nonfiction

Book Review: Consumed: On Colonization, Climate Change, Consumerism, and the Need for Collective Change by Aja Barber

I’m not a minimalist – you’d laugh if you see how overrun with stuff I am – but my mindset is definitely heading that way. I rarely buy things that take up permanent residence in my house (books being the one exception, of course, and then most of them are read and passed on). It’s because of all of the reading I’ve done over the past ten-plus years about how bad capitalism has been for the planet. We’re trashing it at an insane rate, and the fast fashion industry is a massive part of the problem. I need that constant reminder to keep up my ‘you don’t actually need that’ mindset, so that’s how Consumed: On Colonialism, Climate Change, Consumerism, and the Need for Collective Change by Aja Barber (Brazen, 2021) ended up on my TBR. Thanks to interlibrary loan, it landed at my house a few weeks ago. It’s an intense read, with a lot of information, but despite the immediacy of its message, it’s also a fun one.

Aja Barber understands your love of fashion, because she feels it too. She loves clothes, she’s worked in the fashion industry, she gets the pull of a new outfit making you into someone new. But she’s also come to understand the environmental and human damage the industry causes: the waste, the mounds of trash produced every single second, the ooze poured into rivers, the overworked, sexually harassed garment workers, the damage caused to their lungs from inhaled fabric particles and chemicals, the low pay, the death that comes from fires and collapse of poorly-constructed buildings. If you’re into fast fashion, you’re part of the problem. Aja Barber is here to help you learn how to be part of the solution.

This is such a necessary book. I love that there have been so many excellent books in the past decade that expose the fast fashion industry for the nightmare that it is. Ms. Barber keeps the tone light, however (a few of the Goodreads reviews complain about this, but I think they’re confusing lack of editing with Ms. Barber’s style). Don’t be mistaken, however; this isn’t an easy read. There’s a LOT of information here; some of it is the story of Ms. Barber’s journey from fashion fan to fashion industry critic (and yet still a fan! We SHOULD be critical of the things we love!), but the rest is about the dangers of the industry, and the devastation. It’s something all consumers should be aware of, so we can make the most responsible choices possible every time we open our wallets.

Visit Aja Barber’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized America by Ryan Busse

I had the privilege of attending a virtual presentation a few weeks ago featuring author and activist Ryan Busse, discussing the US’s massive gun violence problem and his book, Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized America (PublicAffairs, 2021). I hadn’t been able to get a copy of his book before the talk, but it came in soon after and mirrored a lot of what he spoke about in his presentation. He shared slides, some of which came from testimony he’s given to Congress (like half of them care…), and all of it was shocking and terrifying, like so much in this book.

Ryan Busse grew up loving the outdoors. His father taught his brother and him to hunt and fish, but he shared with them the importance of handling guns safety, and that no gun was worth a human life. Thanks to his strong ties to hunting as a child, Ryan grew up wanting to work in the gun industry and made that happen for himself, securing a position with Kimber and helping the company grow exponentially over his time there.

But Ryan’s goals for the company and where the NRA was steering the firearms industry as a whole began to diverge along the way. Whereas Ryan stood by the values of safety and nature conservation he’d grown up with, the radicalization and violence fetishization the industry pushed, along with its commitment to toxic masculinity and profits above human lives, alienated and horrified him. For years, he fought back from the inside, until the damage was too much for one man to even begin to control.

This is quite a damning look at the firearms industry as a whole and how the NRA has poisoned it along with American politics, and has fanned the flames of xenophobia, racism, toxic masculinity, and violence as a whole, all under the guise of making money. “Who benefits from this?” is an important question to ask when you’re consuming social media of politicians and reporters who are doing their best to drum up fear; the answer is very often the firearms industry, as more and more Americans purchase more and more guns and weapons. It’s a disturbing, sickening industry with no morals or integrity, and it makes me ashamed that we as a country let this happen.

