nonfiction

Book Review: Rad Girls Can: Stories of Bold, Brave, and Brilliant Young Women by Kate Schatz

I don’t often review the books I read out loud to my daughter (though I do count them on Goodreads), but once in a while, a really great one comes up. I’m always on the lookout for great reads about strong, motivated girls and women for my daughter. She’s a bit of a spitfire and I’d like to ensure that one day, when she’s ready, she’ll use her powers for good, because there’s so much in this world that needs fixing. So when I stumbled across Rad Girls Can: Stories of Bold, Brave, and Brilliant Young Women by Kate Schatz (Ten Speed Press, 2018) on a library trip, I knew that was one that needed to go into her brain. And it was a great one.

In brief columns and write-ups, Rad Girls Can shares stories of young girls and young women who made a difference in the world, spotting a problem and taking action to solving it, or who persevered with remarkable courage when times were tough. Some of the girls featured come out of history, like Anne Frank, Elizabeth Cotton, and Maria Mitchell; others are modern-day rad girls, like Jazz Jennings, Egypt “Ify” Ufele, and Memory Banda. The girls come from many different countries and societies; they fight for an end to discrimination, racism, and misogyny; they work for fair wages, better opportunities, and more access to education. They start companies, forge global movements, compete, and perform. They’re the kind of girls we want our daughters to take courage from, and the kind of girls we look at in amazement and come away inspired.

This is a seriously great book. The writeups are short enough that if one doesn’t necessarily interest a reader (hey, not everyone is into rock climbing or stories about warriors), the next one very well may. The girls portrayed are varied and interesting, and there are enough topics covered that at least one should stand out to a reader and intrigue them enough to make them want to learn more. This would be a great jumping-off point for a larger project on an inspiring woman, and a great parent-child read. Heads up for some mentions of forced marriage and periods (this sparked a good discussion with my daughter).

Excellent book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this to my daughter.

Visit Kate Schatz’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

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.

nonfiction

Book Review: White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color by Ruby Hamad

It’s been another busy week around here, so I haven’t gotten a ton of reading time, but I’m immensely glad I made some time to finish reading White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color by Ruby Hamad (Catapult, 2020). If you are lucky enough to have Black and brown friends who use their time, energy, and voice to share with you their experiences and their knowledge, listen and take to heart what they say. I have several of those women in my life and I’m deeply grateful for their presence and the way they teach in the hopes that things will get better. It was one of those friends who recommended this book (thanks, Jo!); I put it on my list immediately, because no matter how much work I’ve done to free myself from the racist messages I’ve absorbed simply by growing up and living in a culture as racist as ours, the work is never done. We can always do better. And white friends, we have to do better.

Ruby Hamad has written an incredible book about how white feminism leaves women of color behind, how white women continue to marginalize women of color. It’s not just our words and actions; it’s the way we cry, as though we’re the victims, when called out on our behavior. Instead of listening, considering, and realizing that what we said or did was wrong, we break down in tears (and not tears of regret, tears of anger) and lob “How can you SAY that? How can you be so mean?” at the woman or women who had pointed out our harmful behavior. And that’s the problem- unfortunately, we don’t always know our behavior is hurtful (again, living in a racist culture, we absorb messages and behaviors we don’t necessarily think of as racist, but they still are, and they’re still hurtful. It doesn’t matter that our intent wasn’t hurtful if it still harmed someone), and we react with anger, vitriol, and accusations, turning the person who was trying to prevent further harm into the aggressor.

Example by example, using history to back up her narrative, Ruby Hamad illustrates exactly how poorly white women handle matters of race, and the harm it inflicts on women of color. There can be no true sisterhood of women until white women understand the gravity of their harmful attitudes, and it’s up to white women to unlearn these attitudes, to listen and change their ways.

