nonfiction

Book Review: American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears by Farah Stockman

I don’t remember when I learned about American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears by Farah Stockman (Random House, 2021), but I do know it appealed to me right away. A few years ago, I read Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein and really enjoyed it, and that was the book that really opened up my eyes to what the economic landscape of so much of America looks like. I read it as part of a reading challenge; it’s not something I would have picked up on my own, but I’m eternally grateful that I did, and my picking up American Made stems directly from my having read hat book.

So much of the image America has of itself involves people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, getting a job that allows them to work with their hands and earn enough money to live a good life, and to feel pride in what they do. And a large part of this story involves jobs in factories, jobs that you can learn from the ground up and walk into straight from high school, then not leave until you retire at 65. But the landscape has changed. NAFTA opened up the world to trade with Mexico and China, and one by one, these factories picked up and moved overseas. They could pay their employees far less there; operating costs would be less; safety measures wouldn’t be as stringent (thus, upping production); the company wouldn’t have to deal with stupid unions and expensive health insurance. Win-win, right?

Not for the American people who were losing their jobs. The exodus of these manufacturing centers leave the towns they’re located in economically depressed; the former employees are left scrambling to survive. Often, their skills aren’t transferrable, and the only other options for employment leave their pocketbooks nearly empty long before the end of the month. Those jobs most presidents brag about creating don’t often pay a living wage.

Journalist Farah Stockman follows three people who flounder in the wake of the closing of the Rexnord manufacturing plant in Indianapolis: John, a white union head; Wally, a Black man who dreams of opening a barbecue joint; and Shannon, a white woman caring for her disabled granddaughter and schizophrenic son. The moving of the plant to Mexico disrupts their lives in every way imaginable, and the consequences stretch far and wide.

Farah Stockman covers their stories with sympathy and understanding. There are times when the people she follows aren’t entirely sympathetic, but Ms. Stockman never wavers in her work to understand what they’re thinking and feeling, and why they’re reacting and making the decisions they do. Her exploration of the reasons behind Rexnord’s move to Mexico opened my eyes to the long-term consequences of NAFTA, something I hadn’t been fully cognizant of before, and I so appreciate that new understanding. I’ll definitely be reading these stories of plant closings around the US with new eyes from now on.

American Made is an incredible look at the devastation wrought by a more expanded world trade. There are human consequences to what we think of as progress, and it’s so important to understand the whole story. What a great book.

Visit Farah Stockman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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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.

nonfiction

Book Review: In Pain: A Bioethicist’s Personal Struggle with Opioids by Travis Rieder

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or a non-US country, in which case, lucky you!), you likely know that there’s a massive opioid epidemic going on here in the US and has been for over a decade now. Doctors overprescribe, patients get hooked, and little by little, whole towns have been devastated because of this dependence on opioids. But that’s not the whole story, and in his book In Pain: A Bioethicist’s Personal Struggle with Opioids (Harper, 2019), Dr. Travis Rieder unveils his own struggle with opioids and the underlying problems the US has that have created and continue to sustain this crisis. As a person who suffers from chronic pain with periods of acute pain caused by flares of various sorts, I’ve taken opioids before, and they scare me, so I knew this book was something I needed to read.

Travis Rieder’s life was going perfectly fine – great wife, beautiful baby daughter, a new job – until a motorcycle accident in 2015 that crushed and partially degloved his left foot changed everything. His doctors referred to his foot as ‘a salvage situation,’ his injuries were that severe. After five surgeries in five weeks and a lengthy hospital stay, Rieder was on a substantial amount of opioid pain medication – a necessary amount at first, to be sure, after an injury of that caliber. But when it came time to decrease his dosages, none of his doctors knew what to do, and none of them would take responsibility for helping him through what turned out to be an absolutely horrific withdrawal process lasting over a month and getting increasingly worse throughout that time before it got better.

Shaken by his experiences and feeling the societal shame that goes with dependence/addiction (there’s a different that he explains!), it takes Travis Rieder a while before he’s able to speak up about what happened and his suspicion that something went very, very wrong. And as he learns, his experiences weren’t uncommon. Taking a deep dive into America’s history and ongoing problem with opioids and pain control, Dr. Rieder illustrates the urgency of this problem and the steps we must take – the steps we absolutely, 100% lack the political will to take – in order to fully conquer this crisis.