I’m not a gun person; I have no interest in them (I’ve been shooting multiple times in my life and I’m actually a pretty good shot, but it’s not a hobby I’m interested in pursuing), and I can’t say this book did anything to make me more interested in guns as a whole, despite Ryan’s obvious respectful fascination (I did appreciate his devotion to conservation and protecting the lands he obviously cherishes, however!). If you’re not into guns, you should definitely know there’s a lot of information in here about them. I can’t say I’m any better informed about makes and models, but I am walking away with a much better look at how dark the gun industry has become in the US, and how they’re a massive part of the problem, if not the majority of how and why we’re where we are today in the US. It’s shameful, but I’m glad to have this understanding now. I wish everyone understood this.

If you’re looking to shed more light on why the US is such a horrific mess, and you want to know how we got here, with mass shootings every ten seconds and no one doing anything about it, look no further. Gunfight by Ryan Busse will explain it all.

Visit Ryan Busse’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: You’re the Only One I’ve Told: The Stories Behind Abortion by Dr. Meera Shah

Abortion has been in the news lately for obvious reasons, and I wasn’t sure if I had the spoons to read a book about it; it’s not always easy to engage with a subject that’s so important but which is also under assault at the moment. After volunteering with a local organization to pack comfort care bags for our local Planned Parenthood a few weeks ago, however, I was ready to pick up You’re the Only One I’ve Told: The Stories Behind Abortion by Dr. Meera Shah (Chicago Review Press, 2020).  

Dr. Shah is a doctor who provides abortion care to patients who seek it out. Because being able to decide when to become a parent is an important part of bodily autonomy, planning one’s future, and in some cases, remaining alive, she is passionate about her work and seeks to help others understand the importance of what she does. Each chapter focuses on one person who, for varying reasons, chose to end a pregnancy; Dr. Shah includes the important medical knowledge necessary to fully understand each situation, and the difficulties that our national climate surrounding abortion adds to what is already often a tense and heartbreaking decision.

The reasons behind the abortion in each chapter are various and complex; from abusive relationships (who wants to be tied forever to a man who has hurt you multiple times???), to a doomed pregnancy where the baby will live maybe minutes after being born (if it survives that long without killing the parent carrying it), to pregnancies that occurred at the worst possible time, to a pregnancy that would render life next to impossible for the entire rest of the family (“Here, person already struggling to pay the rent for you and your three kids! Here’s another new baby; now you can also add $1200+ per month in daycare fees! I’m sure you can handle that!”), there are so, so many reasons why these women choose abortion, and Dr. Shah is respectful of them all, without judgment. Throughout each chapter, she illustrates and emphasizes the importance of being able to examine one’s life and come to the conclusion that becoming a parent (often becoming a parent again) at this moment cannot happen, and how important it is that this procedure remain legal.

So many heartbreaking decisions in this book. Often, the pregnancies were desperately wanted; nature, however, had other ideas about how the fetus would develop, and the parents were faced with the awful knowledge that there was no chance of them ending up with a child even if the pregnancy were continued. At other times, the parents simply realized that bringing a child into their lives was the worst possible thing they could do at the moment. Being allowed to make that decision allowed them to go on to have the lives they wanted – lives that often included, eventually, having more children.

If you’ve never read a book about abortion and are curious as to what could possibly lead a woman to make the choice to have one, this would be an excellent place to start. I’ve noticed that doctors tend to fall into two camps: either they’re terrible writers, or they’re great. Dr. Shah is one of the great ones; her style is engaging and never wanders into stiffy, stodgy medical writing. Her respect for the people she treats is obvious in her gentle handling of the stories in this book, and it’s obvious her patients are lucky to be served by her.

nonfiction

Book Review: Not a Crime to Be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America by Peter Edelman

Poverty is a subject I’ve read a lot about, in vain attempts to understand our societal reaction to it. People are struggling and suffering, and we just…do nothing? And sometimes, we actively make the situation worse, because in the US (and I’m sure in other countries around the world), we see not having money as a moral issue. It was because of this inability to understand the way we view poverty that Not a Crime to Be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America by Peter Edelman (New Press, 2017) ended up on my TBR. It’s a gut-punch of a book, but if you’re looking to understand exactly how difficult it is to be poor in the US, it’s a sock to the stomach that you need.