This is an incredibly necessary book. Women of color may benefit from it as well, having their experiences validated and feeling not so alone when they read that other women have gone through these things as well. But if your heritage is primarily from a European background and you check the box marked as ‘Caucasian’ on forms, you need to read this book. Because we HAVE to do better. We HAVE to be better friends, better allies. We need to stop the white woman tears, call out racism and bad behavior when we see it (even if that upsets other people- sorry, but it’s the right thing to do. The right thing isn’t always the easy thing, and really, if someone is hurting people and refuses to recognize that, you need to reexamine how much you want someone like that in your life). Tell your racist uncle to shove it at Thanksgiving dinner; cut off your best friend mid-sentence; and more than anything, when a Black or brown friend tells you something you said hurt her, SHUT UP AND LISTEN, AND THEN DO BETTER.

The future of our world depends on this.

While I don’t *think* I’ve white woman tear’ed (as the book refers to it) anyone, I am aware of several times in my life I didn’t speak up when family and friends, both in person and on social media, were saying racist things. Three specific incidents came to mind as I was reading this book, incidents that I didn’t think of at the time but that I now recognize I should have stepped in and said something. I’m saying this here because I’m guilty as well; so often as women, we’re taught that we need to keep the peace, we need to not rock the boat. But there are already people rocking the boat so hard that Black and brown women are being thrown overboard with reckless abandon. Perhaps by speaking up when we see other white women engaging in racist behavior and white woman tears, we’ll not be so much as rocking the boat but steadying it, making it a safer place for everyone.

This is one book I’m begging everyone to read. Read it, learn it, live it. Recognize your own shortcomings and racist attitudes. Be honest with yourself about when and how you’ve been wrong. Listen to your Black and brown friends, take their words to heart, and be the kind of friend and feminist they need you to be. Because we may all be in this together, but the stakes are a lot higher if your skin isn’t white, and for too long, white women have been okay with grasping for even miniscule scraps of power while throwing darker-skinned women under the bus in order to do so. No more.

Follow Ruby Hamad on Instagram.

nonfiction

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.

nonfiction

Book Review: Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness by Jennifer Berry Hawes

One of the many benefits of having bookish friends is when they make you aware of a book that you likely wouldn’t have picked up on your own. My friend Jennifer, who is a librarian extraordinaire at a university in Alabama, told my longtime parenting group’s book forum about an author visit she was hosting a while back: one Ms. Jennifer Berry Hawes, author of Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness (St. Martin’s Press, 2019). I remembered this tragedy well; the title of this book, however, made me a little nervous. I had avoided the book about the gunman who shot up an Amish school simply because of the religious pressure to forgive, which isn’t the way my religion works, and the very idea of being required to forgive even when you’re not ready for it made me uncomfortable. But my friend assured me it wasn’t that kind of book; that not everyone forgave the killer, and that it was a really incredibly story all around, so onto my list it went.

In 2015, Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a traditionally Black church, hosted a Bible study one Wednesday evening in June. A young white man joined the Black churchgoers; this wasn’t unusual, and they welcomed him with open arms. And as the Bible study concluded, the young man pulled out a gun and murdered nine people.

The manhunt that followed was successful fairly quickly, but the mess he left behind at Mother Emanuel, as the church is known, stretched on and on. Almost the entire pastoral leadership had been murdered; husbands had lost wives, wives had lost husbands, parents had lost children. Grief amplifies what is already there, and some family relationships, already struggling, fractured further. The leadership that took over in the wake of the massacre seemed to have the wrong motivations, and financial hijinks made everyone suspicious. Longtime church members, include some who were present and survived the massacre, began to fall away from the church. Some of the survivors immediately forgave the gunman; others struggled with the concept, while still others were unsure how to ever move on with their lives without their loved ones.

This isn’t a pretty, wrapped-up-in-a-bow, everyone-holds-hands-and-sings story of a mass shooting. This is raw pain and anger, desperation, and grief. The survivors grapple with a lot of painful emotions surrounding the massacre- not only the losses of the their friends and family, but the losses of their trusted clergy, the loss of their perceived safety, the loss of trust in the team that stepped in to lead afterwards, the loss of love between family members, the anger they felt at the entire situation. Their pain and, at times, desperation, is palpable. Ms. Hawes conveys that excellently while still allowing the survivors the respect and dignity they deserve.

