write up a post about that later!). I’m super fortunate that my library has *so* many of the books from my TBR!

It’s 1958, and Ruth Robb has moved to Atlanta with her mother and younger sister after her father suddenly passed away. The move is already tough, but it’s complicated even more by the fact that Ruth is Jewish (her father was born Jewish; her mother, an Atlanta native, converted, a fact that is important to this story), and the South isn’t exactly friendly to Jews. Neither is her grandmother, who doesn’t fully accept that her daughter converted and is raising the girls Jewish. Ruth immediately falls in with the debutante group of girls from her grandmother’s club, but she knows she has to hide who she really is- admitting she’s Jewish is a recipe for immediate ostracization.

But it’s so much fun to be popular, and Davis Jefferson, the gorgeous popular guy, is falling for her. When Ruth’s mother starts requiring her to attend synagogue, she meets college student Max, who’s as dedicated to fighting for integration and social justice as the rabbi. He’s deeply intelligent, proud of who he is, and never hides anything about himself. When the politics of the day blow up in a way Ruth can no longer ignore, she has to make serious choices about who she is, who she wants to be, and how she wants to live her life.

I lived in the South for five years and oof, so many parts of this book rang true and made me feel claustrophobic again. Ruth’s grandmother is antisemitic- not in a Nazi-style manner, but in a dismissive way, in a way that it’s obvious she finds Jewish people kind of icky and different, and she’s constantly trying to encourage her daughter to abandon the religion and her granddaughters to hide who they are. I imagined that Ruth’s mother needed to do a LOT of tongue-biting in order to not tell her mother exactly where to get off; as they were living in the grandparents’ guest house, she needed to maintain at least some level of civility. She handled it far better than I would have.

As a reader, it’s sometimes frustrating watching Ruth make the decisions she does, but they’re understandable. After being wrenched away from her home, from everything familiar, in a place where there are plenty of other people like her and now dealing with the grief from her father’s death, she just wants to fit in and find a bit of normalcy, but in a place that demands conformity and spits out anything or anyone different, that’s not so easy to find unless you’re willing to compromise major parts of yourself. Ruth makes some difficult choices; to her credit, she never seems fully comfortable with the ones that require her to hide being Jewish. Her romance with Davis made me deeply uneasy; I may be an adult reading YA, but it wouldn’t have felt good to me as a teen, either. There are certain things I’ve never been willing to compromise, not even for the cute popular boy, but I think this was a realistic choice Ms. Carlton made as an author. The teen years are hard and full of challenging decisions. Figuring out who we are, especially when who we are goes against cultural norms, isn’t easy, and strength of character takes time to develop. Oftentimes, it only comes through adversity, as it did for Ruth, and she’s a great example for younger readers on doing the right thing even when it’s difficult, even when it comes at a cost.

I do wish there would have been a bit more of a build-up to the climax; the end felt a tiny bit rushed, but man, does Ms. Carlton do a fabulous job of setting the scene. 1958 Atlanta is steamy and full of tension; you’ll practically be able to taste the sweet tea and the Coca-Cola and feel the sweat trailing down your back and the girdle squeezing your midsection. I have zero desire to move back to the south (a former colleague who moved to North Carolina just informed my husband of a job opening at his new workplace; I LOVE that area, but nope nope nope, not for me and not for us as a family, sadly), but wow, did Susan Kaplan Carlton absolutely made me feel like I was there again.

I deeply enjoyed this. History, religion, politics, YA, it’s a perfect storm of so many of the things I love about reading. I’m looking forward to seeing what else Ms. Carlton comes up with!

Visit Susan Kaplan Carlton’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: Confessions of a Closet Catholic by Sarah Darer Littman

One of the last tasks I had to complete for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge– until my library holds come in, that is!- was to read the first book I touch on a shelf with my eyes closed. That happened to be Confessions of a Closet Catholic by Sarah Darer Littman (Puffin Books, 2005). I ran across this book earlier this year, pre-pandemic, at a local thrift store. It’s a late middle-grade book and the title intrigued me. I checked the book out on Goodreads before purchasing, however; I wasn’t looking for a faith-based novel (not my particular cup of tea, personally, though I’ve read a few okay ones in the past), but the reviews didn’t trend in that direction, so I coughed up a quarter and took it home (I love that thrift store so much).

Justine Silver has recently moved out of New York City and to the suburbs, where her new best friend, Mary Catherine, is Catholic. Justine’s intrigued, and so while Mary Catherine gives up chocolate for Lent, Justine decides…to give up being Jewish. Her secret practice of Catholicism, which takes place quite literally in her bedroom closet, involves confessing her sins to her teddy-bear-turned-priest, reciting the Hail Mary (just without the Jesus parts) and taking communion, which is made up of grape juice and last Passover’s matzoh. Close enough. Justine, whose family isn’t all that observant, is looking for religion she can connect with, and she’s hoping this is where she finds it.

