Tuesday, January 15, 2019

This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost- Carolyn S. Briggs

I'm a sucker for a good memoir about leaving a religion or religious group. It's always been my favorite genre of books, and I've been known to shove one of those books to the front of the line whn it comes to what I'm reading next. I'm contemplating the why of it; there's something about belonging to a community and suddenly (or gradually) finding oneself not merely embraced, but suffocated by it, that draws me in. I'm not particularly religious, nor have I ever truly belonged to a group, religious or otherwise, so maybe it's just the intrigue of the unknown. Whatever the reason, This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost by Carolyn S. Briggs was right up my alley.

Ms. Briggs grew up in Iowa, a late bloomer who lived in the shadow of her younger sister until puberty caught up with her and she blossomed at age 16. By 17, she began dating the lead guitarist in a popular local band, and the two married not long after they graduated high school, since Carolyn had become pregnant. When a close friend finds Jesus at college, Carolyn and her husband Eric begin seeking as well, and before long, their entire lives are centered around their new faith. They pass out Bibles everywhere they go, include tracts with the bills they mail out, and pepper their speech with "I'll pray for you" and "Praise Jesus!" Within this intensely religious way of life, Carolyn finds a passion, one that she doesn't feel for her husband, and the identity she left behind to become a married teenage mother and housewife.

As the years pass, her doubts and sadness over her lack of longing for her husband only increase, and it's only when Carolyn returns to college in her 30's that she's finally able to shed the burden her faith and way of life had become. It's clear that she's outgrown not only the stringent beliefs and restrictive lifestyle her religion had stuffed her into, but her marriage as well, and she begins down a new path, one full of intellectual curiosity, where she's allowed to seek happiness and fulfillment in all corners of the earth.

The bulk of this memoir focuses on Carolyn's life as a "Jesus freak," as she called herself, and later on, a fundamentalist (although she never seems to stray into some of the practices commonly associated with fundamentalists; there's no mention of skirts/dresses only or homeschooling, for example, though she does mention that some of the families in the church refuse vaccines because God will protect their children). I found the descriptions of her day-to-day life and how she lived out her faith- and her doubts- interesting; I find great satisfaction in learning about the lives of people who are different from me, and I very much enjoyed reading about the many different versions of Bible study she attended, the growing number of children Carolyn's fellow church sisters kept producing, how deeply she struggled with her doubts about her faith, and the sorrow she experienced over the complete absence of desire she felt for her husband. Her story is not dissimilar to Leah Lax's Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home. Both women who came to fundamentalism in their teens, who filled their lives with religion and babies and who struggled with doubt and truly loving their spouses, until they realized they were living a lie and had to make serious changes, despite the difficulty doing so presented. And, obviously, both really great reads.

I enjoyed this. I enjoyed getting a glimpse into the struggles of a young woman substituting religion for so many other things in life, watching her grow and change and finally outgrow and move on from her earlier choices. I'd love to read more of what Ms. Briggs's life has been like since she left fundamentalism behind.

Apparently there was a movie made based on this book, called Higher Ground. I vaguely remember hearing about it years ago and looking it up, but I had no idea it was connected to this book until I scrolled through the Goodreads reviews. I've now got it cued in my Amazon Prime watchlist, although who knows when I'll get to it- we're currently finishing up season 10 of Supernatural, so we'll be spending a little more time with that. If you've seen this movie, I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Follow Carolyn S. Briggs on Twitter here.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea- Barbara Demick

How jarring is Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick? When I finished it, I set it down and turned over in my oversized chair to doze for a bit on this cold, gray, snowy day. I jolted myself awake just before a snowplow dropped in front of my house...because I'd been dreaming about North Korea.

Truly, I'd had no idea of the horrors citizens of North Korea live with every day of their lives. I'd heard the news reports calling North Korea the perpetrators of the worst human rights violations in the world, and I knew there were problems with food shortages, but otherwise, I knew very little about the country itself, and that was what moved me to pick up this deeply unsettling book.

North Korea is more 1984 than 1984 itself. Ms. Demick's writing paints a picture of a dystopian society where neighbor is encouraged (and sometimes paid by the government) to spy on neighbor, family on family. "By the accounts of defectors, there is at least one informer for every fifty people- more even than East Germany's notorious Stasi.." she writes, a chilling look into a society where everyone must be glancing over their shoulders and no one lets even the slightest hint of doubt show.

Consequences for individualism and free speech are severe. A joke against the leader, overheard by the wrong person, led to one man being imprisoned for life. Writing the wrong thing in her own diary earned another woman a similar life sentence. Selling rice was an automatic prison sentence; selling DVDs led to several people's executions. Even earning money for performing any service was at one point considered a crime. But even more brutal than these sentences were the descriptions of starvation.

