nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

Visit Deborah E. Lipstadt’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini

It’s no great secret that women have been left out of a lot, if not most scientific research in the past, from behavioral studies to medicine- because why bother? They’re totally basically the same as men, right? Except wrong, and that has had serious, often deadly, consequences for women all around the world. I’ve read a few books on this topic in the past few years; Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong- and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini (Beacon Press, 2017) was the latest on my list. It’s a short book; what’s it’s not short on is science and information that’ll make you think.

For most of recorded scientific history, women have been left out of research and studies. There was no need to study them, (male) scientists thought, and the reasons were many: there was no difference between men and women, scientifically. Women could get pregnant and medications might harm the developing fetus, so better to leave them out and just assume the medication worked on them in the exact same way it did men (uh…sorry ‘bout that, dead women). Science already knew how women were different than men: they were passive, subservient, incapable of understanding difficult scientific concepts like men, and less intelligent, with their tinier lady brains…if you’re not screaming by now, check your pulse.

Angela Saini shines a light on the myriad ways that science has ignored women (and not just human women! Why bother studying the females in ANY species, amirite?!!??? *screams again*), and the new research- oftentimes spearheaded by the women who are beginning to engage in research in larger numbers than ever before. This new research isn’t without its detractors, often men who still cling to the juvenile idea that women are just weak, limp creatures incapable of engaging in more than cleaning and child raising and cooing over big strong men, but it’s shoving science in a direction that it should have gone ages ago.

I enjoyed this, but it’s pretty deeply scientific and not the most casual of reads- to be honest, it often read like listening to my biologist husband speak (which isn’t a bad thing!). It was a little bit of a slow read for me, both because I was busy getting stuff done around the house and because I kind of wanted to digest all the information thrown at me. While I knew from other reading that women have long been left out of medical trials and health-based research, I hadn’t really known that scientists hadn’t bothered studying the behavior of female chimpanzees, bonobos, even female birds were left out of the research for a puzzlingly long time, simply because scientists assumed, “Oh, they’re just out there mothering. They’re built for mothering, they just want one single mate to be strong providers with strong genes for their babies, and they’re no more complicated than that.” Shockingly, it turns out that lumping all female creatures into one ladyparts-means-THIS pile is incorrect (and you’re going to be so grossed out by how many dudes are offended by the fact that they got this wrong, and who straight-up seem to scoff at Ms. Saini for questioning them on this). There’s a lot on animal research in the second half of the book, which didn’t interest me quite as much as the medical research bits, but I’m glad I read it, so that I better understand the depths to which half the population has been ignored in all facets of science.

Interesting book, though infuriating to read in terms of subject and how arrogant male scientists have been throughout history.

Visit Angela Saini’s website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell

I was reading over at Hey Alma a few weeks ago when an article leapt out at me: Jews Probably Won’t Join Your Cult by Emily Burack, all about the new book, Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell (Harper Wave, 2021). The article was great, the book sounded fascinating, and lo and behold, my library had a copy on order! I put my name on the list, and got the email that my book was in this week- of course when I already had like six books sitting at home waiting for me. As is almost always the case. Everything comes in at once. It’s a good problem to have, isn’t it?

Amanda Montell’s father grew up in Synanon, the addiction-recovery-program-turned-cult of the 1970’s, so she grew up hearing stories of cult life. But it was her background as a linguist that had her considering what makes and keeps these groups- not all of them religious- together, and the answer to that is language. Each group has its own lingo, yet they all use similar linguistic techniques to pull followers in, establish themselves as a moral (or otherwise) authority, maintain said authority and bypass certain followers’ inner warning system, and preserve the control they hold over their followers’ lives. From Scientology to Jonestown to MLMs to CrossFit to the cult of Trump, what these groups have in common is the way they use language as a means of groupthink and control, and Ms. Montell illustrates this beautifully in a book that, while academic, never strays toward the dry. This is fascinating reading.

From group-specific vocabulary to thought-terminating clichés (once you learn what these are, you’ll hear them everywhere, just as Ms. Montell warns), the language techniques used by these groups- some of which are straight-up cults, others which only tap dance on the border of cultish- follow similar patterns. That message you get from that girl you went to high school with (“Hey girl! LOVE your posts! You have such a great energy. I have the BEST opportunity for you, if you want to make some money staying at home with your kids IN YOUR PAJAMAS! Who wouldn’t love that, right???”), the fitness guru yelling at you from the screen of your Peloton, and that all-smiles dude in the suit who wants to have a chat with you about where you’re going to spend eternity all use similar tactics. They may not sound the same, they may not have the same end goal, but they’re cut from the same cloth. Listen closely, and the language they use is all similarly cultish.