Stress is running high in the Silver household, however. Bubbe, her grandmother, has just had a stroke. Justine’s worried she’s not going to get better. Her search for religious understanding causes even more disruption during this turbulent time, but it’s Bubbe who restores the family’s peace and helps Justine toward the path of ultimate understanding.

So. I really enjoyed this novel about a tween’s search for religious understanding. Justine is EveryKid at age eleven, quirky, awkward, nervous about all the changes in her life, and unsure of her place in this world. She’s searching for answers and meaning, and her parents haven’t done the best job of educating her in their own traditions in a way that grounds her. She sets off on a clandestine examination of her best friend’s faith, which seems mysterious and beautiful to her, testing it out in the only way she knows how, and when her secret practice is discovered, her parents aren’t happy. Justine’s grandmother intervenes the best she can, but ultimately it’s Justine who takes the reins and finds where she belongs on her own.

I’m not sure if this would have appealed to me at the age it’s meant for. It might have; I did enjoy reading explorations of religion even back then, but there are times when I felt that Kid Me might have found the story a little too esoteric for my maturity levels at that age. This is the type of book that I think would work best as a parent-child read, where you read it together and discuss afterwards. There are a lot of good topics to cover here: are we obligated to stay with the faith we’re born into, even if it doesn’t feel like home? What does it mean to try on a new faith? At what point should kids be able to make their own religious decisions? How should a family handle a child’s religious exploration, both of their own faith (if applicable) and of one that interests only the child? This should lead to some really great parent/child or family discussions, if everyone feels free to speak openly and honestly, without fear of retribution or shame.

Confessions of a Closet Catholic is a sweet book about a girl searching for a religious identity. I’m pleased to see that Sarah Darer Littman has written a plethora of other books; I really felt she covered a lot of the bases of a religiously questioning tween here and am looking forward to seeing if her obviously deep understanding of kids that age extends to other topics and ages. Have you read this or her other works? I’d love to hear about it! 🙂

(I feel like this review isn’t up to my normal standards; we bought a patio swing last week, and it turns out my old lady inner ears can no longer tolerate swinging for long periods of time. I’ve felt like I’ve been swinging for two days now, even though it’s been two days since I last got on the swing. Guess there’s a time limit for me! All that to say, it’s hard to come up with words when my brain and ears are making me feel slightly dizzy even when I’m sitting, so please forgive me.)

Visit Sarah Darer Littman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: A River Could Be a Tree by Angela Himsel

Another book right up my alley! Funny story about A River Could Be a Tree by Angela Himsel (Fig Tree Books, 2018). So my library opened up this week to start doing curbside pickups. Cool, cool. (They also, after four years of arguing with our local park district, made the move to purchase an empty grocery store downtown and will be building an entirely new library, but that’s beside the point- but can you FEEL my excitement?!?!?!!????) They have a really great selection of ebooks, including early chapter books for kids (like The Magic Tree House series and the Junie B. Jones series) so we’re managing okay, and thus I figured I’d leave the curbside pickup services to people who don’t have the privilege of checking out ebooks. But on the very first day of curbside pickup, I received an email letting me know that this book, which I’d placed on hold via interlibrary loan in MARCH, was waiting for me (and had been this whole time, but the library had been closed). Woot! Even with their reduced hours, I was able to run over and grab it that day. This is the first paper book I’ve read since the end of March or early April!

Angela Himsel was raised in the basically-a-cult Worldwide Church of God (now Grace Communion International), a bizarre fundamentalist sect which forbade celebrating birthdays and Christian holidays (which they considered pagan) and instead celebrated appropriated versions of Jewish holidays, including observing the Sabbath on Saturdays. The church’s focus on the End Times eclipsed most everything else, and Angela grew up pondering some of the more esoteric points of the Bible, such as which of her ten siblings her parents would eat in the end of days. She believed in the religion of her childhood so fervently; this, coupled with growing up in a very small, very white town in southern Indiana, very much stunted her views on what the rest of the world looked like.

A meeting with her high school guidance counselor put her on the path to college; a single glimpse of a study abroad brochure had her making plans to study in Jerusalem. Once there, Angela fell in love with Israel, but the more she searched, the more difficult it became to find the answers to her many questions about the religion she grew up with. And in Israel, she made the surprising discovery that Jews- those Hebrews of the Bible that had so fascinated her- still existed! (Ahhh, growing up in small Midwestern towns. I so understand this.) Her faith struggles continued well after moving back to the US and setting up a life in New York City, but getting involved with a man raised as the son of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi set her on the path to an eventual conversion and finding a new home for her soul.

There are some content warnings for this book, including the death of a child and a few other deaths (though these occur later on in life), and a few brief mentions of sexual assault and abuse.

