nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit Michael Lewis’s website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Rad Girls Can: Stories of Bold, Brave, and Brilliant Young Women by Kate Schatz

I don’t often review the books I read out loud to my daughter (though I do count them on Goodreads), but once in a while, a really great one comes up. I’m always on the lookout for great reads about strong, motivated girls and women for my daughter. She’s a bit of a spitfire and I’d like to ensure that one day, when she’s ready, she’ll use her powers for good, because there’s so much in this world that needs fixing. So when I stumbled across Rad Girls Can: Stories of Bold, Brave, and Brilliant Young Women by Kate Schatz (Ten Speed Press, 2018) on a library trip, I knew that was one that needed to go into her brain. And it was a great one.

In brief columns and write-ups, Rad Girls Can shares stories of young girls and young women who made a difference in the world, spotting a problem and taking action to solving it, or who persevered with remarkable courage when times were tough. Some of the girls featured come out of history, like Anne Frank, Elizabeth Cotton, and Maria Mitchell; others are modern-day rad girls, like Jazz Jennings, Egypt “Ify” Ufele, and Memory Banda. The girls come from many different countries and societies; they fight for an end to discrimination, racism, and misogyny; they work for fair wages, better opportunities, and more access to education. They start companies, forge global movements, compete, and perform. They’re the kind of girls we want our daughters to take courage from, and the kind of girls we look at in amazement and come away inspired.

This is a seriously great book. The writeups are short enough that if one doesn’t necessarily interest a reader (hey, not everyone is into rock climbing or stories about warriors), the next one very well may. The girls portrayed are varied and interesting, and there are enough topics covered that at least one should stand out to a reader and intrigue them enough to make them want to learn more. This would be a great jumping-off point for a larger project on an inspiring woman, and a great parent-child read. Heads up for some mentions of forced marriage and periods (this sparked a good discussion with my daughter).

Excellent book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this to my daughter.

Visit Kate Schatz’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Gory Details: Adventures from the Dark Side of Science by Erika Engelhaupt

Who doesn’t love gross stuff?

Okay, so, like…lots of people. I’m not one of them, though. I love gross stuff. The grosser, the better, and so when I learned about the existence of Gory Details: Adventures from the Dark Side of Science by Erika Engelhaupt (National Geographic Society, 2021), it went right on my list. What better way to gain more knowledge about gross things and how they affect our lives? Life is weird and squishy and pretty much just all-around disgusting, so I knew this book would be a perfect fit. And it was!

Human bodies are disgusting, when they’re alive and in death. Animals are pretty foul themselves. Insects? EW. And in Gory Details, science reporter Erika Engelhaupt answers all those weird questions that you’ve wondered but maybe haven’t felt brave enough to ask. Will my dog eat me if I die alone in the house? What happens if a cockroach climbs in my ear- and what’s the deal with earwax, anyway? Some of the gross things covered in this book might qualify as things you could have lived without knowing- eye worms, anyone?- but others will fascinate you endlessly.

So if you’re curious about crispy, sautéed grasshoppers (mmm), bacteria in your dog’s mouth, floating feet that wash ashore on the beach, and how, even in an empty building, you’re never, ever alone (so. many. facial. mites), you NEED this book. Embrace the morbid curiosity you had as a child and dig deep into this book. You won’t be disappointed- a little squeamish, maybe, and you may never want to eat seafood again (trust me on this one), but you’ll have so much fun learning these bizarre facts.

MAN, this was a fun book! What a great way to start off what will surely be a fabulous year of reading. I loved every page of this and didn’t want the disgusting facts to stop flowing, even as I squirmed and my stomach rolled. If you’ve ever enjoyed Mary Roach’s science writing, Erika Engelhaupt is of the same school, with that same snarky, accessible style that makes for a fun read the whole way through. I truly hope she comes out with an entire shelf of books in the future, because this was seriously great. Entertaining, informative, and a brilliant example of how much fun science writing can be.

Five stars, two thumbs up, and three cheers for this excellent book!