In a book reminiscent in tone and in the intellectual heft of Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, Peter Edelman chronicles how poverty is systemic the US: the pointless fees and charges that are meant to keep poor people poor; the next-to-impossible roads necessary to make to climb out of poverty; the punishment that we inflict upon those who are already struggling in an attempt to discipline the poverty out of them. We fill our coffers and profit off the backs of people barely managing, or not managing at all; we see them struggling; we enact more laws and regulations meant to drain their accounts. And the cycle continues.

This isn’t history. What Peter Edelman writes about is here and now: court systems enacting hefty fees and fines, prisons charging for anything and everything they can, law enforcement writing tickets, which come with a heavy price tag, to homeless people. In every way we can, we make it harder to be poor. It’s not all without hope; plenty of people are fighting back, and fighting back hard. But this is a systemic issue; it’s baked in deeply to our laws, our law enforcement, our court systems. But in order to make things better, first, you need to understand just how bad it is, and that’s why you need to read this book.

This is an information-dense book; it’s not something you’re going to want to kick back with after a long day at work when you’re looking for relaxation. Not a Crime to Be Poor is a book you open because you want to understand what’s going on, and because you want to challenge yourself and your preconceived notions. After you turn the final page, you’ll close the book with a righteous sense of anger, a healthy dose of empathy for those who are set up to fail in this wretched system, and hopefully, a strong desire to be part of the solution. Read this book in small chunks if that’s what it takes: a chapter at a time, a few pages a day. This is information that all Americans should be aware of, an understanding we should all have.

Not a Crime to Be Poor throws the curtains open on a reality that far too many of us find it convenient to ignore.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Why We Fly by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal

A book on high school cheerleading wouldn’t normally appeal to me. I’m not in high school, my one brief foray into cheerleading (seventh grade) did not go well, and while cheerleaders are incredible athletes, it’s generally not a subject that interests me. But the premise of Why We Fly by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal (Sourcebooks Fire, 2021), along with its first person, dual-narrative structure, lured me in right away. It only took a few tries to finally find it on a somewhat-local-to-me library! (Always glad to see interest in the books that interest me. I’m never too bummed when I have to wait a little bit!)

Why We Fly begins with Eleanor in physical therapy, where she’s been for months following her second concussion after a cheer accident. It’s affected everything about her life – not just her ability to cheer, but her ability to drive, her memory, even her personality. Concussions are serious business, but Eleanor just wants to get back to cheering. At PT, she runs into Three, the star quarterback from her school who’s on his way to college football and a career in the NFL, and things fire up a little between them.

Chanel, Eleanor’s teammate and best friend, is super-focused on success. Leadership runs through her veins, and she’s determined to succeed in everything she does. When Eleanor is named team captain, Chanel can’t believe it; with as hard as she’s worked, how is this possible???

This will affect everything, because the team needs strong leadership right now. Teams across the country are coming to understand the systemic racism inherent in the US, and Chanel and Eleanor’s school is no different. The fallout from their teammates taking a knee during the anthem will have dramatic effects on their school, their friendship, and their futures, and both girls have a lot to learn.

This ended up being a really interesting book. I was kind of expecting it to be more about concussions, but it left that behind early on and segued into the Black Lives Matter movement and how that movement plays out in high school sports teams, how high school administrations respond to it, and how it can divide friendships. Eleanor got caught up in a lot of things in this story; I wondered often if the multiple concussions had made it less likely that she would see she was often making the wrong decisions in regards to the leadership of her team (she should’ve known she wasn’t the right leader from the start) and her friendship with Chanel.

Chanel is a dynamic character. She’s complex, driven (maybe sometimes a little too much?), and hard-working. She gets the short end of the stick far too often, but that usually just makes her work harder. She doesn’t let disappointment get in her way; when it tries, she’s able to refocus and continue on. I liked her character a lot; contrasted against Eleanor, who is a little flakier and nowhere near as driven, she felt like a strong role model.