Reading about Ms. Himsel’s childhood and about how she didn’t know about the seedy underbelly of her church (including financial scandals, sexual abuse, and more) until long after she reached adulthood made me so, so grateful for the flood of information that is the internet. It’s so much easier these days to check into an organization, and anything we want, a luxury that Ms. Himsel and her family didn’t have during the days before the internet’s existence. I can’t help but wonder how much heartache has been saved simply because people can now look into religious groups before committing their time, their money, and their lives. Ms. Himsel’s parents remained in their whole lives, most likely due to the sunk-cost fallacy or escalation of commitment, essentially doubling down after terrible outcomes instead of admitting one’s losses were for nothing. And their losses here were sizable and painful.

I so enjoy these kinds of memoirs, learning what once drew the author to a certain religion or religious group and what eventually pulled them away, but my one beef is that generally, if/when the author does find a religious home in which he or she is comfortable, that section is usually more rushed and lacks as much depth as the beginning. That’s not just a criticism of this book; most memoirs of this genre seem to follow that same path, so this feels more like a general editing decision for all books of this type, and I wish editors would reevaluate this. I’d love to hear more about what draws the authors down their new paths (if there is one), what appeals to them about their new practices and why. Ms. Himsel’s Orthodox conversion only covered a very small amount of pages in this book, and I would have loved to read more- more about why this was the right decision for her, more about what she loved about living a Jewish life, more about what she found surprising or difficult or especially wonderful (if anything) after her conversion.

I’m counting this book as my choice for the Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge prompt of a memoir by someone from a religious tradition (or lack thereof) that is not your own. I’m not sure if I’ll continue on with this challenge (this year has been so weird and reading is so different right now that I’m thinking about completing the PopSugar Challenge and calling it good!), but this book was on my TBR and so I’m thrilled to finally have read it!

A River Could Be a Tree is deeply fascinating. While I wish it would have gone deeper into her conversion and post-conversion life, Ms. Himsel’s story so intrigued me that I flew through this book in two days. If you enjoy religious exit memoirs (seriously, is there a better term for this genre???) the way that I do, this shouldn’t be missed.

Visit Angela Himsel’s website here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Devotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro

Onward with the reading challenges! (Or at least the one I’m most focused on, anyway.) I needed a book with a three-word title for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge, and, upon searching my TBR, found that my library had an ebook of Devotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro (Harper, 2010). This one ended up on my TBR last year after I read her other memoir, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, so I was really looking forward to reading her again and ticking off another box on the PopSugar Reading Challenge.

(Side note: Either there aren’t a lot of books with three-word titles, or I am just not drawn to those particular books!)

Ms. Shapiro writes of middle age and the challenges that come along with it. Having almost lost her son as a baby to a seizure disorder has left her with what is most likely some measure of PTSD and her anxiety about him and the rest of life is through the roof. She’s been asking the big questions about the meaning of life and how best to cope, but hasn’t come upon any true answers, and she’s not entirely sure she even knows how to.

Along the way, she discovers yoga and meditation, and those help, as do the lessons she learns from the mentors she seeks out. She also grapples with the Orthodox Judaism with which she was raised and has since abandoned- what parts of it, if any, does she want to retain? How can she pass along to her son a tradition she’s not fully comfortable in or with? There are never any concrete answers, only a sense of becoming comfortable with the questions and discomfort that life causes, and the knowledge that the search, however meandering, is an important part of life.

I liked this. It felt like a poignant read for these times. She occasionally moves back and forth in time, wanders here and there in her memories, but it’s never difficult to follow her train of thought. I understood her anxiety, the kind that wakes you up in the middle of the night (HELLO, THREE AM THIS MORNING!) and makes you unable to enjoy or fully live in this present moment. Worrying about your kids, worrying about the state of the world, that indescribable feeling of dread that pervades every moment of your life and always seems to be hanging out in the background, ready to crank up to eleven at any given moment, Ms. Shapiro does a great job of illustrating what life looks like with this.

Grappling with the religion she was born into is also something I understood, and while our paths differed in that Ms. Shapiro seems to have eventually found a balance with hers, I enjoyed reading the details of her search. At one point, she wrote about finally finding a synagogue that felt like home, and the name of the rabbi rang a bell. I googled, and sure enough, he had appeared on an episode of the Unorthodox podcast (Ms. Shapiro has also appeared on this podcast)! Small world. I love when that happens.

If you’re looking for a memoir with more concrete answers and advice, this may not be the book for you, but Devotion: A Memoir documents well that the journey is important, too; that anxiety, though a constant companion for many of us, can be managed in many different ways; that sometimes what we’re born into needs to be rearranged in order to fit the person we grow into. Two thumbs up for what ended up feeling like a calming read for me during this turbulent time.

Visit Dani Shapiro’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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.