I’ve read a lot of books that dissect language use over the years, and Cultish is probably at the top of that list in terms of ease of read and enjoyability. Ms. Montell delves into well-known death cults, such as Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate, but she also tackles newer groups such as Peloton, SoulCycle, CrossFit, and various MLMS- groups that, while they aren’t exactly full-on cults, at least make a lot of people vaguely uncomfortable and inspire their devotees to never, ever shut up about them. (Seriously. The MLM people, amirite???)

If you like learning about language usage, you’ll enjoy this book. If you’re interested in cults and groups that inspire their members to near-cultish devotion, you’ll enjoy this book. And if you’re interested in both things, this is definitely one you won’t want to miss. (“Hey girl! I have got a book you’re going to LOVE!”)

Visit Amanda Montell’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son by Michael Ian Black

If you’re my age (40) or older, you might remember a sketch comedy show from MTV called The State. With sketches like Barry and Levon, The Jew, the Italian, and the Redhead Gay, Doug, and The Animal Song, The State was irreverent and hilarious, and twelve/thirteen year-old me was utterly obsessed. Quite a few of the cast members have gone on to have flourishing careers in Hollywood, including Ken Marino, Michael Showalter, Thomas Lennon, and, one of my favorites, Michael Ian Black (not gonna lie; tween/early teen me thought he was super cute). So when one of my friends mentioned she was reading his A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son (Algonquin Books, 2020), onto my TBR it went. I checked the shelves for it a few times at the library, but it was always checked out, but last time, it was in. Score!

The book begins with some disturbing images of the Sandy Hook school shooting. Black and his wife reside in Connecticut, one town over from Newtown, and were thus tasked explaining the murders to their young children. This sent him down a path of pondering what’s wrong with manhood and masculinity today, since it’s overwhelmingly boys and men that commit these atrocious mass shootings. What are we doing, what are we teaching our boys that far too many of them find solace solely in violence? Why do we shove boys and men into such small boxes, emotionally speaking, and then act shocked that so many of them are emotionally stunted? Why do we act like being emotionally stunted is a good thing? What are we even doing here???

This is a really deep look into how badly we fail our sons and how much our society suffers for it. Some of it is a memoir, of where Black succeeded, where he failed, where he could have done better, and where he was allowed to skate by simply because he’s a white man. Other parts are heartfelt advice to his son: do this; don’t get messed up with that; allow yourself to feel things; don’t fall into the traps of masculinity that society says you must; I’ll keep trying to be a better man, and so should you, because we owe it to ourselves and to the world.

This is a really beautiful book. Time after time, I was blown away by Black’s in-depth thoughts on how toxic we’ve made manhood. (Remember when Fox News flipped out about Obama’s tan suit and his ordering Dijon mustard on his hamburger? That’s part of it. Flavor and style are feminine traits, y’all. Real men eat sawdust and wear barrels with straps *eyeroll*) We can all be better about this; we can all do better with this, and there are so many examples of how in this book. This is a subject about which he obviously cares deeply and has spent a lot of time thinking about, and it shows in his writing (which is smooth, witty, and enjoyable to read). This is a man who loves his kids and isn’t afraid of being tender with them. I hope his son realizes- someday, even if he’s not there yet- what an absolute gift his father has given him by writing this.

Who can benefit from this book? Quite frankly, everyone. Parents of sons. Parents of daughters. Anyone who interacts with men and women. Young men. Young women. People who read. People who don’t read. If you’ve ever wondered what’s wrong with American society, you should definitely read this book. Reading this made me wish I could sit down for a long conversation with Michael Ian Black, because he’s obviously an intelligent man who puts a lot of thought into the things he cares about, and I’d love to hear more from him.

What a wonderful, moving, thought-provoking book. I was sad to reach the end.

Follow Michael Ian Black on Twitter.

nonfiction

Book Review: What’s Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She by Dennis Baron

“What’s your pronoun?”

She/her/hers. They/them. He/them. Xie/hir.