Visit Erika Engelhaupt’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

graphic nonfiction

Book Review: Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Pénélope Bagieu, translated by Montana Kane

Yet another example of how I shouldn’t be allowed unfettered access to the library when I already have books at home. But how could I resist? Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Pénélope Bagieu (First Second, 2018), translated by Montana Kane, was just sitting there, begging me to take it home, and I was like, “It’s graphic nonfiction! It won’t take me long to read at all! It’ll be fiiiiiiiinnnnne.” And it was. : )

In short chapters, Ms. Bagieu tells the story of a woman from history- sometimes ancient, sometimes modern- who stepped outside of the lines society drew for her and created her own reality. Some you’ve likely heard of- Temple Grandin, Nellie Bly, Betty Davis, Hedy Lamarr- and others likely not- Naziq al-Abid, Frances Glessner Lee, Delia Akeley, Giorgina Reid. Each has a spark of something a little extra that allowed them to stand up against the restrictions society placed against women in their time and that inspired them to be a little more than what the world told them to be. The charming illustrations are perfect for Ms. Bagieu’s slightly snarky sense of storytelling; overall, this is a fabulous book of women’s history.

I learned a lot from this book; even at 41, there’s still so much I don’t know, and I was absolutely fascinated with every story in this book. That’s not to say I loved all the people portrayed; some were a little disturbing (but, as the author says, plenty of men act in similar ways and they’ve gotten away with it for centuries, which was, happily, something I also thought about when I was I reading this particular historical figure’s story. I love when my brain actually thinks intelligent things and not just things like, “Wait, why did I get up and walk into the kitchen again???”), but wow, there were just so many fascinating women portrayed in this book that I had never heard of. I would love to read anything else Pénélope Bagieu has written, because I enjoyed everything about the experience of reading this book.

It’s too late for the 2021 holidays, but this would make a fabulous gift for any young feminist (and that’s male or female!), even if they’re not much of a reader. The graphic nonfiction format makes it a quick read, but the format will also hold the attention of even the most reluctant non-reader, and the humor sprinkled throughout the stories keep the feel light. Pick up a copy for that niece that’s hard to buy for, or your feminist co-worker’s son. They’ll love it.

Visit Pénélope Bagieu’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption by Gabrielle Glaser

I’ve always been fascinated by adoption; a lot of the books I read when I was younger featured characters who had been adopted or spoke about adoption in some way (looking back, it’s likely that adoption was finally becoming more normalized in the culture at that time and that this was likely the start of representation for people touched by adoption in kid lit). I’ve continued reading about it as an adult, delving into a lot of memoirs that focus on the different sides of adoption and the many emotions behind it. I was shocked when I read The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption by Barbara Bisantz Raymond, and depressed and full of rage after reading The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe V. Wade by Ann Fessler. Those two book are why I knew immediately that I wanted to read American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption by Gabrielle Glaser (Viking, 2021) the second I learned about it.

Margaret Erle was an average Jewish Baby Boomer teenager, in love with her boyfriend George in the early 1960s. When Margaret became unexpectedly pregnant, however, she fell prey to the societal shame of the time, shame that told her she was a sexual deviant, that she wasn’t capable of raising a child, that girls who had sex before marriage were the scourge of the earth and their babies deserved better than to be raised by them. Despite she and George wanting to get married, Margaret was sent to a home for unwed mothers to wait out her pregnancy. When she gave birth, her baby was taken from her and placed into foster care. Margaret never lost hope that she and George could get him back, but when the agency told her that if she didn’t sign papers relinquishing her son for adoption, they would send her to prison (a threat that, thanks to the wayward girl laws at the time, they could have legally followed through with. But hey, who needs feminism, right???), and Margaret knew she was out of luck.

Despite the agency’s demand that she forget this ever happened, Margaret unsurprisingly never forgot her son, never stopped looking for him or wondering where he was…or worrying if he was okay. Not when she and George got married just a few months after the baby’s birth. Not when she gave birth to her son’s full siblings. Not when they grew to adults and she became a grandmother. And thanks to a series of both fortunate and unfortunate events, her son eventually began looking for her, too.