I do wish we had seen more of what made the two girls friends in the first place. I never got a great sense of what drew them together and kept their friendship going. I did really like the information on concussions in the beginning, though. My son had two (mild) concussions during his teenage years; some kids are just more prone to them than others, but they can be really devastating, and I’m glad more attention is being paid to the seriousness of these brain injuries.

Fascinating look at racial injustice and how today’s social movements play out in high schools and among high school students. I enjoyed this one.

Visit Kimberly Jones’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Visit Gilly Segal’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Give a Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet. by Ashlee Piper

Who doesn’t love a good hard kick in the pants?

Uh, probably lots of people, and I’m probably weird for loving them as much as I do, but I’m the kind of person who NEEDS reminders of why I do the things I do from time to time. That’s how Give a Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet. by Ashlee Piper (Running Press Adult, 2018). I need someone to constantly tell me that what I do has value, that all that extra work I put in helps someone or something, and that it’s worth it. Because of the pandemic, this book sat on my TBR a little longer than I wanted it to, but that’s okay. I interlibrary-loaned it, and it’s all good!

Decent people like to think of themselves as people who care (the not-decent ones are proud of NOT giving a sh*t, so I’m not talking about that gross crowd), and there are so many reasons we need to give a sh*t these days. Toxic rainwater. Much hotter summers. Warmer winters. Pandemic after pandemic because we’re toasting the planet at an unacceptable rate. And those are just a few of the horrifying reasons why we need to care. Ashlee Piper has written a book that will not only explain to you why you should care, but she’ll give you ways to care. And she’ll make you laugh your hindquarters off while doing it.

Eat fewer animals. Switch out the products you use around your house and on your body. Drive less. Chill more. There are so many ways we can do better, all of us. We don’t have to do it all, Ms. Piper says; even a little helps…though once you get going on giving a shi*t, it gets addicting. Little by little, we can clean up our lives and maybe clean up our corners of the planet. It doesn’t hurt to try, and it makes us feel pretty badass.

This is a lovely little book. If you don’t like swearing, it’s probably not the book for you, but if you’re chill about it, this book is funny. I laughed out loud quite a few times. Ashlee Piper destroys the stereotype of the uptight, humorless vegan (I hate that stereotype. I’m not a vegan, but I’m not a fan of stereotypes in general. They’re stupid). She makes caring about the planet fun and exciting. You don’t have to fill your life with doom, gloom, and drudgery in order to make things better; trying new recipes, adopting a pet, going for a bike ride, hanging some clothes out on the line in the fresh air, and using up all your beauty products and then shopping for cruelty-free and sustainable products are all enjoyable ways to show you care about the condition of the planet.

If you’re old school and already living a sustainable life, there’s probably not a ton new in this book, but if you’re just realizing we’re in bad shape and maybe you need to clean up your act a little (and you want to do it in a fun way!), Give a Shi*t is a great place to start!

Visit Ashlee Piper’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: The Girls in the Wild Fig Tree: How I Fought to Save Myself, My Sister, and Thousands of Girls Worldwide by Nice Leng’ete with Elizabeth Butler-Witter

Years ago, in my very early 20’s, I was introduced to the concept of female genital mutilation when my online book club read Do They Hear You When You Cry by Fauziwa Kassindja. Since then, I’ve read other books on the subject, and it never gets any less horrifying. Last summer, my library announced they would read The Girls in the Wild Fig Tree: How I Fought to Save Myself, My Sister, and Thousands of Girls Worldwide by Nice Leng’ete with Elizabeth Butler-Witter (Little, Brown and Company, 2021) as a book club selection. I’m still not going to in-person events, so I missed out on what I’m sure was an amazing discussion, but I definitely still wanted to read the book. That FGM hasn’t disappeared off this planet yet is a tragedy, but it’s a relief knowing there are still brave women (and men!) out there, fighting so hard against it.