Even in the best of times, North Korea is only able to produce about 60% of what it needs to survive, and after fuel shortages forced the factories to shut down, even the twice-a-day-for-an-hour-each bouts of electricity and water ended. Workers stopped being paid (although some were still expected to show up at their jobs), no one had any money, and the rations of food handed out by the government- the only source of food other than not-quite-legal gardens and definitely-illegal-black-market-food- trickled to a halt. The population began starving to death. At best estimates, between 600,000-2 million people died due to lack of food, and up to half of all children who survived show signs of stunted growth due to the extreme malnutrition they suffered. Citizens began eating grass and weeds, picking pieces of undigested corn out of animal feces they found on the road, and in 1997, the government began executing people who stole food or who stole materials they could sell in order to purchase food. The hospitals, which lacked heat or food, admitted ill people, but eventually patients stopped coming. Why bother, when the doctors could do nothing for them?

Ms. Demick tells the story of North Korean brutality through the stories of several people who eventually ended up defecting, which isn't as common as I would have thought- but now that I have a clearer picture of just how merciless the regime truly is, I understand both why escaping would be so daunting, and why so many might not want to escape. The propaganda is endless, woven into every aspect of life in the country, right down to children's math problems about killing American and Japanese soldiers. Knowing that your neighbors are listening in on your every word, even thinking the wrong thought probably feels terrifying.

This is a deeply heartbreaking book, but I don't regret reading it at all, and if anything, I regret that I hadn't read it sooner. If you know little about the country other than the alarming nuclear threats that pop up in the news from time to time, I highly recommend Nothing to Envy. This is a book that will stick with me.

Visit the book's website.

Follow Barbara Demick on Twitter.

The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom- Helen Thorpe

Helen Thorpe is a gift to the world of narrative nonfiction, and her latest work, The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom is another literary work of art.

Imagine you wake up one day to find that society around you is collapsing. Neighbors are pointing guns; soldiers are bombing. In order to stay alive, you must leave everything you've ever owned behind and run. On the way, you lose several family members, at least one of whom is murdered in front of you. You starve; you sleep outdoors in all kinds of weather; you suffer with untreated illness for months, and watch those you love succumb to it. Finally, finally, you receive word that you've been chosen to be resettled in the United States as a refugee, and just when you arrive, thinking that you've finally found safety and stability and that maybe life will get better, someone screams out the window at you that you're a filthy terrorist, and that you need to get out of their country.

It's not an uncommon experience for newcomers to the United States, unfortunately, and Helen Thorpe details the newcomer experience beautifully.

For about a year and a half, Ms. Thorpe followed the teenagers in the lowest level English Acquisition Class at South High School in Denver, Colorado. The students were all new to the US and had varying levels of English- some could make middling conversation, while others just stared blankly at the teacher, having had no prior experience with the language. Most students had seen trauma of some sort, whether being separated from family or struggling with PTSD due to escaping from war-torn nations. Many had lost loved ones, including parents; all had left family and friends behind, and all had lived in, at the very least, less-than-ideal situations (including refugee camps) before being some of the lucky few chosen to resettle in America.

Learning a new language is difficult in the best of circumstances; compound that with trauma and PTSD, struggling with an entirely new culture and way of life (some of these kids had never had electricity and running water), a new kind of poverty, and the constant stress of feeling unwanted in this new place, and it's a damn miracle that any refugee manages to learn even a little English. The newcomers struggled and triumphed, flourished and slumped under the weight of heavy setbacks, but as they learned, they grew together, finding friendship and strength in a unique classroom full of students who understood exactly what their fellow students were going through.

Just following the students alone would have made a fine book, but Ms. Thorpe expands our knowledge of their world by interviewing their parents, their teachers, the interpreters she hired to better understand these newcomers, and their caseworkers. I knew that coming to the US wasn't easy, but there was a lot of information in here that was new to me. While refugees are allowed benefits like food assistance and TANF (the program commonly thought of as welfare), they're expected to be self-sufficient within a matter of months in regards to paying their own rent and other expenses. Imagine suddenly, with little to no warning, you're plopped down in the middle of, say, China (or another country in which you have zero knowledge of the language). How soon could you master enough of the local language in order to be hired and make a living wage? Not within a handful of months, is the answer, I'm certain, in most cases. Refugees commonly end up working as hotel maids  and janitors, or in places like meat packing plants or factories, low-wage jobs in places where language skills aren't necessary to perform (but that also hinders their ability to learn the language- if you're not practicing it, and if you're surrounded by others who speak your language and not the dominant one, your language acquisition will stall). Those low-wage jobs don't have much room for growth built in, and thus, the refugee ends up trapped in a vicious cycle, with their only hope for upward mobility being their children, who tend to pick up the language more readily than adults.