Interspersed with the story of Margaret and her son are the history of those homes for unwed girls in the United States, where young girls who fell pregnant outside of marriage were sent so that they didn’t bring shame to their families and instead were forced into a lifetime of depression, rage, and trauma. The homes ranged from adequate to treating the young women like chattel slaves. Their babies were a product in high demand; the mothers were given all the respect of a wrapper stuck to one’s shoe.

This is an amazing book, highly emotional and disturbing in what our country did (and what a disturbing amount of people want to go back to). It bears a lot of resemblance to The Girls Who Went Away, but with one family (as it is) at the forefront, with history being the background. The Girls Who Went Away is more history, with various interviewees scattered around to illustrate the damage the history caused. Both are utterly incredible books; I can’t recommend either highly enough.

American Baby is the story of an unnecessary tragedy, of pain that never had to happen and a family that never needed to be separated. While the agency responsible for separating Margaret from her son no longer exists, but there are still homes like this, and while the coercion may not be entirely the same, I’m looking at the website for the home for pregnant girls in my hometown, and…they seem like they heavily push adoption. And adoption can be a great thing, but it’s not without its own trauma for both birthmother and child, and shouldn’t be something entered into lightly (and I’m deeply uncomfortable with the forced-religious aspect of this particular home. “Girls MUST go to church and participate in weekly Bible study.” Sigh) Anyway, beware of places like these and vet them before giving them your money. There’s no need to support places that give adoption a bad name and further the trauma that mothers and children already endure.

Visit Gabrielle Glaser’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

graphic memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teens by Ken Krimstein

I should never be trusted in the library alone.

I ran my son over there this week; he had lost his wallet earlier this year and hadn’t yet replaced his library card, plus there was a book he wanted to check out, so we stopped in. “I don’t need anything,” I told him. “Don’t let me look at books. I have two library books to read right now, plus two from NetGalley waiting for me. I don’t need to bring home another book.”

Friends, I brought home another book.

But how could I not??? I’d heard of When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teens by Ken Krimstein (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021). I hadn’t added it to my TBR, but it remained lodged in my brain, and as soon as I saw it standing on top of a shelf in the New Books section, I gasped and grabbed it (and then mentally yelled at myself, and then yelled at myself for yelling at myself). And then I checked it out and took it home, being sure to keep my eyes off all the other tempting books before we left the library.

I didn’t realize until I was at home that Mr. Krimstein is the same author of The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt, which I read and enjoyed right before the beginning of the pandemic (I’m going to assume the stress of that time erased his name from my brain, because I’ve thought of that book often since reading it). Always nice to spend more time with an author I’d previously enjoyed!

Just before Poland was invaded, writing competitions were held for Yiddish-speaking young adults in eastern Europe. Because of the invasion, the winners were never announced, and the manuscripts were hidden away from the book-burning bonfires of the Nazis. They were discovered again in 2017, painting a vivid picture of what life was like for young people standing on the edge of likely destruction.

As the competitions required anonymity, only one of the author’s identities has been discovered (and fortunately, she survived), lending the book a haunting feel when you read with the hindsight and clarity of knowing what was to come for these optimistic teenagers. The illustrations add to this feel, and the overall book is at once tragic and wistful, optimistic and with an overarching sense of doom. It’s a miracle that these writings survived at all; that they’ve been illustrated and published is an amazing testament to our strength and our ongoing fascination with this subject and our determination to not let these voices be silenced.

Because of the nature of this book- it’s graphic nonfiction- it’s a quick read, but the wonder and the unanswered questions will stay with you.

Visit Ken Krimstein’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color by Ruby Hamad

It’s been another busy week around here, so I haven’t gotten a ton of reading time, but I’m immensely glad I made some time to finish reading White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color by Ruby Hamad (Catapult, 2020). If you are lucky enough to have Black and brown friends who use their time, energy, and voice to share with you their experiences and their knowledge, listen and take to heart what they say. I have several of those women in my life and I’m deeply grateful for their presence and the way they teach in the hopes that things will get better. It was one of those friends who recommended this book (thanks, Jo!); I put it on my list immediately, because no matter how much work I’ve done to free myself from the racist messages I’ve absorbed simply by growing up and living in a culture as racist as ours, the work is never done. We can always do better. And white friends, we have to do better.

