I've always been fascinated by religion especially those sects that veer off into the fundamentalist realm. There always seems to be so much secrecy and an acceptance of hypocritical thought among believers. Followers are fervent, and it's interesting to read what makes some people stay and others leave the religious communities they're raised in.
Hasids are ultra-Orthodox Jews who dabble in mysticism and practice a strict adherence to ritual laws. Deborah Feldman, assumed white, is raised by her grandparents after her mother leaves their Satmar community in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. Her father is mentally ill and the family doesn't seek treatment or help for him. Deborah struggles to understand why the Hasid community keeps such tightly locked secrets. She's not allowed to read secular books, and she spends her days hiding library check-outs under her mattress and stealing time to read. She questions Hasidic law and custom at every turn and feels like the adults in her life are always keeping things from her. She longs for freedom from the ritual structure of her community and finds her own ways to rebel in small doses until she eventually leaves the Satmar group for good.
Married women are required to cover their hair, and many Hasids shave their heads and wear wigs. Women are required to visit the mikvah, a bath for a ritual cleansing after their periods, and Deborah talks about how uncomfortable she feels being forced to participate in the custom. Marriage is arranged by a matchmaker, and elaborate gift-giving customs are part of the engagement. Deborah is married at age 17 and completely unprepared for life with a man. Both she and her husband experience sexual dysfunction and can't initially consummate the marriage. She's horrified when her new husband's family tries to intervene and longs for privacy and a marriage that's forged out of mutual love and desire.
There's a lot of controversy surrounding Deborah's version of events in her memoir. I wish she had explained Hasidic customs more in-depth as I felt lost trying to understand many of her brief recollections. Part of this may be because she didn't understand them herself when she actually wrote her story. As a reader with zero knowledge of this faith community, I was longing for more detail and background on the reasons for some of the practices. In my own personal view, religion should stand up to questioning. People who are truly curious thinkers will most likely never be satisfied with answers of "just believe" and "because this is how it is." I also find it appalling when religious groups ostracize and shun family members who choose another path. I can't get behind any system that treats people this way. I was also disgusted by how women are subjugated in Deborah's Hasidic community. Of course, this is only one perspective, and I can't assume this is reflective of all practicing Hasids, but I was alarmed by the repressive elements of her life story and can empathize with her choice to speak out.
I found this to be slow and klunky at first, but strange and engrossing as I got further along. The book got me interested in learning more about these enigmatic Hasidic communities and to follow up with learning about other followers' experiences.
Good Morning, Monster: A Therapist Shares Five Heroic Stories of Emotional Recovery by Catherine Gildiner
Be prepared for this book to tear your guts out and leave them in a sloppy pile on the floor. It will make you feel like complete garbage for ever complaining about anything in your life. Catherine Gildiner is a white therapist who tells about her work with five patients suffering from traumatic life experiences. She tells their stories with tenderness and obvious fondness. Each patient overcomes the debilitating elements of his or her own emotional turmoil, finding ways to create success and exemplifying the qualities of true emotional superheroes.
Gildiner starts with a white woman named Laura, forced into parenting her younger siblings after her father left them abandoned in a remote winter cabin. Next up is Peter, a painfully shy son of Chinese immigrants, who was left alone in a room above the family's restaurant for so long that he suffered severe developmental gaps that created intimacy issues in his adult life. Although all of the stories were heart-wrenching, Danny's struck a particular nerve with me. Danny, of the First Nations, lost his wife and daughter in a car accident and was referred to Dr. Gildiner by his boss when he was unable to show emotion or feel pain after the loss. After learning more about Cree indigenous cultural norms, Dr. Gildiner helps Danny discuss his painful childhood when he was torn away from his native family and sent to a Canadian residential school designed to eliminate his identity. He was horrifically abused and spent the rest of his adult life blocking out all emotion. Alana, white and of high intelligence, was sexually abused by her father, and Madeline, also white and from a wealthy family, suffers from OCD and shares how her mother would psychologically torture her in various ways, greeting her each morning with "Good Morning, Monster."