This was a beautifully illustrated example of the wonderment, the hope, and the dark side of coming to America as a refugee, and a deeply moving look at what it takes to leave everything behind and dive right in to a new language and new culture. I used to volunteer as an English as a Second or Other Language tutor, and the students who attend those tutoring sessions are some of the most hardworking people you'll ever meet. My former student had two children, often worked over 70 hours a week (you read that right, more than SEVENTY) at her restaurant job, took care of her apartment, and still managed to come to class and make me cry when she corrected herself with proper use of past tense verbs. When she got pregnant with twins, she cut her work hours down to 55 hours a week (at five months pregnant with TWINS, she was still working 55 hours a week ON HER FEET THE ENTIRE TIME). She and her husband moved out of my area right to a bigger place before the babies were born, and I still miss her. She was an extraordinary example of how hard refugees and immigrants are willing to work in order to make a better life for their families, and I'm all about welcoming these people and helping them do just that. Reading this book made me miss tutoring. I'm unable to fit it into my schedule at the moment, but one day I'd like to return to it.

This is Helen Thorpe's third book, and I've read her others as well. Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War was fascinating. I've passed through some of the areas mentioned in this book and I always think about the women in it when I do. And Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America  was beyond wonderful. I read it this past year and have thought often of the young women featured in the book and wondered how they've been doing, what with all the unnecessary strife DACA recipients have been put through. If you've never read any of these books, you won't be sorry you did. I'm very much looking forward to reading whatever Ms. Thorpe writes next.

Visit Helen Thorpe's website.

Follow Helen Thorpe on Twitter.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity- Emily Matchar

Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity by Emily Matchar is a fabulous book that takes a deep dive into the heart of the modern DIY revival, its benefits, its drawbacks (oh yes, there are definitely drawbacks!), and the desperate need for balance when it comes to this societal endeavor at independence in all things.

What drew me to this book, if you can't guess from the above image of the book with my knitting, is personal. I'm not of the class of women who quit (or lost) a corporate job and came home to wax poetic about the joys of canning pickled beets, but I am at home for multiple reasons. I have a young child (and an older one); I have several health conditions that, while not bad enough to qualify me for disability, make my ability to function physically unpredictable at best (especially at physical jobs); I'm one of those people who slipped through the cracks when it came to higher education- family's income was too high to receive help, my grades were great but not great enough to qualify me for scholarships, and those health conditions made me terrified of taking out loans to get through school only to find myself unable to work and thus unable to repay my loans. And thus I'm at home, participating in many of the activities Matchar describes in this book.

Matchar examines the New Domesticity that took hold during the recession that began in 2007, but that I think really began to root itself in American culture after September 11th; it was then that knitting blew up and recipes for comfort food began appearing in every cookbook and early food blog. Americans in particular were searching for something that felt stable, cozy, encouraging, and life-giving, and what better than the soft, gentle pleasures of home. Enter the recession, and suddenly the necessity of these skills became immediate and widespread. "...the resulting DIY culture does rest heavily on female shoulders," Matchar writes, and if you're familiar at all with the almost entirely female food/craft/homemaking blogosphere, you'll agree.

The reasons for the return to home are many, and Matchar scrutinizes them all, from the lack of satisfaction so many women experience at jobs that don't support them as caregivers and people who have lives outside of work, to distrust of the food, medical, and educational systems in the US, to the desire to live more in harmony with nature for various reasons (lessening one's carbon footprint, taking care of the earth for religious reasons, etc), to the need to be frugal due to lack of income. Matchar finds that a not insubstantial amount of women who return to home and hearth 'may simply be rationalizing their decision to make the best of a bad economic decision,' and I don't disagree. It's not always easy living on one income (especially in areas with higher costs of living), but when you can fill your days with bread baking, making your own cleaning supplies, taking care of chickens, and homeschooling the children, it gives you what feels like a higher purpose.