Ruby Hamad has written an incredible book about how white feminism leaves women of color behind, how white women continue to marginalize women of color. It’s not just our words and actions; it’s the way we cry, as though we’re the victims, when called out on our behavior. Instead of listening, considering, and realizing that what we said or did was wrong, we break down in tears (and not tears of regret, tears of anger) and lob “How can you SAY that? How can you be so mean?” at the woman or women who had pointed out our harmful behavior. And that’s the problem- unfortunately, we don’t always know our behavior is hurtful (again, living in a racist culture, we absorb messages and behaviors we don’t necessarily think of as racist, but they still are, and they’re still hurtful. It doesn’t matter that our intent wasn’t hurtful if it still harmed someone), and we react with anger, vitriol, and accusations, turning the person who was trying to prevent further harm into the aggressor.

Example by example, using history to back up her narrative, Ruby Hamad illustrates exactly how poorly white women handle matters of race, and the harm it inflicts on women of color. There can be no true sisterhood of women until white women understand the gravity of their harmful attitudes, and it’s up to white women to unlearn these attitudes, to listen and change their ways.

This is an incredibly necessary book. Women of color may benefit from it as well, having their experiences validated and feeling not so alone when they read that other women have gone through these things as well. But if your heritage is primarily from a European background and you check the box marked as ‘Caucasian’ on forms, you need to read this book. Because we HAVE to do better. We HAVE to be better friends, better allies. We need to stop the white woman tears, call out racism and bad behavior when we see it (even if that upsets other people- sorry, but it’s the right thing to do. The right thing isn’t always the easy thing, and really, if someone is hurting people and refuses to recognize that, you need to reexamine how much you want someone like that in your life). Tell your racist uncle to shove it at Thanksgiving dinner; cut off your best friend mid-sentence; and more than anything, when a Black or brown friend tells you something you said hurt her, SHUT UP AND LISTEN, AND THEN DO BETTER.

The future of our world depends on this.

While I don’t *think* I’ve white woman tear’ed (as the book refers to it) anyone, I am aware of several times in my life I didn’t speak up when family and friends, both in person and on social media, were saying racist things. Three specific incidents came to mind as I was reading this book, incidents that I didn’t think of at the time but that I now recognize I should have stepped in and said something. I’m saying this here because I’m guilty as well; so often as women, we’re taught that we need to keep the peace, we need to not rock the boat. But there are already people rocking the boat so hard that Black and brown women are being thrown overboard with reckless abandon. Perhaps by speaking up when we see other white women engaging in racist behavior and white woman tears, we’ll not be so much as rocking the boat but steadying it, making it a safer place for everyone.

This is one book I’m begging everyone to read. Read it, learn it, live it. Recognize your own shortcomings and racist attitudes. Be honest with yourself about when and how you’ve been wrong. Listen to your Black and brown friends, take their words to heart, and be the kind of friend and feminist they need you to be. Because we may all be in this together, but the stakes are a lot higher if your skin isn’t white, and for too long, white women have been okay with grasping for even miniscule scraps of power while throwing darker-skinned women under the bus in order to do so. No more.

Follow Ruby Hamad on Instagram.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live by Danielle Dreilinger

Home economics. Many of us had some form of this in our middle or high school education; the more modern name for it is Family & Consumer Sciences. Budgeting, cooking, sewing, child care, and basic home repair are all skills that young adults need to know before heading off into adult life, but how did this come to be part of the school curriculum, and where has it gone these days, and why? Back in the day, the science of home economics was women’s foot in the door to a career, and in The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live by Danielle Dreilinger (WW Norton Company, 2021), you’ll learn about how much more home economics has given not just the US but the world.

So often throughout history, women have been shut out- from decisions about their own lives, from government, from school, from the workplace. With the advent of the field of home economics, women finally had a in to not just a career, but the STEM fields. Suddenly, women were earning not just Bachelor’s degrees, but Master’s degrees and sometimes PhDs and working for gas companies, as nutritionists, in high-level teaching and administrative positions (although this last one didn’t happen nearly enough). And not just white women, either; home economics opened the door to education and careers for Black and Latina women as well.