While Gidiner shares lessons from each person's story, she also discusses the mistakes she makes and how these cases helped shape her professional growth. She's quick to point out her own flaws and ways in which she could have done things differently, and this reflective quality makes me like her even more. While not for the faint of heart, this book will give you the space to consider your own emotional resiliency in comparison, and lord knows we can all use some hopeful models to look up to these days.
I've been reading intense books lately, and was happy to find this murder mystery to be a bit more breezy. I finished it in two days since Lucy Foley keeps the reader in suspense up until the absolute last chapter. Right away, I felt a real Agatha Christie vibe as Foley sets the scene for a dark, moody wedding on a remote island off the coast of Ireland. I love the haunting descriptions of the harsh landscape, mucky bogs, and the stories of dead bodies stuck under the mire. The setting is crucial to the overall atmosphere of this doomed wedding. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different person including the bride, groom, best man, wedding planner/venue owner, and some of the guests. All characters are white, except for one usher named Femi who is black. Each person begins to reveal their connection to the wedding and their motivations for being disgruntled toward one or more persons involved in the big day. This slow tease is what I enjoyed most; I had so many predictions for who would be murdered and why, and it fluctuated drastically with each new chapter. Many of the characters seem like perfectly horrid people, and Foley does a great job showcasing their flaws and even some redeeming qualities. If you like your murder mysteries to keep you guessing, you can't go wrong with this one.
Ryn is the main character, and she's a badass gravedigger who also slays bone houses (living dead) in her spare time. This YA fantasy reads like a step back in time but it packs a modern punch. Ryn and her siblings live on their own in a small village surrounded by an iron fence built to keep the bone houses out. Much of the folklore surrounding the bone houses in Colbren is viewed as just that - old stories, but Ryn knows better. She comes upon a mysterious man named Ellis being attacked by one of the risen dead, and after she saves him (hooray for females who do the saving) she finds out he's a mapmaker who has gotten himself lost. I felt very distant from the characters when I first started reading this, and the magical elements felt too separate from Ryn's story, but I stuck with it and was not disappointed. In fact, I was riveted. Things pick up when Ryn and Ellis team up to figure out why the bone houses are suddenly attacking in mass. Some of the plot elements surprised me so much that I had to reread parts to make sure I was understanding what happened. I love when books take me by surprise.
I especially love how both Ryn and Ellis' characters were developed slowly and expertly. Ellis may have some physical weaknesses but Ryn's strengths make up for it, and they complement each other in a way that doesn't leave one overpowering the other. They become a team that isn't based on stereotypical gender roles. When Ellis is tender, Ryn is tough. They bond as orphans and the agony of not knowing exactly what happened to one of their parents.
Without spoiling anything, there's also a zombie animal that plays a big part of Ryn and Ellis' journey to stop the bone houses. This decaying pet becomes their savior in many ways and was a fascinating supernatural element. Bravo to Emily Lloyd-Jones for a fantasy zombie book that is so satisfyingly unique and special.
The Office is one of those shows that I put on when I need a guaranteed laugh, and it never lets me down. I really enjoyed hearing all of the actors, writers, and directors talk about the entire process in their own words. The style of this book highlights just how unique and special this show is. They reveal some of the actors that were originally imagined for Michael Scott's role, and how much work went into making sure the set and wardrobe were as authentic to the everyday world of a small paper company as possible. The actors/actresses also revealed the scenes that made them break, and of course, one that had them in fits was the dinner party episode. Between Dwight's dinner date, Jan's candle business, and Michael's tiny TV, the episode slays. I also really appreciated how much they thought through the characters and developed them in ways that were so much more than just comedic effect. If you're an Office fan, this is your Bible.
