Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Three Books I Love About Communities - Refugee High, Karachi Vice, Squirrel Hill

I love books about community. Usually written by journalists, they follow a group of people over the course of a period time, giving multiple perspectives. Sometimes it's grounded in place, but sometimes the connection is some sort of subculture. Sometimes the author is a character in the story, like last year's Thinking Inside the Box, but more often they are an observer and attempt to be a fly on the wall. That doesn't always work - one never knows how your presence will affect the story. And of course when folks are struggling, there's a natural inclination to help. I'm sure this can lead to complicated situations. 

Though you'd not likely find the books shelved together, except perhaps in an amorphous nonfiction section, three of my favorite books of autumn fall into this category - notice how I had to avoid saying "fall fall."

The first book is Refugee High: Coming of Age in America, written by Elly Fishman, an award-winning Chicago journalist who is now teaching at UWM. I didn't even know that she had a Milwaukee connection when Chris recommended the book to me; the bio in the advance copy didn't mention her move north. But the subject was fascinating to me - one school year at a high school in Rogers Park. I have enjoyed this kind of narrative much over the years, such that I have a special shelf labeled "education" at home.  The most recent book I read of this sort was The Years That Matter Most, from Paul Tough, which was renamed The Inequality Machine in paperback. But no matter the title, what I liked about it was following the students as they tackled the college admissions process.

Here's my rec for Refugee High: "Chronicling a year in the life of Sullivan High, which has aimed to become the go-to public high school for refugees in the Chicago area, journalist Elly Fishman looks at the highs and lows of teaching kids from 35 different countries who speak 38 different languages. As she follows students from Myanmar, Iraq, Syria, Guatemala, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as their school principal and several teachers and administrative staff, Fishman does a great job bringing the players to life and documenting the pressures from families to marry early, gangs to affiliate, and jobs that provide financial security but eat up study time. Some students will succeed while others will struggle, mirroring the program itself, which is under pressure from a reduction of refugees allowed into the country as part of a former president’s policies. Refugee High is an enlightening and valuable reading experience."

Our event is tonight, August 31, cohosted by HOME and the Lynden Sculpture Garden - visit their website to learn more about their programs. We still have some in-person registrations available - register here for this option. We are also broadcasting the event on Zoom - register here for the virtual option. And we'll have a recording after the event if all goes well. If this sentence is linked, it will lead you to the recording.

The second book is Karachi Vice: Life and Death in a Divided City, by Samira Shackle. This book releases on September 7 from Melville House, and our virtual program is Monday, October 25, 2 pm Central Time. Shackle will be joining us from London, so it will be 8 pm British Summer Time. Shackle (below right), the editor of New Humanist magazine and a regular contributor to the Guardian, will be in conversation with Audrey Nowakowski (below left) of WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio's Lake Effect. 

I should note that while I have one shelf devoted to education, I have two shelves of urban planning and other city-oriented works of nonfiction.

I discovered this book through the efforts of Michael Barson, who was telling me about the book as I was recounting how many Leonard and Hungry Pauls we sold - the answer as of today is 214. Little did he know that I'd take to this book - following five people around in a city I know little about for five years? I have read some wonderful novels by Pakistani writers and Americans and British folk with Pakistani heritage (Mohsin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie, and the extraordinary Ayad Akhtar*, to name three of the best), but my nonfiction reading was lacking. Wow!

Here's my staff rec on Karachi Vice: "Journalist Shackle spent several years following Karachi residents, including a crime reporter, an ambulance driver, an educator and social activist, another advocate who maps the city’s resources and helps get things like sewers installed, and a young woman from a rural village watching a project for the wealthy encroach on their land. The Partition and other localized conflicts have created a megacity where Pashtuns, Sindhis, Baloch, and Mohajirs (Punjabis are a force in Pakistan, but not so much in Karachi) fight for land and resources, where each ethnic group has a political party which shares power with a criminal element. Underfunded police are almost incentivized to corruption. Social services are often underfunded or altogether absent; ambulances are run by a charity. Media channels are in fierce competition for viewers - with journalists putting themselves in great danger to get the best story. All this and The Taliban, too. Shackle’s detailed and sympathetic portrayal of life in this city of 20 million people is fascinating reading, always insightful, plus she’s a great storyteller. If you are one of the millions of people who loved Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, this book is for you."

Here's a link to register for Samira Shackle's event on Zoom Webinar on October 25.

One last recommendation. Unlike Karachi Vice, I knew as soon as I read about Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood that I would want to read it. Sure I'm interested in Jewish culture. But I'm especially interested in Pittsburgh. Because of its setting, there was some fierce competition to read the advance copy, as we've got two other Yinzers on staff. It was as good as I hoped. 

Here's my written suggestion that you read it too: " Director of the Yale Journalism Initiative Mark Oppenheimer goes behind the headlines of the tragic Tree of Life shooting to explore the fascinating community of Squirrel Hill, a walkable Pittsburgh neighborhood that has retained both religious and secular Jews when so many others have scattered to suburbs. Even the Tree of Life building itself was home to three congregations of different denominations. In Oppenheimer’s exhaustive interviews, he found a pathway to healing that doesn’t always happen after other mass shootings – there wasn’t a single post-event suicide connected to the incident, and there were no controversies over how money flowed to victims and their families. But there was a cost too, at least for some, as activism was played down in favor of unity. 

"I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed Squirrel Hill, which is much more of an exploration of a community, rather than the crime drama or issue book you might have thought it was. There are so many interesting players in the story, not just the victims and their families, but folks like the Iranian student and his hugely successful fundraising efforts, and the young Christian woman who painted images in the Starbucks windows that became a symbolic center of the neighborhood. My top Hanukkah pick!"

The key is that the book is not about the shooting so much as the aftermath. Our event is Thursday, November 4, 7 pm Central Time, which is 8 pm Pittsburgh Time. Register here for this Zoom Webinar.

Oppenheimer will be in conversation with Rachel N Baum, Deputy Director of the Sam & Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies at UWM, who is also our cohost. Needless to say, I also recommend you read the book, which goes on sale October 5. 

If I may recommend one more city book, I'll include Sam Anderson's Boom Town, which is focused on Oklahoma City. It's a crazy book for a crazy place.  It was published in 2018, but I read it late and I'm still talking it up. It's also a great basketball book.

If you are in publishing and have an upcoming book that follows this kind of format, you should tell me about it! I've also noticed that I have read a lot of novels that are basically fictional variations of this concept. 

*Are you telling me you haven't read Homeland Elegies yet? It's now in paperback. My nephew Adam, who was recently visiting, told me how much he loved the book. It's called a purchase link for a reason.

Photo credits:

Mark Oppenheimer by Lotta Studio

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