Danielle Dreilinger recounts the full history of home economics in the US, from how it allowed women a place in the world, to how hypocrisy set in and working women began to tell younger girls that their place was in the home. She covers the many innovations and favorites credited to home economists: green bean casserole and sweet potato pie, clothing care labels, school lunch, Rice Krispie treats, the federal poverty level, and so much more. Home economics has always been more than high school sewing classes and cooking classes; it was a step up for women to embark in studying chemistry and engineering and holding positions of power. It’s never quite gotten the respect it deserves, but this book finally shines a spotlight that both showers the field with praise and spotlights its occasionally egregious missteps.

This is a dense, information-packed book that took me an entire week to read (granted, I had more than usual going on, so less time to read in general, but I still needed a lot of time to process everything in here). This isn’t a lighthearted glance at women in aprons, pearls, and heels doing the dusting; this is a history-heavy text that examines a field that, for the first time, really allowed women to access higher education- not always without a fight or a struggle, or without some sneering from men (who nevertheless enjoyed the fruits of home economics *eyeroll*), but it allowed women to more fully participate in the world and earn money for work they found fulfilling. That’s pretty huge.

Ms. Dreilinger makes an excellent case for home economics remaining a part of the school curriculum. In theory, I absolutely agree with her. These are skills everyone of every gender needs to learn for a happy, productive adult life, and she rightly points out that in today’s ridiculous world, parents are already tasked with doing and being everything; it’s impossible for some families, especially low-income families whose parents work multiple jobs, to find the time to teach your kids to cook, etc. I’m just not sure where to cram it in to the school curriculum either. We already demand so much from our schools and they’re not always able to fulfill those demands (often for very good reasons; it’s hard to teach kids who come to school suffering from various forms of trauma like hunger, poverty, abuse, grief, etc) even with the best of resources- which, as we all know, most schools don’t even have.

This is a book that will take you on a journey through women’s history and make you look at the field of home economics in a completely new way, and will leave you wondering where it will go in the future. Awesome read.

Visit Danielle Dreilinger’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France

I was born in 1980; for people born in my generation, there’s never been a time where AIDS hasn’t existed. I remember first learning about the deadly virus in fifth grade, when my class watched a video featuring Magic Johnson, and my teacher (who was one of the best teachers I ever had) led a class discussion afterwards. In my life, AIDS has gone from an absolute death sentence to a chronic health condition that can be managed with one pill a day (for some folks). The implications of that are enormous. One of the books I recommend most is And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts; it was because I love that book so much that I wanted to read a more recently-written story about the people behind the long, painful journey to an effective treatment for AIDS. I knew as soon as I heard about How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France (Knopf, 2013), I had to read it. At over 500 pages of narrative, it’s a dense, hefty read, but it’s well worth your time.

David France has chronicled the emotional odyssey of the late seventies through the mid-nineties for the New York gay community, from the first few deaths that rang alarm bells and alerted people that some terrible new illness was going around, to the final triumphant moments when an effective treatment was finally on the horizon. The path to that triumph is littered with dead bodies, pain, horrific suffering (both physical and emotional), ruined lives, and grief; it was also lined with friendship, camaraderie, infighting, broken friendships, and young adults coming into their own amidst terrible tragedy.

The government ignored them (“It only affects gay people, so just let it take them out”). Their families abandoned them. Their health providers often turned them away. Hospitals refused AIDS patients treatment. Funeral homes refused to care for their wasted bodies. Scientists didn’t see their suffering as a priority. But the gay community refused to face death sitting down; their voices rose to a fever pitch and remained there, even throughout their grief and suffering, until finally, finally, after so much loss and death, the people who could help began to listen. It would take over 100,000 American deaths for an effective treatment to finally arrive.

This is a moving, tragic, infuriating, and beautifully written narrative of a time in history that should never, ever have happened. It’s horrifying how easily the United States is willing to throw its own citizens away (and this happens in so, so many aspects); it was more than willing to write off the endless suffering of the gay community, telling them they had brought this on themselves and it was God’s punishment (in Judaism, there’s a term for this kind of behavior, which translates to ‘desecration of the name of God;’ I think it fits in this instance. Using God to justify someone else’s suffering, while you stand idly by and mock them? Yeah. It fits).