My husband and I, as inexperienced international travelers, embarked on a six country European travel blitz a few years after getting married. We had no idea what we were doing, but this trip is what started our travel obsession. Out of the six cities we stopped in, Budapest was the one that left me with the most wonder. Split into two parts, Buda is the western, hilly side with grand views and thermal spas. Pest (pronounced PESHT) is the flat, commercial business side. The two sides united into one city in 1873, but they couldn't be more distinct. Budapest has a beauty and grandeur that I wasn't expecting. There's a curious juxtaposition of atmospheres here that entranced me from the moment we arrived.
Turning Pages: Places to Check Out
Hungarian Parliament Building
This was under renovation when we visited, and we didn't end up visiting the interior of the building at all. Taking in this grand structure from across the Danube both during the day and night are some of the most vivid memories I have from our entire Europe trip. The symmetry of all the arches and spires is dazzling. I can't imagine living and working in a place where this is your view on a daily basis. How does this thing even exist?
Younger, thinner, and sporting natural, unprocessed hair, I couldn't get enough of these bridges. They're everywhere. I loved how each bridge has it's own character and personality. The Elizabeth Bridge is modern while the Chain Bridge is more historic and the most recognized in all of Budapest.
This street is known as the soul of the tourist district. Here you will find tons of shopping and cafes, all located along a pedestrian walkway lined with sophisticated buildings.
We were surprised to learn that Budapest is well known for its thermal waters, and there are many baths to choose from, each with it's own unique features. The baths all use the mineral-rich water from the ground and are great for entertainment, healing, and just general relaxation.
Completely unprepared and having done zero research ahead of time, we chose one, Szechenyi, and showed up with suits in hand. The man in the window knew we were idiots as we couldn't figure out what to do. He spoke no English, and this was before cell phones so we couldn't look up anything to translate. As I said before, we were very inexperienced and should have been prepared to ask for help in Hungarian. There was a menu hanging up above the ticket window, so we randomly pointed to something and hoped it was an entrance ticket we were paying for. He pointed to a door and off we went. We went to separate gender changing rooms and then met up on the other side in a beautiful room with tall columns and a long, skinny pool. There are varying temperatures in each of the different indoor pools, and we tried several. The outdoor pools weren't open when we visited which was a bummer because they're incredibly grand. See photos and videos of both:
Menu Pages: Eats and Drinks
Great Market Hall
This indoor market is located on the Pest side, and is an overwhelming assault on your senses. You can definitely spend hours here eating your way through the first floor food vendors. Try the langos. These are a deep-fried bread that you can get with various sweet or savory toppings. We tried the cheese, and it was amazing and incredibly cheap.
Hungary's national drink, Unicum is everywhere. We had it in shots before a meal. It's bitter and has a piney taste that was just too medicinal and herbal for me, but it obviously has its fans all over this country.
Appendix: A Hodge Podge
Holocaust Memorial Center - a moving tribute to the more than half a million Hungarian citizens/deports who became victims in the Holocaust
Heroes Square - largest square in Budapest
Folk Dinner and Gypsy Show - lots of places offer folk shows, and these are fun to watch people in traditional Hungarian costumes dancing with bottles on their heads and cracking whips. They often grab tourists out of their seats to join in on the fun.
Postscript: What I Missed
There are oodles of places that we didn't get to and wish we had. These are just a few on our list for next time.
Royal Palace (Buda Castle) - includes the Hungarian National Gallery, the National Széchenyi Library, and the Castle Museum
Gellert Baths - has an Art Nouveau style and an outdoor wave pool
Danube river cruise - we did one in Amsterdam instead so we decided to skip it here
Faust Wine Cellars - sample wines underneath Buda Castle
Budapest is only one of the stops in this impressive historical fiction monstrosity, and the city fits the vampiric, moody vibe of this book like a sleek, black velvet glove.