Nice Leng’ete grew up in Kenya, a member of the Maasai tribe. Her parents were more progressive than most, and her father had a deep commitment to ensuring that his children were educated. Unfortunately, both of Nice’s parents died when Nice was still in early elementary school, and she and her sister were shipped off to an uncle who wasn’t much interested in raising his brother’s children. Education remained a priority for Nice, and she fought hard to be able to stay in school, but by the time she turned nine, her family began demanding that she undergo the ritual of female genital mutilation. Having seen these scenarios performed and knowing that its risks included infection and death – and especially knowing that having this done would mean early marriage, babies, and the end of her education – Nice refuses, even running away multiple times to escape the knife.

It’s not easy to avoid being mutilated; pressure is intense and Nice is nearly shunned by her family and her community for refusing (her sister is, unfortunately, not so lucky), but she holds fast and not only gets the education she deserves, she goes on to college and begins a career with a nonprofit, working to stop the practice of female genital mutilation around the world.

What a fascinating book! This is another easy read about a tough subject. It’s not as in-depth as, say, Do They Hear You When You Cry, but it’s definitely more accessible for younger readers and would make a fabulous read for the mature middle-to-high schooler looking to become better informed about issues that affect girls and women around the world. FGM is still happening, even in countries where it’s been banned, and Ms. Leng’ete makes an excellent case for why people like her – girls and women who know the community, who are intimately familiar with the communities – need to be at the forefront of demanding change. There are a lot of great lessons in this book about what amazing modern-day leadership looks like.

This is another book I read quickly, but it’ll stay with me. I’m in awe of Ms. Leng’ete’s bravery, and her commitment to becoming educated despite so many challenges. This is another book I’d love for my own daughter to read in the future.

Follow Nice Leng’ete on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith

There has been an amazing crop of history books the past few years that reckon with a lot of the ugly parts of American history, and slavery and racism have been high on the list of subjects covered. I’ve read a bunch of them, with more on my list (I try to space them out; my brain tends to burn out if I read too much on one subject at any one time). How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith (Little, Brown and Company, 2021) is one of the best ones, and it left me not only wanting to learn more, but to read more from Clint Smith.

Author Clint Smith travels around the US and even beyond its borders, in search of the history that continues to bleed from the past and stain the present. Slavery has touched all of American history, no matter how much some groups want to pretend it barely existed or wasn’t a big deal, and Mr. Smith shines a light on much of the history those groups would rather we forget about: Thomas Jefferson’s fathering six children with Sally Heming, his teenage slave; the plantations that dotted the South and were veritable small cities of enslaved people living in hideous conditions while the owner lived in luxury; the plantation-turned-prison that highlights exactly how far we haven’t come (they give tours of Death Row?!?!!?!??).

This isn’t the dry history textbook you read in school. Clint Smith’s voice absolutely shines through, giving this book and the subject the personal, more emotional touch that it deserves. He travels all over the US and even to Africa, where he traces the origins of the slave trade and the scars it left on that continent as well (something I hadn’t yet encountered in writing before, and which made me think). This is history writing at its finest.

The subject matter alone is enough to make anyone with more than one brain cell scream; it’s difficult to read about such horrific injustice, injustice that continues today in different (and not-so-different) forms, without being overcome with rage that people can be so disgusting to each other. But Clint Smith tempers that rage with his calm observances and insight; the people he interviews provide thoughtful commentary and sharp observations on the way the past still affects our present.

This is an amazing, intelligent, perfectly-written book on history that some of the loudest groups out there would like for you to forget exists. Read it for that, but read it more because it’s an incredible piece of writing that will stretch your worldview and make you better-informed about history that the US continues to grapple with every day.