Pronouns are popping up all over: in social media bios, in our screennames on our nine million daily Zoom calls, in applications and various forms we’re asked to fill out (I just wrote out my pronouns in a volunteer application about fifteen minutes ago. LOVE that they asked). Odds are you’ve come across at least one person who uses what is thought of as a non-traditional pronoun; I know several in person and many more online who do. But is this really a new phenomenon? Not at all, says Dennis Baron in his study of the subject, What’s Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She (Liveright, 2020). This went on my list as soon as I learned about its existence; I’m a bit of a language nerd, so the subject interested me, but I’m also interested in being the best ally I can, so I knew I needed to learn more.

English is seriously lacking in a common-gender pronoun. What’s commonly used is they/them, but grammar fascists have long had their issues with that. (Insert eyeroll.) This isn’t a new problem. Dennis Baron points out that what we think of as ‘alternative’ pronoun use in the US goes back to the 1780’s, and that’s only how far back we’ve been able to dig up written sources. And singular ‘they,’ as in ‘I saw someone at your house, but they ran off when they saw me’ has been in use since 1376, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. If you’re looking for a book to convince a family member that your pronoun use isn’t just some modern-day fancy, this will help you clarify points and back up your argument. (Not that you should have to; your choices about your identity and how you want to be addressed are valid regardless.)

While at times this book is a bit of an information dump, it’s interesting and informative, and it’s written in a jaunty, fun style that doesn’t exhaust the brain to take it all in. The struggle to use English in a way that suits our needs in terms of identity has been going on for a long time, and it’s chock-full to the brim with whiny, tantrum-throwing men who gasped as though someone had kicked their puppy when it was suggested that maybe women didn’t enjoy being referred to as the generic he (as in, ‘If a guest doesn’t enjoy steamed fish, he is welcome to order something else off the menu’). “Men in power accepted the generic masculine only when it didn’t require them to give up too much,” Mr. Baron states, and then presents this to the reader in example after infuriating example (He meant men in terms of rights, like who could vote, but it meant men AND women in terms of punishment. SUPER CONVENIENT, RIGHT?!!?!?? *ragescream*).

Language changes. Uses change. New words crop up. If you don’t think that’s true, try explaining the sentence ‘I downloaded the browser extension, but then my modem disconnected and I bluescreened’ to someone from 1950. What is eternal is respect and how we treat each other, and though it may take some practice to use pronouns that you aren’t necessarily familiar with, if you can remember to use a woman’s new last name when she gets married and changes it to her husband’s, you can also remember to refer to your friend’s kid or your co-worker as ‘them’ or ‘hir’ when you speak about them. It’s not hard, and it’s not new.

Dennis Baron has really shed a lot of light on how far back the struggle for a gender-neutral pronoun goes. I had no idea that ze, for example, traces back to 1864. And one of the most fascinating quotes I found in the book refers to ‘em, as in “The dogs are missing! We need to find ‘em!”:

‘…the informal ‘em, so common in speech, is not a reduced form of them, but a holdover from the old plural object form hem, with unpronounced h.

Fascinating! I never knew that!

Lots of history and information and men throwing fits because they didn’t want to share society with women (seriously, dudes, get over it. Who raised you???), but you’ll learn a lot about the English language and its use throughout history. It’s really true that everything old is new again in terms of pronoun use. 😊

Visit Dennis Baron’s blog here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket by Benjamin Lorr

I’m one of those weird people who actually enjoys grocery shopping. Of course, the pandemic has changed that a little bit; these days, it’s mostly get-in-and-get-out-as-quickly-as-possible-without-breathing-near-people, but in normal times, I enjoy seeing what’s on the shelves, what products I’ve haven’t tried, what’s on sale. I live by some great grocery stores, so this is always an adventure. It’s because of all this that The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket by Benjamin Lorr (Avery Publishing Group, 2020) ended up on my TBR. I requested it at my library even before it hit the shelf, and there were several people ahead of me! I love knowing I live in a town with such enthusiastic readers.

Think of the grocery stores you shop at- a chain? A big box store? A specialty store like Trader Joe’s, a co-op, maybe a store with lots of organic products like Whole Foods? Maybe you’re one of the few people who still have a local store. Regardless of where you purchase your food, there are rules as to what food ends up on the shelf. The supply chain, as we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, is a machine with many parts, but each part is far more precarious than the average American might expect.