Vampires and librarians and history, oh my! It's a nerd trifecta, and I loved every bit of it. You have to love historical fiction to read this. It's very dense in the history department but in an exquisite, luscious, romantic kind of way. It's also a beast of a book, literally. At 642 pages, I found myself slogging through it at times and just wishing it would wrap up. In the end, I was satisfied and glad to have stuck it out.
The narrator begins the story as a young girl who finds a book with a woodcut of a dragon in it among her father's things. She asks him about it, and Paul slowly and reluctantly unravels the story. The book mysteriously appeared in his study carrel when he was a younger man studying at the library during his graduate program. Interested in it's origin, he takes the book to his mentor, Professor Rossi and is stunned to find out that Rossi also has a copy of the same book. Rossi explains that in his research of the strange book, he uncovers information about Vlad Tepes (Dracula) and believes he is still alive. Soon after, Rossi goes missing, leaving behind a blood-smeared office. Paul is devastated and heads off on a whirlwind world adventure to figure out what happened to his beloved mentor. All three characters are presumed to be white. The book weaves in and out of libraries, small villages, quaint cafes, and monasteries. The adventures span various cities including Amsterdam, Istanbul, Budapest, and a host of other eastern European locations.
I was spellbound by the vivid descriptions of each location. Elizabeth Kostova does an incredible job capturing the hypnotic effect of traveling around the world. Not only was the travel meticulously detailed, but the historical backgrounds of every, single location were weaved in so seamlessly, you felt like you were part of each page. Now I love historical fiction, but this one really crammed it in. The middle pages got repetitive, and I was wishing for a change of pace in the plot elements. I wasn't sure if I would ever finish this book, but you could tell this was a dramatic labor of love for this author. Without spoiling too much, I can't stop thinking about how awesome it is to have beady, little librarian vampires roaming around. I keep imagining scrawny, bat-faced men dressed up in tweed suits. Libraries are pretty much my world and combining these two elements is almost too much for my bibliophile heart to take.
This book made me think about racism in a completely different way. Here I am, thinking I'm just fighting the good fight and trying to be anti-racist, and then this books knocks me down a few pegs, rightfully so. While a lot of this information is likely obvious to some readers, I found the material to be thought-provoking and discussion-worthy, which to me, is always the mark of a good read and will definitely inform my life going forward. Robin DiAngelo is white and is speaking specifically to white readers after years of training as a sociologist and working as a diversity trainer in the business world. She talks about how racism is not an action but a systemic fact. Racism exists pure and simple, and it's not in the binary good/bad ways we've always framed it. When people think of racists, they think of the Klan or those angry whites from the Civil Rights era screaming in the faces of little black children on their way to school. But racism is so much more than these scenes. Racism exists in structures. It exists because blacks have not been able to accumulate generational wealth. It exists because most of the "top ten" lists of wealthiest people are white men. It exists because most of the people serving in positions of power in Congress are mostly white men. Award winning movie directors are all white men, and the list goes on and on. Racism will continue to exist until whites give equality to people of color. She starts the book explaining this concept with the example of suffrage. Women were not given suffrage until those in power changed the laws. White men gave white women the right to vote. Women of color were not given that right officially by law until much later. It's up to the group holding the position of power to change it. Nothing will change unless white people stop acting defensive when talking about their racism and recognize these structural deficiencies in this power imbalance.
One thing that really struck me since I'm such a big reader is the idea of white as the default race. When I read and even write book reviews, race is only mentioned when a character is of color. Why is white the automatic default? Why do we assume that someone is white unless we specifically point out their race? I do this all the time in my reviews. I'm white, and the reason I do this is because of my own racism. Do I wear a pointed hood or scream at black children? Do I make racist jokes or say the N word? Never, but I've learned racist things without recognizing them as such just simply because I'm white living in a world where white has always been the default. This is something I'm going to commit to working on, and it's ever-evolving. Another poignant moment for me with this book was the section on segregation. Sure there have been laws to abolish segregation, but we still live in a mostly segregated society from housing to schools, etc.