She criticizes, rightly so, the dreamy nostalgia assigned to the world of our grandparents and great-grandparents, where things were supposedly better and people ate fresh, healthy, home-cooked food at every meal (for real, have you SEEN old recipes? Take a gander through The Gallery of Regrettable Food, with hot dogs and onions suspended in celery-flavored aspic, where slithery canned vegetables lie gray on the plate nearby, and you might change your mind), and how apparently no one ever got sick (dinosaurs got cancer as well, diphtheria took out entire families and could fill up entire cemeteries in an astonishingly short time). She doesn't deny that there are problems with many of the systems that are meant to protect us, but instead points out that when too many people opt out, choosing only to take responsibility for that which is right in front of them, there's no one left to fight for those who aren't privileged enough TO opt out. And of course, the dangers of women opting out are well-known; when the partner who is earning the paycheck no longer provides that income due to divorce, illness, or death, the woman is oftentimes left to struggle in less than ideal circumstances.

"New Domesticity is, at heart, a cry against a society that's not working," Matchar opines, and I agree. There needs to be a better system in place so that parents feel supported enough to be able to remain in the workplace, along with much better work-life balance- we already know that these things make for happier, more productive employees, but so far, the political will necessary to effect such changes has been sorely lacking in our pro-corporation, employees-are-expendable culture. I don't know if we'll see changes to this system in my lifetime, or even my daughter's (she's four), and that depresses me. Maybe by the time my grandchildren or great-grandchildren are entering the workforce, their country will realize that you can't work people like robots. Holing up on a rural farm may sound nice in theory, but on a grander scale, the practice falls flat; a technology-based society like ours cannot survive infinitely on people selling each other eggs.

This book spoke deeply to me. I knit, sew, can/freeze/dry food, cook almost everything we eat from scratch, we garden and compost, I've homeschooled in the past (not as an opt-out-of-the-system thing, but more as a way to provide stability to my son's education at a time where we moved around a lot). I make my own cleaning supplies, have figured out how to feed a family of four on about $60 a week, breastfed my daughter, cloth diapered for a good portion of her diaper-wearing days, and even as I type this, I have laundry hang-drying on indoor racks. It's how I contribute, since I haven't been able to contribute in a financial sense. It's something I'm deeply conflicted over, and something I've never been totally comfortable about. I saw myself in many of the women profiled in the book, but I also found myself nodding vigorously as Matchar pointed out the flaws in the overarching philosophy of the New Domesticity. While I still don't have any concrete answers as to how I could make opting in work in my particular situation, reading about so much of the ins and outs of my life and what I've long considered its weaknesses felt redeeming.

This is a great book and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Visit Emily Matchar's website here.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

A reading challenge for 2019

In the past, I haven't been much for reading challenges. I've always been more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, what's-new-at-the-library-this-week kind of reader, and over the past two years, I've been more of a why-is-my-Goodreads-want-to-read-list-THAT-long-let's-read-it-down kind of reader. But after feeling a bit bloated on nonfiction from that, I've decided to jump right in with a 2019 challenge that will hopefully shake up my reading life a little.

Enter the 2019 Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge. This seems doable, doesn't it? Even for the most challenge-resistant, like me. ;)

I already have some books from the library on a topic that fascinates me, and I guess another one of those books in my stack (which came from my Goodreads Want to Read list) count as a book I've been meaning to read, so I'm already off to a good start, I think!

Are you planning on any challenges this year?

Monday, December 31, 2018

Escape: My Lifelong War Against Cults- Paul Morantz with Hal Lancaster

Paul Morantz, author (along with Hal Lancaster) of Escape: My Lifelong War Against Cults, has led an intriguing life. A lawyer by trade, early on in his career, he became the go-to man when it came to litigation against cults and abusive, insular groups. This led to an attempt on his life by Synanon members, via a rattlesnake (de-rattled for stealthiness) placed in his mailbox.

Among the groups Morantz litigated against were the aforementioned Synanon (whom I had never heard of before I listened to the Let's Talk About Sects podcast a few weeks ago; if you're interested in cults, sects, and insular groups, this is a fabulous podcast. Synanon then showed up in this book, and, thumbing through the book I picked up from the library yesterday, it's mentioned in there as well. Funny how that happens), the Center for Feeling Therapy, the Unification Church (more commonly referred to as the Moonies), Rajneeshpuram (another one I'd never heard of), Scientology, the creepy, rapey preacher-psychotherapist John Gottuso, and he was the lawyer for a father whose son had been kidnapped by (and was later murdered at) Jonestown . He helped to turn the tide for Patty Hearst's appeal, had a brief fling with a woman who practiced Nichiren Shoshu, and exchanged emails with members of Anonymous. His career has been jam-packed with death threats and forays into the depths of groups who engage in brainwashing as a primary tactic in order to entice people to join. A movie about his life definitely wouldn't lack for drama.

