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.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold

I was 18 when the massacre at Columbine happened, just under a year after having graduated from high school myself. I remember waking up that day and hearing the news and being shocked and horrified, and as the news continued to filter in over the next few weeks, I grieved not just for the victims and their families, but for the families of the perpetrators. What must their parents be feeling at that moment? Not only had they lost their children to suicide, those children had died in the most horrific (for the surviving parents) manner possible- purposefully taking others out with them. My heart ached badly for those parents, and over the years, I wondered how they were doing. A few years ago, I learned that Sue Klebold, mother of Dylan, had written a book, entitled A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy (Crown, 2016). I immediately knew I wanted to read it (though I never formally added it to my TBR). On my last trip to the library, as I was grabbing a different book, her book was right in front of me on the shelf. I took it as a sign and put it into my bag.

Think back to when you were a teenager. How open were you with your parents? Did you inform them of the times you suffered from debilitating depression? Did you let them know about what was going on with your friend groups at all times? How many times did you spill the beans about what went on at those parties you went to? Did they really know the truth about all your friends? Teenagers hide a lot from their parents; it’s mostly developmentally normal, a way that they can begin to separate themselves from their parents and begin to form their full adult selves. And teens get really good at hiding things- I know I was- so much so that even the most attentive parents can miss major things. Such was the case for Sue Klebold and her husband Tom, who had begun to notice Dylan seeming a little distant just before the massacre, and who had plans to sit down and talk to him, but tragedy struck too soon.

In the aftermath of Columbine, Sue struggled greatly, unsure of how to process the fact that this child whom she had loved so very much, who had rarely given them any trouble and who seemed to be looking forward to a future at college, had murdered so many of his fellow classmates before turning the gun on himself. How had she not seen the signs? How could she ever possibly atone for the damage her son had caused the community? In her fog of grief, Sue began speaking with therapists, academics, brain health professionals, people who study violence and mass shootings, trying to find answers. Some, she found; others are questions that will remain unanswered forever.

This is a heavy memoir of the deep-seated grief of a mother who has lost her youngest son in one of the worst ways imaginable. It’s bad enough to lose a child; to lose a child who has killed others before killing himself, shattering everything you thought you knew not only about him but about your family and yourself as a parent, is a source of never-ending trauma. Sue Klebold has poured out her heart, soul, pain, grief, and desperate love for a son who committed heinous acts on these pages. You don’t stop loving your child when they do something terrible, but it takes a lot of mental readjustment to incorporate that into your understanding of that child. This book demonstrates the unthinkable difficulty of how to continue on after a nightmare comes to life, and it does so with grace and dignity.

My heart broke over and over for the Klebolds throughout this book: for their pain, for their loss, for the realization that they misinterpreted the signs that something was wrong, and for their gradual understanding that there’s not always a failproof way to prevent these things (look at how difficult it is to get any kind of mental health help; Ms Klebold mentions that Eric Harris, the other Columbine shooter, had been receiving help). It’s not always or maybe even often about how children are parented- how many families can you think of where one sibling has major problems like drugs or crime and the rest of the siblings live normal lives?

So much grief and guilt on every page of this book. I truly hope that Ms. Klebold has been able to find some modicum of peace. I know she’ll never stop loving and missing her son and questioning why- why him, why her, why their family, but I truly, truly hope she’s been able to find peace after such a terrible, terrible loss and painful aftermath.

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: 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

The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq- Dunya Mikhail

Another pick from Book Riot’s 2019 Read Harder Challenge! This time, the task was to read a translated book written and/or translated by a woman, and what was available at my libraries from the list was The Beekeeper: Rescuining the Stolen Women of Iraq by Dunya Mikhail. Don’t be fooled by this book: it’s a slim tome, coming in at just over 200 pages, but every page is a punch in the gut.

Iraqi-born poet and journalist Dunya Mikhail fled Iraq after facing increasing threats in the mid-90’s. The Beekeeper is a collection of first-person narratives of Yazidi women who were kidnapped by Daesh (also known as ISIS) and forced to become sex slaves for them. An unlikely hero emerges, a beekeeper named Abdullah Shrem. He can’t sit idly by and watch his neighbors, his fellow countrymen and women, continue to suffer, and so he begins an informal operation designed to retrieve these women by any means necessary. His cellphone always on hand, Abdullah is ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice in order to secure freedom those enslaved and tortured by Daesh.

This book needs ALL the content warnings. Rape and violence of every type abound, including mass killings, people being buried alive and being forced to dig their own graves, and parents being forced to watch their children slaughtered in front of them as punishment (there are pictures of the wrapped bodies of these dead children in the book). It’s as brutal as any book about the Holocaust or Rwandan genocide, so be aware of that if you’re not in a good place to read about the absolute worst kind of suffering that man can inflict upon their fellow human beings.

‘You won’t find a single family here who hasn’t had someone disappear,’ someone says near the beginning of the book, a remark that I found heartbreaking and infuriating. This is one of those books that deserves to be read simply because we need to be a witness to the suffering of the survivors and be aware that this has gone on and is still going on. Thousands of women remain in captivity; some have returned only to find their entire families have been slaughtered. Others haven’t returned at all. These are human rights violations of the highest order, and I feel it’s incredibly important to bear witness to their stories.

It feels like I’ve been reading a LOT of really heavy stuff lately. I’m about ready to go on a Christina Lauren binge just to get some happy, fun material in my life to break up the heaviness of human atrocities that have filled my reading list recently. I’ve got a few more library books and a few review books, and then I may just do that…

Visit Dunya Mikhail’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.