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Book Review: Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration by Reuben Jonathan Miller

My last read of 2021 was one from my list, and ended up being about one of my pet subjects: prison reform, or, more accurately for this book, life-after-prison reform. I learned about Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration by Reuben Jonathan Miller (Little, Brown and Company, 2021) because it appeared on one of those best-of-the-year book lists. I added it and grabbed it on my next library trip. And it didn’t disappoint.

Scores of Americans are affected in one way or the other by our heinous system of mass incarceration. Whether it’s because they’ve done time themselves, a family member or loved one has been inside, or they or someone they know work for the system, few of us escape the burden of what mass incarceration has done to American society as a whole. Reuben Jonathan Miller knows this well. As a Black man, he’s fortunate to have grown to adulthood without having served time (since we imprison Black folks at a much, much higher rate than white, along with imposing longer sentences for the same crimes), but he hasn’t escaped the affects; his brother has served multiple sentences, and Professor Miller deals with the system constantly because of this.

Part memoir and all condemnation of the mass incarceration system that wrecks lives and wreaks havoc on the people tangled up in it, Halfway Home shows the difficulty formerly incarcerated people face in the afterlife of their sentences. How do they find a job when no one wants to take a chance on someone who has done time? How do they find a place to live when so many places have rules and laws against allowing people with criminal records to live there? How is it possible to survive when all the odds are stacked against you and society as a whole is determined to throw you away?

Halfway Home will open your eyes to the devastating effects of American mass incarceration. The punishment doesn’t stop when the sentence is served; the punishment never stops, and we keep punishing people until they die, with laws, regulations, and rules that limit where they live, where they can work, who they can spend time with, and the list goes on and on. And as for rehabilitation? No such thing in our system. Bootstraps only, and then we faux-wring our hands and are shocked, shocked, at the high recidivism rate.

Halfway Home will frustrate and likely depress you, but it will also open your eyes to what life is like for incarcerated people after the sentences end- and the frustrations that exist for the people who love them.

Follow Reuben Jonathan Miller on Instagram.

nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit John Woodrow Cox’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit Danielle Dreilinger’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit Eyal Press’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Joanne Samuel Goldblum on Twitter.

Visit Colleen Shaddox’s website here.

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Book Review: Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi

Ah, Twitter. Land of intense debate, mocking quips, up-to-the-moment news, adorable animal pictures, and far, far more book recommendations than I have time for. It was just a few weeks ago- September 11th, to be exact- when I learned of the existence of Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi (Quill Tree Books, 2021). It was a fitting date for the book to be shared and to go onto my TBR, since the story deals with the anniversary of 9/11 and Muslim families. My library had a copy in the New Books section of the middle grade books, and, desperately needing some fiction (I feel like I’ve read so little fiction this past year!), I grabbed it on my last library trip. My library is excellent about promoting diverse books; we live in a really amazing diverse community, but honestly, diversifying their collection should be a goal of every library out there. When we learn about each other, we understand what it’s like to walk in each other’s shoes, and that makes the world a better place.

Yusuf Azeem is a new middle schooler in the small town of Frey, Texas, nervous for this school year, but excited about the prospect of finally being able to participate in a well-known robotics competition for his school’s team. But tensions are high among his family and his Muslim community as a whole, since this year is the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, something Yusuf, who was born well after 2001, doesn’t fully understand until his uncle gives him his journal from 2001, when he was a boy. As he reads his uncle’s entries, Yusuf learns about the Islamophobia his community experienced, the hatred they felt, his uncle’s best friend who turned against him. Yusuf better begins to understand the strain everyone around him is feeling.

Things aren’t great in Frey. While Yusuf works diligently with his robotics team, nasty notes appear in his locker, a local group purporting to be patriots begins to threaten the Muslim community’s new mosque, his father’s store is vandalized, and Yusuf is repeatedly bullied by a fellow student (and he’s not the only victim). Saadia Faruqi has penned a novel that will have readers understanding the effects of hatred and fear on families, communities, and friendships.

This book has a more positive ending than a lot of real-life stories. Ms. Faruqi stated she wanted to show what life could be like when a community steps up and does the right thing, and I think that’s not only an excellent message, but that this book provides an excellent blueprint for what it looks like to do the right thing, from Yusuf’s gentle parents, the pastor who doesn’t back down, the friend who realizes he was wrong, the principle who steps in to change school policy. There are a lot of examples of missteps in this book, but there are far, far more examples of characters who recognize their errors and who work hard to make things right. And that’s how things should be.

Yusuf is a well-developed character. He’s a diligent student with varied interests, and his affection for his much younger sister is really sweet to read. His friend group is diverse, with distinct characteristics (one boy who’s more religious than Yusuf, another who is dead-set on assimilation, a girl who’s initially miffed at her role in the robotics club but who totally rocks it, a relative of the school’s and town’s biggest bully who changes throughout the story), and his religious community is complex, varied, and interesting. I enjoyed the scenes set in Sunday school (Islamic teaching classes for kids that happen on Sunday; my synagogue also has Sunday school for kids! Just religious school on Sunday), and Yusuf’s relating the lessons he learned there to the events happening in his daily life.