From the studied beginnings and growth of Trader Joe’s to the exploitation of American truckers, from the numbers-and-hustle game of getting a product on store shelves to the exploitation of Thai shrimp workers, Benjamin Lorr covers the profits-over-all system of food shopping in the US and how we as consumers participate in this system simply by our need to eat. Were you aware that a large portion of shrimp in the US is produced via slave labor? Did you know that around 90% of new products end up failing each year, and that the producers of each product must pay to get their products on the shelf? How much do you know about how exploitative the trucking industry is, and how the men and women who deliver everything you consume and use might not be making any money at all, but might instead be paying to work? Almost every part of the machine that works together in order to fill our grocery stores has a dark story that we don’t necessarily see or think about, and it’s all laid out here on the pages of this book.

I went into this book expecting to learn solely about grocery stores, but I came out of it better informed about the horrors of the supply chain that makes American grocery stores possible. Absolutely every cog in this machine runs on exploitation, from the lowest paid shelf stocker to the one-handed Thai slave who works 20 hours a day on a shrimp boat, to the person who has developed a great new product and who has run themselves ragged and put their life savings into trying to get that product into stores. Other than the high-up CEOs and high paid businesspeople at big box stores and mega corporations, American grocery is built on the suffering of people around the world, including Americans.

This is one heck of an exposé, and it’s a pretty depressing read- it’s a necessary one that will change the way you look at grocery stores and the products on the shelves, but it’s a book that will have you questioning your participation in such a terrible system. (I didn’t plan it this way, but the book I picked up immediately after finishing this discusses ways to extricate oneself from this system to the extent possible, since we’re all bound to it in some part.) I did wonder how the pandemic’s affect on the supply chain would have affected the book (toilet paper, anyone?); an additional chapter in future editions would definitely make a great addition, but that might actually be its very own book.

The Secret Life of Groceries will force you to examine the ways you participate in a system that harms so many, and it’ll have you pondering exactly how these stores and corporations are manipulating you through their marketing strategies. Ethical consumption is the responsibility of everyone who can financially manage it, but the modern grocery store has made that a massive, massive challenge, and Mr. Lorr has proved that in this book.

Visit Benjamin Lorr’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz

What do you know about Chicago? The Sears Tower (it’ll never be the Willis Tower, dammit!), the Magnificent Mile, Lake Shore Drive, our sports teams, corrupt politicians…and violence. Maybe Chicago’s violence was the first thing to come to your mind. But whatever you think you know, the story most likely goes deeper, and one of the very best people out there telling the story of the devastation suffered by Chicago’s Black and brown communities is journalist and author Alex Kotlowitz. He’s probably best know for There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America (if you haven’t read that, I highly recommend it). I’ve admired him for years, and I was excited to read his latest, An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago (Nan A. Talese, 2019). There aren’t a whole lot of people out there writing books about Chicago, but Alex Kotlowitz’s masterful writing and storytelling is the equivalent of a thousand lesser authors.

An American Summer begins with Pharoah (not a misspelling), one of the boys profiled in There Are No Children Here, giving an update on his tumultuous life. Mr. Kotlowitz then delves deeply into Chicago’s most violent communities, expanding upon the stories that make headlines, the ones people blow off because they read ‘gang member’ and immediately dismiss the victim/s as unworthy of sympathy. The story, as always, goes far deeper than that. These are real people, loved by their family, friends, and community; they’re parents, friends, employees, students. They’re people who have spent the vast majority of their lives being traumatized over and over again by the violent deaths of their loved ones and community members, and being dismissed by the world around them as not worth caring about. The phrase ‘hurt people hurt people’ comes to mind often when reading their stories, and while it’s difficult to grasp this level of violence, this book illuminates what daily life looks like for the people who live it.

Alex Kotlowitz paints pictures of bleak, isolated neighborhoods full of run-down homes, often abandoned, full of bullet holes and grieving families. These communities aren’t without hope, though it’s occasionally difficult to find. There are high schoolers who have witnessed multiple deaths by gunshot- of friends, of family members, of strangers, often right in front of them. These are entire neighborhoods of people with the worst forms of PTSD and no hope for treatment, because unemployment- and thus lack of health insurance and an income high enough to pay for regular therapy and medicine- is so high that comprehensive treatment is often out of reach.

An American Summer is nonfiction that reads like a heartbreaking novel, but this is all tragically real. I could get into my car and be in some of these neighborhoods in less than half an hour. The massive difference between their lives, their neighborhoods, and mine is unfathomable, and it should never, ever have become like this. These people deserve so much better than what racist America has afforded them. They need jobs, fully funded education, healthcare (including comprehensive medical care)- the same thing the rest of America needs, but the situation is desperate here, and no one makes this clearer than Alex Kotlowitz.

