nonfiction

Book Review: The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Uncovering Secrets, Reuniting Relatives, and Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland

At-home DNA testing is all the rage these days. How much percentage British are you? Where did your ancestors come from? To whom are you related? So many of us want to spit in that tube and then peer at the pie chart that comes out of it, but the results can be far more complicated than that. I’m one of the millions of Americans who spit in the tube and clicked the link that wound up in my inbox several weeks later, informing me that I’m a good 30% Norwegian, but almost not at all Italian, despite my mother’s Italian maiden name. Fascinating! And that’s why The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Uncovering Secrets, Reuniting Relatives, and Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland (Abrams Press, 2020) appealed to me so much.

The Lost Family starts out following the family of Jim Collins, the Irish Catholic patriarch who had grown up in an orphanage, and who always struggled with his fractured family. Technology hadn’t advanced far enough at the point of his death, but afterwards, when home DNA testing was in its early days, his daughters began uncovering some shocking mysteries. Why weren’t they Irish at all? How on earth were the tests saying Jewish??? Why was Dad (Jim) so very short? What was going on?

Interwoven between the stories of the Collins family and other families whose DNA tests came up with surprises or mysteries are in-depth looks at how the ancestry and at-home DNA testing industry runs: how it began, what it means to the people who ran it (most of them genuinely seem like good people and are super enthusiastic about genealogy), and what the implications are, legally and morally, both for now and in the future. If you’ve ever taken one of these tests or you’re thinking about it, or you just want to put together a family tree, this is a book you need to pick up!

Phew. There is a LOT of information in this book. I was expecting it to be a little bit more about stories like the Collins’ family (and they’re definitely in there; their story and others like theirs are just scattered in between more broad information about companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe), but I walked away with far more knowledge about the genetic testing industry as a whole than I expected. A lot of it was beyond me; I couldn’t begin to explain to you how any of the genetic comparison works and how to distinguish a third cousin from a great-uncle, genetically speaking, but there are plenty of people who could, and they’re REALLY into it (I envy their ability to grasp that kind of stuff. My brain just doesn’t work that way). I did like learning about how the companies grew and how they’re dealing with the more ethical concerns (how to aid customers who are shocked by their results; how to deal when the FBI comes calling and wants to compare genetic data on file with what they have from a crime scene or two), but what I really enjoyed were the personal stories, the family searches and bewilderment, the joy in discovering new relatives, the pain at losing what they thought was family-by-blood, or being rejected by newly discovered blood relatives. Those were the stories I enjoyed most about this book.

This was a slow read for me, simply because the book was densely packed with info, but it’s great science writing with a personal touch. I enjoyed settling down to read this book.

Visit Libby Copeland’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: The Kissing Bug: A True Story of a Family, an Insect, and a Nation’s Neglect of a Deadly Disease by Daisy Hernández

“You don’t know what you don’t know” is something we say often at my house, and I wonder a lot about how many things are out there that I don’t know about (this is why I’m so drawn to nonfiction! I want to know ALL THE THINGS). And when I learned about a book about a contagious disease that affects millions but that most people have never heard of, my curiosity was immediately piqued. And that’s how The Kissing Bug: A True Story of a Family, an Insect, and a Nation’s Neglect of a Deadly Disease by Daisy Hernández (Tin House Books, 2021) ended up on my TBR. And Ms. Hernández was right: I’d never once in my life heard of Chagas.

Daisy Hernández grew up with a sick aunt. Tía Dora had become sick by eating an apple, Daisy believed, until she was older and learned that her aunt, with whom her relationship was often contentious due to, among many things, the aunt’s homophobia, had been infected with Chagas disease after having been bitten by a kissing bug. Tía Dora suffered terribly throughout her life, and Daisy later learned that yet another aunt had died as well of Chagas in South America. What was the insect that had so troubled her family? Despite the phobia Daisy had developed of it, she set out to learn more.

As it turns out, kissing bugs are all over in South America and the southern US. “Every adult with Chagas is a child that wasn’t treated,” one doctor says, and it seems to be true. Many adults who are found to be infected (usually discovered when their blood donation is tested) aren’t symptomatic, though it can take years until symptoms (like heart failure) make themselves known; others begin showing symptoms early on, and no one is sure why. Several years ago, Zika was all over the news, but Chagas, which affects more Americans than Zika, hasn’t gotten a fraction of that kind of attention. With bravery, determination, and a deep-seated curiosity, Daisy Hernández has penned a part-memoir, part-scientific narrative that clues readers in to the dangers of Chagas (with climate change, kissing bugs are heading north – this is everyone’s problem) and the devastation they cause.