I struggled a little reading this book, and I'm not certain as to why. The material is certainly fascinating, but something about the writing style just didn't appeal to me. The end chapter edges into a slippery slope argument about some ACA legislation in regards to those boogeyman death panels that never materialized (I mean, more than they already exist in insurance companies that deny treatments), and which seemed a little out of place for the book in general- I feel like a better editor would have cleaned a lot of that up. Part of the blame might also be on me; it's a difficult time of year to try to focus on a heavier read, so it may be that my brain just wasn't cooperating like I wanted it to.

While reading through this book's explanation of brainwashing techniques, its history, and how it's used by these groups in order to control their members, I was struck by how similar some of the tactics are that I've seen used by multi-level marketing companies (and there's even a bit in this Wikipedia article about how the use of cult-like tactics by MLM companies is a common complaint against them, so I'm not alone in thinking this). The constant scripted social media posts (chock-full of emoticons throughout!), the monthly or yearly conventions where the sellers are pushed harder to achieve the goals the organization has taught them to have (goals which will, of course, benefit the top of the organization more than they benefit the individual sellers), it fits right in with what Morantz writes about in this book. Yikes.

This is a worthy read if you're into cults and insular groups, and I'll be waiting for that movie about Mr. Morantz's life!

You can visit Paul Morantz's website here: http://www.paulmorantz.com/

Saturday, December 22, 2018

This Is Not a Love Story: A Memoir- Judy Brown

This Is Not a Love Story by Judy Brown is a painful memoir about the author's childhood, growing up with a brother that no one understood.

Brown, who also penned the phenomenal YA novel Hush under the pen name Eishes Chayil (which was seriously so good that I sat up until 2 or 3 am, reading it on the bathroom floor with the door closed so the light wouldn't bother my sleeping husband, because it was winter and the downstairs was far too cold to be comfortable in, and so I made do and it was entirely worth it), grew up in a Hasidic Jewish family in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. She's the third of six children, and she's aware from an early age that her younger brother Nachum isn't like everyone else. He doesn't talk, he seems to stare through everything and everyone without seeing any of it, he bangs his head and rocks, he can't tolerate touch or loud noises, he has public meltdowns.

Most readers today probably recognize those characteristics as falling on the more severe end of the autism spectrum, but back in the early 80's, no one seemed to know what was wrong with Nachum. 'Crazy' was the word most frequently used to describe him and his behavior, and her insular community assigned many reasons as to why Nachum acted the way he did, including the rumor that Brown's parents, disregarding Hasidic tradition, fell in love before they were married. The entire family is deeply stressed by Nachum's mysterious behavior, each family member showing it in different ways. Their mother never stops searching for answers, dragging her son from doctor to doctor. Their father alternately shuts and explodes with anger. Brown makes deals with God to help her brother, prays for his death, and feels nothing but relief the two times Nachum is shipped off to live with relatives in Israel. Her behavior seems harsh until you remember that no one understood what was wrong, and she was only eight years old and extremely frightened (to the point where she worried that Nachum was contagious, and that her future marriage prospects- something incredibly important among the Hasidic community- would be compromised, because no one would want to marry someone with such a brother, which wasn't an unfounded fear if you know anything about Hasidic matchmaking).

In 1993, when Nachum is sent to Israel for the second time, a specialist finally diagnoses him with autism, something Brown's mother had never heard before, and his life starts to change. When Brown reluctantly visits him four years later, she finds a brother who can talk- differently than her, haltingly, but he's a brother she finally starts to understand, because he's able to participate in the world around him.

This is a tough, sad read, and it's important to remember that when the author was young, especially in her insular community, there wasn't quite the understanding we have of autism now. I have to admit, I was surprised by the medical community's inability to diagnose Nachum- if I read this correctly, Brown is about my age, and thanks to The Babysitters Club book Kristy and the Secret of Susan, I was aware of autism back in 1990/91 when I was just ten or eleven years old. Nachum wasn't diagnosed until 1993. Were doctors more conservative with that particular diagnosis back then? I'm deeply curious as to how it took him so long to receive the proper diagnosis (and it wasn't for a lack of trying on Brown's mother's part, that's for sure). This book also made me realize how damaging the societal attitude about people with disabilities was in the past- not just for those with disabilities, but for their families as well. Brown and her siblings suffered deeply (as did the parents, my goodness), and it was only as an adult that Brown was able to connect with her brother, reconcile her childhood attitude towards him, and forgive herself. We still have so far to go in terms of how we treat people with disabilities, but thank goodness we've already come so far.

This isn't an easy read, but it's a deeply fascinating one.

Visit Judy Brown's website: http://judybrownhush.com/