There is quite a lot of coverage of and about the killer in this book (I’m not using his name here); the depths of his soullessness are disturbing, so be prepared for that if you pick this book up. And there are plenty of parts that will bring you to tears, for many different reasons- depth of strength, grief, suffering, the community coming together, the senselessness of it all. There’s hope as well, but mostly, there’s pain, and a community that suffers deeply because of hatred. Grace Will Lead Us Home is an amazingly well-written book, one that I wish hadn’t had to be written at all.

Visit Jennifer Berry Hawes’s author page here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

The United States may call itself a country of immigrants, but it’s not a country that’s known to be kind to immigrants. Not in the past, and not now; not by our government, nor by our citizens. Obviously there are major exceptions; there are a ton of organizations out there fighting really hard to make this country a safe and welcoming place for our newcomers (I’ve volunteered teaching English as a second or other language in the past with one of these great organizations!), and I don’t want to discount their hard work and amazing contributions. But as a whole, the crazies tend to shout incredibly loud and drown out the voices of the helpers; we make it as difficult as possible to come here legally (unless you’ve got plenty of money, and then the rules don’t count); and it’s difficult to start a new life here when you have nothing, because we offer so little in terms of help. One of the people speaking up about how difficult it is for immigrants is Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, an undocumented writer (she’s on DACA) of undocumented parents. Her book, The Undocumented Americans (One World, 2020), is an eye-opening gut-punch that examines the difficulties of living in the United States without legal status.

How much do you know about undocumented immigrants? You’ve probably read the stories of people smuggled in on trucks or making dangerous journeys across the desert with coyotes (people paid to smuggle others into the US), and seen the tragic photos of families drowned in the Rio Grande. What happens to the people who make it here? They pick your fruits and vegetables. They clean your office buildings. They build your houses. They package your food. They cook the food you eat in restaurants, they clean up after natural disasters, they rushed in after the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001 to sift through the debris that gave them cancer in order to get New York up and running again. They serve and give. They do all of this without health care, often at massive personal expense, with zero protection- if their boss doesn’t pay them that week, there’s nothing they can do. And so they suffer. And Karla Cornejo Villavicencio wants you to understand exactly how much, and what that does to not only them, but to their families. Their children. Their communities.

There are other books that will illuminate the reasons people come here illegally- desperate for safety after their lives have been threatened, searching for a way to make more than $50 per week at a full-time job, etc.- but Ms. Cornejo Villavicencio is more interested in explaining the emotional and physical damage her people have suffered. Are suffering. Will suffer. She’s angry- rightfully so, because for all that a large faction of our country likes to talk about respecting life, we certainly have no problem using the lives of these people- taking what we need when we want restaurant food, clean offices, help after natural disasters- and then throwing them away once they’ve served their purpose. Their pain is fresh and raw, and what they suffer is passed down the line to their children. The Undocumented Americans is heavy proof that we as a society are shirking our responsibilities to humanity.

This is a sad, heavy book about a group of people who have suffered a lot even before arriving here, and who continue to suffer after they arrive. Ms. Cornejo Villavicencio floods each page with raw emotion, anger, desperation. She’s a Harvard graduate and a current PhD candidate at Yale, but she makes the case that so often, when we hear of undocumented immigrants, we hear of stories like hers, the brilliant kid who climbed higher than anyone could have possibly imagined, and don’t they deserve citizenship for their brilliance? But what about the other people- the ones who came here out of desperation, seeking safety, the opportunity for their kids to simply go to school, who work two or three jobs (or more) at a time in order to make sure their children would have paper and pencils and whose services and lives and abilities we Americans take advantage of every day of our lives? Are people only worth it to us when they contribute massively to capitalism? Are human lives only worth as much as their financial potential?