The Islamophobia is painful to read, no doubt. Yusuf’s family and friends suffer (and suffered in the past) due to people’s fear and misunderstanding about their religion and culture. Even the microaggressions, such as Yusuf’s teacher calling him up in front of the class to explain an Islamophobic incident in school, as though he were the authority on all things Muslim simply because he’s Muslim himself, show his distress well (teachers and other folks, don’t do this to your students!). If this were a perfect world, we wouldn’t need to read about other people’s pain in order to fully understand it, but I hope that this book makes clear how harmful it is to disregard the feelings of our Muslim brothers and sisters, and the pain it causes them when we stand on the sidelines instead of coming to their aid.

Homeschoolers, this is an excellent teaching tool if you’re doing a unit on September 11th, and it would make an AMAZING parent-child read together or book club selection. (DO NOT put your Muslim members on the spot, though! If anything, ask them privately if they’d like to share anything about their experiences, but don’t expect them to put their pain on display as a teaching tool. PLEASE.) Heads up for several mentions of COVID, including mention of a family death in the year prior; COVID is over during the telling of this story, so I’m guessing either the references were added in afterwards, or the book was finished in the days when we expected this would be a much shorter-lived experience.

Wonderful, wonderful book that I can’t recommend highly enough, both for the middle grade to early YA set, and for adults as well.

Visit Saadia Faruqi’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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Book Review: Men Who Hate Women – From Incels to Pickup Artists: The Truth About Extreme Misogyny and How It Affects Us All by Laura Bates

If you’re a woman, you know. You know there are men out there who hate you simply because you were born (or became) a woman. They make shitty misogynistic jokes that they think are hilarious, they roll their eyes when you talk about the statistics that one in three women experience domestic violence in her lifetime, they talk about how men are the real victims in all of this. They grope. They harass. They assault. They abuse. They rape. I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t come in contact with men like this; many of us are unfortunate enough to have them in our own families. And the problem is growing. The internet has made institutionalized misogyny widespread, and it’s cropping up in our schools, our workplaces, and our government policies. Laura Bates has chronicled this infuriating phenomenon in her outstanding book, Men Who Hate Women – From Incels to Pickup Artists: The Truth About Extreme Misogyny and How It Affects Us All (Simon & Schuster UK, 2020).

Chapter by chapter, Laura Bates introduces us to the different types of misogyny that have become prevalent throughout the culture: the incels (short for involuntary celibate, this is a group of whiny men who feel that women owe them sex simply for being male, and they refuse to take responsibility for having lame personalities and zero decent personal grooming habits. Because of course it’s our fault and not theirs that they’re alone), the pickup artists (slimy, manipulative conmen who will go to any lengths to get women to sleep with them, and who think that rape is no big deal), the MGTOWs (Men Going Their Own Way; basically, dudes who are so done with women, they want nothing to do with them, which pretty much sounds like a giant favor to the rest of us, but which can have major affects on women if, say, your boss belongs to this group), and others, including red pillers and men’s rights advocates. These men spend their time on a portion of the internet collectively known as the manosphere, where they share degrading memes, make pathetic jokes, and egg each other on towards violence. More than a few mass shooters have been known to participate in these misogynistic communities; almost all of them have had prior convictions or accusations of some sort of violence against women.

This well-documented book illustrates the violence, fear, and extreme black-and-white thinking that goes on in the minds of the men who identify as members of these groups, and the real-life consequences and outcomes of such groupthink.

Once again, this is not an easy read. It’s an extremely disturbing exposé that shows the gradual creep of misogyny into nearly every corner of our lives, and how it’s very much not taken seriously. How many times has it come out that yet another mass shooter had been arrested for domestic violence or assault against a woman? Almost every time, and yet it’s barely a blip on the radar of most authorities that this alone is a major risk factor. Ms. Bates, who has received thousands of death and rape threats throughout her career as a journalist for exposing these cretins for who they are, makes the case over and over again that this line of thinking is dangerous- dangerous for women, dangerous for society, and yes, dangerous for men.

It’s a line of thought that doesn’t get enough mainstream press coverage, she argues (correctly!) that toxic masculinity (not men-are-toxic; strictly-enforced-ideas-about-masculinity-are-toxic would be the better way to frame it) hurts men. Women can be anything from a dancer to an engineer; why shouldn’t the same be true and acceptable for men? Why does society want to shove all men into one round hole of ‘tough; unemotional; strong,’ when that’s obviously unhealthy? Men should be able to create beautiful art, and to explain what they were feeling when they painted it (and to be taught from an early age how to understand what it is they’re feeling and TALK about it!). They should be able to become whatever it is they want, from teachers to librarians to engineers to dance instructors and no one should give a shit, because that’s what makes for healthy people and a healthy society. And men should be able (and expected!) to be good, nurturing parents to the kids they create and the kids they take on as their own. Society hurts men (which in turn hurts women) when we expect so little from them.

Will this book help create change? I don’t know. It’s a deep, wide problem that spans the globe, and Ms. Bates is well aware of that. But we have to do better, and being aware that these communities exist and of the damage that they inflict- on women, on our society, on themselves- is a start. At the very least, every parent should be reading this to understand what’s out there and what’s trying to rope your kids in, since most of this radicalization is taking place online (YouTube is especially bad at recommending far-right content; meme farms on Instagram are also a major problem). Be aware; read this book, and make sure you’re paying close attention to the language your teen boys are using (and girls as well; there are some women out there looking to rope in like-thinking young girls. The trad wife movement is a big nasty part of this).

Visit Laura Bates’s website, Everyday Sexism, here.

Follow Everyday Sexism on Twitter here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Talia Lavin on Twitter here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Sandra Goldmark on Twitter.

nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

Visit Deborah E. Lipstadt’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.