If you think you know Chicago, read Alex Kotlowitz’s work. He’ll show you another side, the people behind the headlines, the trauma lived there every day. It’ll break your heart in a thousand different ways.

Visit Alex Kotlowitz’s website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness by Alisa Roth

Ever since reading Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation by Joseph T. Hallinan in my early 20’s, I’ve been fascinated by prison and have read about it often. And with prisons being the largest supplier of mental health care in the United States, I knew I needed to read Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness by Alisa Roth (Basic Books, 2018) when I learned about it- partly because of this fascination, and partly for semi-personal reasons.

In Insane, Ms. Roth details the challenges the prison system faces being the provider of mental healthcare for its millions of prisoners. Funding is short, so providers- whom it’s difficult to hire for various reasons, including safety and lower-than-civilian-jobs salaries- are constantly lacking. Therapy is challenging when it can only be given out in the open, with no privacy. Fewer providers mean services don’t get rendered in time; meds don’t get handed out in time; diagnoses don’t get made for months, sometimes years. Officers get little-to-no training in how to deal with severely mentally ill prisoners. Overcrowding exacerbates symptoms and strains already strained resources. If you’re unaware of just how overburdened the prison system is in regards to mental healthcare, you’ll have a pretty good idea after reading this book.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t places trying, and Ms. Roth points that out throughout the book. It’s just that this is a monumental task, and the country does almost next to nothing in order to keep these mentally ill patients treated so that they don’t end up in prison in the first place. (Our garbage healthcare system, tied to employment, shares a lot of this blame, as does the lack of therapists and psychiatrists- and I’d say the problem of affordable higher education is also an issue there.)

This is a deeply distressing, heavy book, full of information that I wish everyone knew and cared about. We’re all just one slightly different brain chemical away from ending up as a patient on the wrong side of the law- and that’s if we’re lucky, because far too often in the US, mentally ill people end up being shot by the police. A dear friend of mine had a son who suffered from schizophrenia and one of her greatest fears was always that he would end up being shot by the police during an episode. I learn so much about mental illness from her, and I think of her son and her continued fight to improve mental health care in this country every time I read a book like this. The two of them are a continued reason why I pick up these kinds of books; what Ms. Roth is doing, shining a light on the conditions faced by inmates who are often incarcerated due to the affects of their illnesses, is so necessary, and it’s such a service to the mental health community.

Insane isn’t an easy read. It’s a tough subject matter, and a lot of what she talks about will probably scare you or make you uncomfortable. It should. But you should use this information to become better informed and a better advocate for the mentally ill. Because stigma is bullshit and mental illness is illness- like cancer, or heart disease, diabetes, or epilepsy. It deserves research, resources, treatment options- treatment BEFORE tragedy, as my friend Laura says. And mentally ill people deserve dignity and respect, which Ms. Roth definitely affords them all throughout this remarkable book.

Visit Alisa Roth’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

Slightly different kind of book review today. Not as much of a review as a recommendation, and a plea.

I’ve had Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi (Bold Type Books, 2016) on my kindle for a while, but I hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Which made it a perfect choice for my parenting group’s reading challenge pick for a book that’s been sitting around on our shelves (or digital shelves) for a while. I’m glad my copy was digital; had I been able to flip through a paper copy, I would have been intimated both by the size (592 pages!) and the academic writing style. Instead, I clicked on the icon on my kindle and dove in.

This is a history of racism and racist ideas in the United States from the beginning of the country up until the present (or at least until the book was published in 2016). Whatever you think you know about racism in this country, it’s worse, and this book pulls no punches. That historical figure you always admired? Racist, and disgustingly so. That president you considered a decent guy? Yeah, he said some horrible things and signed off on policies that mirrored those things. History looks a little different than the stars-and-stripes-waving rhetoric that American grade school textbooks push, and if you haven’t really looked into history beyond that, you need to. This book is a good place to start.

This book is extremely comparable in tone and depth to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, so don’t go in expecting an easy, relaxing read; this is a book you work for. There were sentences and paragraphs I needed to reread to make sure I was understanding them fully. There were times when I paused and looked things up online to get some extra information. And on nearly every page, there’s a story that made me want to hurl the book across the room in a total rage. How are people like this? Why? How are they still like this? This book doesn’t answer those questions, but it does provide a fuller picture of the suffering that people who look like me have caused to Black people, and it provides impetus for doing better NOW.