We’re so willing to dismiss this group of people, and this book will show you exactly what we’re looking past every day. I can hear the arguments now- “Well, they came here illegally, so it’s their own fault that-” and I want to scream. They’re human beings. They’re people. Why are we so hell-bent on making people suffer for such stupid, arbitrary rules? Why can’t we take care of people in a way that makes them more able to participate in society? Why are we so willing to throw so many people away, simply because they had the audacity to be born somewhere else?

This is a book that will make you cry, if you’re at all a decent person. I’ll continue to vote for people who want to be part of a compassionate solution, and to do what I can so that the people Karla Cornejo Villavicencio writes about have better, safer, healthier lives and more opportunities than just breaking their bodies down piece by piece and dying young because of it. Because they’re people, and they deserve so much better than the cast-off scraps we deign enough for them. This book was truly amazing and heartfelt.

nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Talia Lavin on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Equal America by Carol Anderson

This review will look a little different than my usual reviews.

A few years ago, I read White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson. It’s American history with a spotlight on how deeply and violently racist this country has always been to Black people, and while I knew of many of the stories Ms. Anderson recounted, the details she included and the stories I hadn’t known about were shocking. I was appalled, and this has since become one of the books I recommend the most, because it’s history that everyone needs to know about and understand. Because of that well-written, beautifully researched, and eye-opening book, everything Carol Anderson has ever written is on my TBR- though I’m spacing them out; they’re a lot to handle, but they’re such important books- and next up was The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021).

The Second Amendment, which gives Americans the right to bear arms, has never been applied equally. We’ve seen that play out time and time again, when Black people (usually men, though not always) who are legally in possession of a weapon and are acting in a responsible manner with it are shot and killed (whereas white men who have murdered people as part of an active shooter situation are taken into custody alive and unharmed). Think of Philando Castile or Tamir Rice, both now dead- one had a legally registered gun, which he had informed the police about; the other had a toy gun. Both are now dead. Compare that with all the perpetrators of mass shootings we’ve seen in the US that have been taken into custody alive, even after murdering people. There is a history to all of this, unfair rules that were harshly applied to the Black community, who were never allowed to defend themselves against anything or anyone, and Ms. Anderson meticulously documents it all in the pages of this book.

The Second isn’t a long book (there are a lot of footnotes; her research is meticulous, and I ended up flipping to the back quite often out of curiosity as to what sources she was using, and also because I wrote down a few quotes and wanted the original sources), but there’s a lot to digest here, a lot to wrap your brain around, and I had to keep stopping and rereading passages to make sure I understood them. American history as we’re taught in school is usually about brave patriots who stood up to tyrants; they leave out how often we were the tyrants ourselves. We leave out how racist our founding fathers were; we leave out most of the laws and court rulings that told Black people in no uncertain terms that they weren’t human beings, that their lives were worthless, that they weren’t entitled to self-defense or the rights of citizenship. Carol Anderson doesn’t leave these things out; she’s the education you should have gotten before, but likely didn’t. I was actually lucky and had a few grade school teachers that didn’t hold back when it came to speaking truth about American history; even so, there have still been many things I missed, and I’m grateful to Ms. Anderson and other writers like her to help fill in the gaps and help me understand exactly how deep the injustice in this country runs.

This review is more to make readers aware that this book exists- I’m not a historian and can’t review it as such, but the history she relates is heartbreaking and infuriating- and that Ms. Anderson’s writings are important and deserve your attention and consideration. The US has a lot of work to do to clean up the messes it’s made. To be honest, I’m not sure we have the willpower to do it; there are a frightening number of people out there who seem to revel in being as cruel as possible to as many groups as possible. But the decent people among us know that it’s a fight worth fighting, no matter what the odds, and the first step is being aware of exactly how much work there is to be done. Books like The Second and White Rage are excellent places to start.

Visit Carol Anderson’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit Wendy Pearlman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.