This book angers a lot of people. If you read it without being open to the idea of discussing your own white race, you won't gain anything from it. The fragility exists when we are unable to talk about how whiteness is entangled with racism because we're afraid to be labeled bad or good. Our social environment insulates us from ever having to deal with stress related to discussions of our race, and therefore we become ultrasensitive to any kind of conversation about it. It's not up to people of color to end racism. It's our responsibility as white people to learn from POC about their experiences. I like how DiAngelo points our her own racism and what she did when she learned of it. Her personal examples and sociological points are the highlights of this book and cement it as one of those reads I just can't get out of my mind.
The Galvin family consisted of 12 children born between 1945 and 1965 which is worthy of a story just based on the sheer insanity of having that many children within a span of 20 years. The shocking thing about this family is that six of the children (all boys) were diagnosed as schizophrenic. Robert Kolker goes on to describe Mimi and Don Galvin's remarkable family as years of seeking, blaming, violence, denial, and abuse tear the family apart and break down their seemingly ideal lives. Kolker not only goes through the history of schizophrenia research, but he also does justice to the family by telling their devastating story in a humane way, showing empathy for the mentally ill boys, siblings, and parents despite the family's dark secrets and dysfunction. Eventually the Galvin family is studied by researchers at NIMH. Their case study informs genetic research and debates on nature vs nurture. The most fascinating part of this entire family study is that it helped researchers find a dietary supplement, choline, to add to prenatal vitamins in an attempt to alter or eradicate the illness completely. The trial is currently in progress. This book reminds me of another terribly sad history, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The authors in both tell the stories behind medical and scientific progress with particular attention to the sacrifices, humanity, and callousness in which these advances are often gained. It's important to hear the full stories and recognize what has been given and often taken behind the grandeur of progress.
This is a prototypical, young adult, dystopian series that leaves teen girls swooning in a science fiction love triangle between Cassia and two super hunky, brooding boys. All is not as it seems in Cassia's world where young people are paired up with their spouses at age 17 at a special banquet. She's matched with her best friend, Xander, but when she views her Match video giving information about Xander, a picture of mysterious Ky flashes into view and makes her question whether the Match is destiny or not. The Society has close control over romantic partners, death, jobs, and food intake, and Cassia begins to wonder why everything is chosen for them. Matched is an interesting YA exploration of free will and how a tightly controlled environment always has dirty secrets lurking in the shadows. This was a very popular series when it first came out, and a classic constant in the dystopian genre.
Looking for something Fall festive to do on weekends? We love Milburn Orchards in Elkton, Maryland for many reasons. I started going there to buy apples to make my own applesauce but ended up staying longer each time to enjoy all of the family fun activities they have.
This is quintessential Fall fare, and I'll never tire of going to places like this.
This book is best for reading on Fall nights, snuggled under a blanket next to a cozy fireplace. It's the type of read that although sad at times, just makes you feel warm on the inside.
Author Juliet Ashton is in London trying to rebuild her life after the war and trying to find something new to write about. Happenstance delivers a letter from a man on Guernsey, a Channel Island off the coast of Southern England, and through their correspondence, Juliet finds her next great story. Guernsey was occupied by the Germans during WWII, and a group of unlikely people banded together to form a society for lovers of literature, and a front for gatherings during the time of occupation. This group of interesting characters leans on one another through harsh times, and Juliet finds inspiration in their stories. She begins correspondence with the members and discovers a taboo love, sweet friendships, heroic acts of bravery, and all manner of other intriguing, memorable stories. Juliet becomes so enamored with the people of Guernsey that she becomes intertwined in their lives in ways that ultimately change hers as well.
This book is written entirely in letters. It's charming, and really funny. I was surprised how often I found myself laughing. There is lightness and gloom, but it's done in a way that blends the multiple story lines together seamlessly and authentically.
Travel All the Pages is inspired by my two loves - travel and reading, a combo I can't resist. Enjoy these little pairings.