I know over the summer this was free as an audiobook on Spotify; I don’t know about now, but most libraries should have it available. I don’t normally make the suggestion of audiobooks, since I myself don’t listen to them (not enough quiet time here, plus at least for fiction, my brain tends to wander), but if those are your jam, I highly, highly recommend this on audiobook as an easier way of making it through the book, because this is an information-packed, intense read, and I so want everyone to read this book. It’s 2020, people. We should have been beyond racism a loooooooooooonnnnnnnnnnnnng time ago, and instead, we’re still…here. We have to do better. And we can.

Start here. Start with this book. And then go out and do better and be better.

Visit Ibram X. Kendi’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder

I had Nomandland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder (W.W. Norton Company, 2018) on my Goodreads TBR, but when I requested it from the library as an ebook, it was for a reading challenge. I ended up reading something different for that prompt, because this took about four months to come in, but my goodness, was it worth the wait. If you haven’t read this book and you’re American, put it on your TBR right this very second, because this is required reading for every single American. (And if you’re not American, well, it may be eye-opening about what we’re driving our elderly population towards.)

Jessica Bruder follows a group of Americans, mostly at or nearing retirement age, who no longer reside in homes or apartments. They live in cars, vans, campers, refurbished buses, because they can no longer afford a stable life. They live off of disability, Social Security, jobs that pay minimum wage or barely above it, working through illness, pain, chronic medical conditions with little-to-no treatment. They sleep in sleeping bags, covered in multiple blankets, in temperatures that dip down into the teens at night or remain in the 90’s, while snow and ice pile up around their tires, or the occupants in each vehicle swelter. They eat whatever they can cook in their mobile housing, over campfires, sourced from food pantries, given to them by friends. They do their best to survive and keep an optimistic attitude, but their lives are nothing to envy.

These seniors (or close to it) work managing park campsites and harvesting sugar beets and fulfilling orders at Amazon in punishing twelve-to-fifteen hour shifts and sometimes more, in jobs that hand out painkillers for free because their workforce isn’t able to keep up without them. They travel from job to job around the country, sleeping in store parking lots, moving on from campsites after their time has expired, doing whatever they can to stay alive. It’s not always enough.

God. This book is depressing, but it’s important. Take a good look around you the next time you see an RV or a large van or a car that seems a little overly full of stuff. There’s a good chance that there’s someone living in there full-time. (We’ve got one of these at our local library. It breaks my heart every time I see their vehicle parked there. It gets *cold* here in the winter…) And while some families hit the road full-time by choice, these people are forced into it. It seems like one of the main causes is divorce, which turn many people’s stable financial situation into something untenable, but job loss and medical bills are also a major culprit into forcing people into these nomadic situations. If you think you’re immune, you’re wrong. Plenty of the people in this book had worked at the same job for decades, only to be downsized and then discover that it’s impossible to get a new job that pays a livable wage at 59 years old.

Jessica Bruder shines a light on a community that lives in the shadows in the US. Its members don’t like to think of themselves as homeless- they prefer to think of themselves as free from the trappings of life that tie them down- but homeless is absolutely what they are, and at a time in their lives when they should be able to relax, spend time with their family and friends and gradchildren, and take care of their health problems. Instead, they’re shivering through cold nights, trading tips about how to cook on hotplates in a van, and working with broken limbs that they can’t afford to get treated. What on earth are we doing as a country? How is it that we’re so quick to dispose of people???

Nomadland is a shocking, eye-opening, terrifying exposé. It’s one that shows that no matter how safe we think we are, we’re one illness, one spouse’s affair, one job loss away from living in our car. Ms. Bruder must have some serious strength of character to follow the people she profiled in the story for so long; I’m not sure I could have held up emotionally through the end. This book is a page-turner; it’s one of the scariest books I’ve read in a very, very long time, and despite that, I can’t recommend it highly enough. We all need to be aware of what life is like for those who fall through the cracks, because it could be just about any one of us. (If you’re white, that is, and Ms. Bruder does go into explanations for the reasons why there aren’t that many people of color living like this. That doesn’t mean that life for people of color of these ages are necessarily any better or easier, just that living full-time vehicles hasn’t shown to be a solution for these groups in any large number.)

If you’ve read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts; if you haven’t yet read Nomadland, put it on your TBR and come back after you’ve read it, because your thoughts matter to me as well. Everyone should read this book.

Visit Jessica Bruder’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.