When I picked this up, I was a little hesitant. I had just finished a fairly heavy book and wasn’t sure I could handle any intense scientific reading at this point, but Ms. Hernández deftly combines her research with her family’s story. Instead of being bogged down by this, I blew through it in a day. The effects of Chagas are difficult to read about; Tía Dora’s suffering is detailed throughout the book and it’s not pretty, but it’s less shocking than the fact that even with all the medical and science writing I’ve done throughout my life, Chagas had never once appeared in any of it. How does this affect so many people and yet no one talks about it?

The Kissing Bug combines the best of open, honest memoir writing with science writing that is simple enough for even the most science-phobic brain to grasp (I *really* wasn’t much of a science person growing up; it’s only being married to a molecular biologist and getting a daily lecture on All Things Science that has helped me appreciate it more). I appreciated Ms. Hernández’s admissions of how terrifying it was for her to research and write about the very thing that killed her aunts and devastated her family so deeply; knowing how tough it was for her to be out in the field with researchers, collecting kissing bugs in the dark, bending over microscopes to peer at T. cruzi, added another layer of humanity to her story. I’m honestly not sure I could’ve gone on this journey if I were her. Mad respect.

The Kissing Bug is an easy read about a tough subject, and one that desperately needs this kind of light shone upon it. Highly recommended.

Visit Daisy Hernández’s website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Free: Two Years, Six Lives, and the Long Journey Home by Lauren Kessler

The American criminal justice system is a subject that fascinates and horrifies me endlessly; it has ever since I learned about the existence of for-profit prisons in my very early twenties. Since then, I’ve read quite a few books on prison and the court system, and when I saw Free: Two Years, Six Lives, and the Long Journey Home by Lauren Kessler (Sourcebooks, 2022) on NetGalley, I knew that was a book I needed to read. Huge thanks to NetGalley and Sourcebooks (of whom I’ve long been a fan!) for approving my request in exchange for an honest review.

Lauren Kessler has been teaching writing to prisoners for years. So much has been written about prisoners while they’re in prison; she wondered what happened after they left. How easy was it for them to rebuild lives? What made the difference between those who succeeded and those who ended up behind bars again? Ms. Kessler set out to follow six prisoners: five who had reached the end of their sentences and were returning to the free world, and one who was attempting to use the court system in order to shorten his sentence. All would face significant challenges.

There’s Arnoldo, who spent 19 years in prison but who used that time to grow into the man he knew he could be; Leah, with two children in the foster care system and an addiction to meth; Vicki, addicted to heroin and meth and with a long history of paper crimes (credit card fraud, identity theft, etc); Sterling, a juvenile offender who grew into a thoughtful leader while in prison and who is trying to have his sentence overturned; Trevor, whose sentence is overturned and who finds himself forming a life with his prison penpal; Catherine, imprisoned since her youth and released at 30, entering a world she’s never known as an adult; and Dave, who spent 34 years behind bars and who doesn’t understand anything about today’s fast-paced, tech-dominated society.

Lauren Kessler combines deeply emotional narrative with hard-hitting facts and statistics about the desultory state of the American criminal justice system. Free is replete with examples, from both academic studies and the devastating real-life effects, of what prison does to the people who spend time there, and how all of society is affected when punishment triumphs over rehabilitation. When 95% of prisoners will one day leave prison and return back to our society, shouldn’t we care more about how people are treated inside? Shouldn’t we be pushing more for rehabilitation over dehumanizing punishment, avoiding the learned helplessness that happens to so many prisoners and which serves absolutely no one? Lauren Kessler will have you reconsidering everything you’ve ever thought about what happens after the judge’s sentence takes place.

Free is a heartfelt plea for a more just society, a more just court system, and a world that seeks to understand and help rather than punish and discard. It’s a remarkable book that I cannot recommend highly enough, and that left me wanting to read everything Lauren Kessler has ever written. What a wonderful, thought-provoking book this is.

Visit Lauren Kessler’s website here.

Follow her 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: The Day the World Stops Shopping: How Ending Consumerism Saves the Environment and Ourselves by J.B. MacKinnon

I’m a non-consumerist at heart, to the point of, I can actually list the very few things I’ve bought so far this year that weren’t fully consumable (a pair of shoes to replace a falling-apart pair that were about 18 years old, and a pair of battery-operated candlesticks. Everything else has been either food or stuff like shampoo). I’m fully aware of the fact that our societal and worldwide consumption is killing the planet – well, one of the things that is killing the planet, anyway – and that’s how The Day the World Stops Shopping: How Ending Consumerism Saves the Environment and Ourselves by J. B. MacKinnon (Ecco, 2021) ended up on my TBR.