Author David France pops into the story now and then, as he was in the midst of it all, attending meetings and protests, caring for sick friends and lovers, and grieving many, many losses (people losing hundreds of friends wasn’t uncommon). This adds a personal touch to the story which gives it emotional depth; it’s not all protests, emotionally charged meetings, and observations from afar. This is a story observed up close; it’s personal to him, and he makes sure the reader knows it.

How to Survive a Plague is a heavy, emotional read, but it’s well worth your time.

Visit David France’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood by Mark Oppenheimer

As soon as I heard that Mark Oppenheimer was writing a book about the Squirrel Hill synagogue shooting, I added the book to my want-to-read list. This horrible even happened before my conversion, but converting had been something I’d been considering many, many years prior. I was sitting in the waiting area of my daughter’s gymnastics class that Saturday when my phone started buzzing and the news that a shooting had happened in a Pittsburgh synagogue began to fill my news feed. As I have a friend who lives in the area, I went to her Facebook page and began frantically refreshing her feed, trying to ascertain whether she was safe or not (she was; Tree of Life was not her congregation). And as I did that, a little voice in my brain said, “What about now? Still want to convert?” And the immediate answer was, “Absolutely. These are my people.” It took a little longer, but I made it happen, and it still hurts to read about this tragedy. Someone from my congregation lost family because of this shooting. The Jewish community is close-knit and well-connected with each other, and we’re all still feeling this. Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood (Knopf Publishing Group, 2021) is a beautiful testament to the strength of community and how a neighborhood and the greater community can come together in the wake of tragedy.

In the morning of October 27, 2018, a man walked into the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha congregation (which also housed two other congregations, Dor Hadash and New Light Congregation) and gunned down eleven Jews, injuring six more, and traumatizing all the rest. The focus of this book isn’t on what happened during the shooting, but rather, what happened afterwards, because there’s no need to glorify the killer or focus on the line of thinking that brought him to this point. Mark Oppenheimer’s family lived in Squirrel Hill for many generations; it’s a heavily Jewish area that is very close-knit, and the book delves into the beauty of recovery, of neighbors helping neighbors, of the wider world lending a hand and stepping in to help dry the tears of a hurting people.

People traveled from multiple faraway states with therapy dogs, homemade memorials, and more. The local firefighters memorialized one of the victims who always stopped by the firehouse for a chat. People came to prepare food for the victims’ families, borrowing another synagogue’s kitchen to ensure that the food would be kosher. Public art began appearing in support of the local Jewish community, most notably in a Starbucks window, where it can still be viewed today. Not everything was easy to take; a young Black woman expressed distress that when her people are shot and killed, no one shows up like this (and her distress is entirely understandable and this needs to change); just like at Mother Emanuel, the AME church in Charleston where nine Black worshippers were murdered, trauma tourists came by to ogle the site; a local newspaper editor lost his job after his bold decision to use the first few words of the Mourner’s Kaddish (a prayer recited for the dead, which has no mention of death in it) as a headline. But Squirrel Hill is a special place, and the way the community came together after this nightmare will show you exactly how special it is.

It takes a special writer to make me want to pack up and travel anywhere; Maeve Binchy does it with her novels about Ireland, and Mark Oppenheimer has done it with this book. From a terrible, unthinkable crime sprang a community’s love and support, and that’s about the best you can hope for when so many are suffering. He manages to both respect individual grief and trauma while composing a love letter to his ancestral neighborhood, amplifying the good that they shouldn’t have had to engage in but still chose to.

Security has always been tight at all the synagogues I’ve been to; I can imagine that this has only increased worldwide in the wake of the Pittsburgh massacre. Several police officers are on guard outside every service we have; the doors are always locked and you have to be buzzed in (or know the code); if you’re going somewhere new, it’s considered good form to call first and let them know you’re coming, so they’re not alarmed by the presence of a new person at services. It’s an absolute shame, but not surprising, and Squirrel Hill will show you exactly why all of this is necessary.

This is a sad, but lovely book, one that I highly recommend.

Visit Mark Oppenheimer’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.