What a remarkable book. Dr. Rieder’s description of what opioid withdrawal put him through alone was enough to make this a five-star read. During my last major flare, a nurse practitioner sent me home with a muscle relaxer (which I occasionally need for spasms; I only ever treat the worst of these) and a very small amount of what I think was Tylenol with codeine (of which I still have like half of the bottle left). All of this was to get me through until the next week, until my appointment with my physiatrist, who immediately put me on the schedule for a steroid epidural (which helped so much…until I mangled something else in my back and needed it redone a month later). Before this, it was about a decade before I’d received opioids for another acute flare (which took about ten weeks until I could walk normally, without a cane, and without dragging my leg behind). I could absolutely sense the danger in that Vicodin; it took away the awful pain, but it also made me feel deliciously relaxed and floaty, and that’s not something I want to get used to. There are BOOKS TO READ. THINGS TO DO. I don’t have time to sit around floating like that, and I knew I had to do whatever it took to NOT need those meds as much as possible. Fortunately for me, my doctor had also prescribed steroids, and by day three, the steroids had taken the swelling down enough that my pain had dropped to a level low enough that I could tolerate it with my normal Celebrex.

That experience alone, though not the first time my back had gone bad, was enough to scare me away from opioids, and it’s why I knew I needed to read this book. Dr. Rieder’s story is absolutely terrifying, and I never, ever want to go through what he went through while in withdrawal. This convinced me that any future use of opioids for acute pain (especially if I ever need surgery) will have me asking my doctor what the plan is to get me off those meds, and how soon.

Dr. Rieder delves into things I hadn’t considered before, such as the difference between dependence and addiction, and the societal shame surrounding both. He does mention the racial issues of the opioid crisis: why was this not a crisis when it was black folks dying of heroin use in the inner cities, but it’s a crisis now that white folks are? (Racism, obvs, and this is very much something we need to have in the forefront of our minds when it comes other present and future crises), which I appreciated. He also discusses our attitude toward pain and how living with zero pain is unrealistic, and how that’s something we all need to think about. That’s a truth I long ago accepted for myself, and while it takes a while to get there, it IS possible. And what I really appreciated most about this book: Dr. Rieder absolutely understands how unrealistic the solutions to this crisis are. We don’t care enough about each other. We don’t have the political will. We look at drug addiction and dependence as a moral failure, instead of a health condition, and thus we look at addicts as people who made a personal choice to place themselves in a bad situation, and we don’t want our tax dollars going to that. We also don’t want our money going towards a socialist, healthcare-for-all system, and thus the more expensive solutions, like extensive physical therapy for pain control, etc., are only available to wealthier patients; the rest get prescriptions for opioids, which can cost pennies per pill. As a nation, we’ve built a system set up for failure, Dr. Rieder argues, and now we’re sitting here wringing our hands over it while rejecting all the solutions.

In Pain isn’t necessarily a hopeful book, but in the right hands, it could very much be an eye-opener that gets the ball rolling. I hope that’s the case. We all deserve better.

Visit Dr. Travis Rieder’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It by Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton, and Sinikka Elliott

Food. It’s part of all of our lives, and it’s likely that you too spend a lot of time thinking about it, preparing it, shopping for it. And if you’re a parent, it’s even more complicated, because no matter what you feed your kids, someone is out there judging you for it (give them snacks: “Why are you feeding them so much sugar? Do you WANT them to be overweight?!?!??” Give them Brussels sprouts: “OMG, don’t they ever get any fun treats?!?!??”). There are a lot of public conversations about food right now, and most of them are headed by rich white men who aren’t struggling to work and raise kids in difficult conditions. Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It by Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton, and Sinikka Elliott (Oxford University Press, 2019) takes a hard look at WHY it’s so difficult for women, on whom the vast majority of cooking falls, to ‘just cook healthy meals at home.’ I’d been looking forward to reading this before the pandemic, and I’m so glad I was finally able to get my hands on a copy.

This research team followed a group of mothers in and around Wake County, North Carolina, to see what their lives were like and the challenges presented to them when it came to food. When food activists like Michael Pollan claim that we need to get back to the kitchen, cooking healthy homemade meals from real ingredients and sitting around the dinner table as a family, he’s not considering the struggles of women like those covered in the book. Irregular work schedules, living out of a hotel where the only cooking implements are a hotplate and a microwave, miniscule budgets, lack of transportation to the less expensive grocery stores, lack of storage space, unsupportive partners: all of these and more factor into the difficult of providing home-cooked meals, and these challenges are almost always dismissed as personal failures, instead of the societal failures that they are.