Visit Clint Smith’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Period. End of Sentence: A New Chapter in the Fight for Menstrual Justice by Anita Diamant

I love Anita Diamant. How can you not? She’s the coolest person. She’s an author (likely best known for The Red Tent, but she’s written a zillion other books, including some amazing ones about Judaism; we used her Living a Jewish Life in my in-person, pre-pandemic class), she’s the founding president of a mikvah (Mayyim Hayyim in Massachusetts), she’s funny and smart and interesting (she follows me on Twitter!!!11!!!11111!1!!!), and now, she’s written a book about periods, Period. End of Sentence.: A New Chapter in the Fight for Menstrual Justice (Scribner, 2021). Can I adopt her as my other mom? Because she’s seriously the coolest.

Period. End of Sentence. the film won an Oscar in 2019. This documentary showcased a group of girls working to help fundraise in order to provide machines that would make sustainable menstrual pads for a town in India. Around the world, menstruation is still a challenge for so many girls and women; they’re banished from their communities during that time, not allowed to take part in community rituals, told that their mere presence will cause food to spoil. Girls are forced to stay home from school due to lack of menstrual supplies; some are considered ready for marriage upon the arrival of their first period, effectively bringing their formal education to a halt. Even in the US, period poverty among girls and women is pervasive, and humiliation, including only allowing prisoners five pads per month, permeates our culture.

Anita Diamant has written the film’s companion book, illustrating the (human-created) problems surrounding menstruation and the fight to correct the course. All around the world, women and even some men have joined the fight to normalize menstruation (like, it’s something that happens to half the world; how is this still cloaked in mystery and taboo???) and bring justice and equality to those who menstruate. No one should have their education curtailed because of their period; no one should be kicked out of their home every twenty-eight days; no one should lose their life because they get a period.

This is truly an incredible book that will get you thinking about periods, equality, and what it means to exist in the world as a woman. It’ll get you thinking about what you can do to help, how you can even things up a little. While this would make an excellent mother-daughter read-aloud or mother-daughter book club read, I encourage you to think about making it a family read, too. There’s no reason why periods should be something secretive or embarrassing, and boys should know as much about periods as girls. Our sons should be allies and as dedicated to bringing justice to menstruation as girls and women are, and all that starts with learning and open conversation.

Two thumbs up for this book, and a big high five to Anita Diamant! I really enjoyed this one and will read it again with my daughter in a few years.

Visit Anita Diamant’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival, and Hope in an American City by Andrea Elliott

I’m still here! I’m still alive, I promise!

We’ve had some major life changes that I’ll get into in my monthly update, but suffice it to say, I’ve had so little time to read lately, and even less time to sit down and write out book reviews. It’s been NUTS and probably will be for a while. But one of those best-of-the-year book lists got to me in December, and that’s how I ended up with Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in an American City by Andrea Elliott (Random House, 2021) on my TBR. At over 500 pages, this was a long read, especially with my having less reading time, but don’t let the high number of pages intimidate you; this is a heartbreaker of a book that will stick with you long after you turn the last page.

Journalist Andrea Elliott followed young Dasani Coates and her family, which consist of two parents and seven (I think) siblings, through their tumultuous lives in New York City. Dasani’s family is the epitome of poverty; the parents struggle with drug addiction and violence, and they struggle to provide for their children. Theirs is a story of generational poverty and trauma, and lives let down by the very systems that are supposed to help them.

Poverty, homelessness, hunger, behavioral problems, violence, drug abuse, poor choices, and trauma abound, but Ms. Elliott makes it clear that Dasani’s parents love their kids. It’s just that love isn’t enough, and where outside services could step in to help the struggling family, too often those systems fail, sometimes outright working against what their very mission claims to work for. At times, poor outcomes are as visible as a speeding freight train, but the various family members seem helpless to stop it. Other times, the family is failed terribly, through no fault of their own.

This is a story of poverty that didn’t need to be, of suffering that likely didn’t need to happen, of problems that we could solve, but we as a society choose not to. It is a story of problem after problem that, if not entirely caused by the downfalls of history colliding with modern-day life in American, certainly isn’t made any better by it. Your heart will break over and over reading this book, but it’s worth it, because Dasani’s story deserves to be shared. Her story, sadly, is the story of many.

Visit Andrea Elliott’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.