We all know the world has a problem with stuff. Just look around at what we own: closets bursting with clothes (some of which we barely wear), garages and basements exploding with stuff. We even rent out storage units to keep the stuff we can’t fit in our house. And all of this – the production, the transportation, the space used to sell it and the electricity that powers the stores – taxes the planet in massive ways. What would happen if we…just stopped buying things? Just completely stopped? Journalist J.B. MacKinnon methodically explores the impact that would have on the planet and on life itself.

It’s not a simple question to answer, and with the way the world runs, the impact would be on the economy just as much as it would be on the environment, maybe even more so. But it would affect everything and everyone around us (okay, maybe not everyone, and Mr. MacKinnon does get into that). If you’re especially curious about the economic impact of a world that decides that enough is enough, The Day the World Stops Shopping is likely something you’ll enjoy.

This was okay. I was expecting something a little different, maybe a more personalized look at the impact on communities and day-to-day life, of the return of bartering and a more Depression-era take on repairing and making possessions last. Instead, this book focuses heavily on the economic side of the end of consumerism (massive flashbacks to helping my son with his Economics homework, ugh). It was still interesting enough that it held my attention, but I definitely hadn’t added this to my list because of an overwhelming love for the principles of economics.

So this wasn’t *quite* what I wanted, but I’m not unhappy I spent my time with it. I can’t say I care any more about economics than I did, but I learned a few things along the way, and that’s never bad.

Visit J.B. MacKinnon’s website here.

Follow him 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.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis

Obviously, I love nonfiction. If you’ve hung out in these parts for any length of time, you know that I’m a huge, huge fan of that whole section of the library. (I do enjoy fiction as well! I promise!) And I really love nonfiction that reads like a novel. The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis (WW Norton Company, 2021) is exactly that. I learned about it from another one of those best-of-the-year book lists and added it, but I was a little worried about reading it at first. Haven’t we all had enough pandemic at this point? Was my brain too full for this? Yes, and no, respectively. This is an amazing, fabulously-written, rage-inducing explanation of how we got here and why it’s so disgustingly bad out there.

Years ago, a father who worked for Sandia National Laboratories was fiddling with a new work program when his daughter, who had been learning about the Black Death, came in and saw it, and, after realizing that program might be used to predict disease, began working with her father to learn more. They eventually developed a whole project that they managed to get in front of some important people, people who were tasked (mostly self-assigned; kudos to George W. Bush for actually understanding how terrible a pandemic could be and putting together a team to work towards formatting a response. I hadn’t known about this) with working out a nationwide response to a potential pandemic.

This pandemic team saw what was coming. They understood what could happen and began working to put in place a plan to save not just American lives, but lives around the world. The one thing they didn’t expect: that the leadership at the top wouldn’t care. That there was no leadership, that no one cared about saving lives if it meant their egos may take a hit and if the economy might struggle and so, basically, every American would be entirely on their own.

This is a truly remarkable book about a group of wildly intelligent people who understood the dangers of communicable disease and did everything they could to prepare the country, only to be ignored, mocked, and treated as though they were hysterical nutjobs. We could have cut COVID-19 off at the start, could have led the world in the response and saved millions of lives. Instead, we went with the strategy of protecting Donald Trump’s already over-inflated ego and stroking the egos of the people at the CDC (who had little interest in stopping the pandemic, only seeing what happened as it rolled out and protecting the economy instead of lives). We decided to protect the economy instead of people. Michael Lewis has thrown the curtains wide open on how there’s really no such thing as leadership when it comes to public health in the United States.

I’ve pretty much lost all respect for and trust in the CDC after reading this; it’s explained so much to me about why they’re so desperate to get kids into schools with a virus variant that has an R-naught of TWELVE. I’m completely, utterly disgusted, and I’m grateful to Michael Lewis because this book was the perfect read for right now. I understand what’s going on so, so much better now.

If you can’t figure out why the US has made these decisions (or why your country has looked to the US for leadership and has made similar decisions that have resulted in so much death and suffering), if you need to make sense out of why we’re here at this moment in history and absolutely no one gives a shit about the body count, about the trauma being foisted upon healthcare workers (who are leaving in droves because of it), about why the people in charge are insisting that you get back to work even if you’re still sick, this is the book that will grant you some insight into the dearth of empathy and leadership in the top echelons of the United States. We’re all on our own; there’s no one coming to save us.

If I could’ve given this book ten stars, I would have. It was incredible.

Visit Michael Lewis’s website 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.