Pressure Cooker delves deep into the lives of women who universally want to provide their children with healthy, nutritious food, but face often insurmountable challenges to do so. Some are shamed openly for their poverty; others spar with their partners on what a healthy diet looks like (how often should kids have soda and other sugary treats? Dads are far more likely to hand these out than moms); still others struggle with wanting to feed their kids the foods they grew up with in their home countries, when the kids have learned to crave American foods like hot dogs and pizza. Food is a deeply complex subject, and being able to create healthy home-cooked meals is quite often an unrecognized privilege. This book examines why.

Such a fascinating read that was very much worth the wait. There are a lot of really maddening stories in here, such as the woman who was treated terribly at her county WIC office (it never ceases to infuriate me, the hoops we force people to jump through in order to perform their poverty to our liking so they can receive food. I do volunteer work that involves creating spreadsheets of services that include food pantries, and I have RAGE FOR DAYS about the dehumanizing language and requirements pantries have for their clients), and the struggling grandmother living in a hotel with her daughter and two grandchildren. We *could* do better as a society, but we actively choose not to and instead allow people to suffer. It’s shameful.

Food is so complicated, and Pressure Cooker shows exactly how, and how empty so many food activists’ arguments are. Imploring people to cook at home will not fix the deep societal problems that have people hitting the drive through or throwing a frozen pizza into the oven more nights than not (what are moms who have a several-hour commute supposed to do when they don’t even get home until 6 pm and the kids still need to eat, need help with homework, need baths? How are we supposed to live like this?), and this book is an excellent counterargument to the claims that dinner around the family table will fix all our woes.

nonfiction

Book Review: Refugee High: Coming of Age in America by Elly Fishman

It was a segment on NPR that clued me in to the existence of Refugee High: Coming of Age in America by Elly Fishman (New Press, 2021). Located about forty-five minutes from me, Roger C. Sullivan High School in Chicago, the focus of this book, has one of the highest populations of immigrant and refugee students in the country. It’s a fascinating place, and the author gave a wonderful interview. As soon as I parked my car in the grocery store parking lot, I grabbed my phone and smashed that ‘want-to-read’ button on the Goodreads app.

For an entire schoolyear, author Elly Fishman followed the students and teachers and administrators of Roger C. Sullivan High School in Chicago. Increasingly known as a school that serves a population of immigrants and refugees, its students hail from thirty-five countries and speak at least thirty-eight languages. These students have been through and are still experiencing immeasurable trauma; they and their families are struggling to adjust to not only a new language, a new culture, and a new country, but also brand-new dangers in the form of gangs and street violence. Their setting may have changed, but often the levels of the students’ stress has stayed the same, or worse, increased.

While Ms. Fishman focuses on just a small handful of students and professionals at the school, it’s easy to see both the determination and the dedication of both, and the difficulties they all face. The increasingly hostile-to-refugees political climate has absolutely affected the school; fears are up, both for the safety of the students and for the funding that allows the school to stay open, continue to improve, and best serve their population of new Americans. It’s an incredible look into a world few long-time Americans often aren’t aware of, though they all should be.

What an amazing book. At times, it’s heartbreaking; the students have already been through so much before even arriving in America, and more often than not, their lives here continue to be terribly unstable, with poverty, family violence, and insane amounts of stress affecting everything. And with Chicago having the problems it does with guns and gang violence, this bleeds into the lives of these students. With great respect and humility, Ms. Fishman documents their stories, the ups, the downs, the pain, the joys. This can’t have been an easy task, but it’s a masterful account, and respectful every step of the way.

I’m so grateful to authors like Ms. Fishman, who take us as readers into places we would never get to see otherwise. In Refugee High, we sit with students struggling with the language, communicating with each other via Google translate, fearful of the gangs that roam their streets and are targeting them, engaging in a tug-of-war between cultures, between the person they want to be and the person their parents are demanding they become. With all the refugee crises raging across the world, it’s imperative that we develop a better understand of why they’re here and what they go through when they arrive. Refugee High is an incredible look into the world of teenage refugees and what it takes to help them integrate into their new world.

Such a wonderful book. Highly recommended.

Visit Elly Fishman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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.

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