Monday, July 24, 2017

Sea of Poppies

Amitav Ghosh
Here, she said, taste it.  It is the star that took us from our homes and put us on this ship.  It is the planet that rules our destiny.
- Deeti, describing a poppy seed

I have had Amitav Ghosh' Sea of Poppies on my radar since it was published.  It's the first book in a trilogy centered on a ship, the Ibis.  In the first book, the Ibis is transitioning from its previous life as a slave transporting vessel to one that transports coolies and opium.  It begins its journey on the Ganges River in India, and then sets out on an ocean voyage with an amazingly rich cast of characters on board.

I loved this book.  I am in absolute awe at the breadth and depth that is encompassed within its pages, and I am so excited to read the next two books in the series to see just how much more Ghosh has to share with me.  There are some authors who truly astonish me with just how much they can pack into their pages - character development, plot advancement, social commentary, historical accuracy.  It's books like this one that make reading a continued delight.

Sea of Poppies is set just at the start of the first Opium War.  We don't learn much about the Opium Wars in the west (or at least not in the United States), so it was fascinating to learn more about a period that had such a massive impact on the world (and was a cause of World War I).  The British Empire reeeeeeeally wanted China to open up to global trade, but the Chinese did not want to.  This angered the British, and thus, Opium Wars.  China was forced to cede Hong Kong and open up ports to global trade, and the British got to sell their stuff to more people.  They also got access to indentured laborers (coolies) from Asia and South Asia since slavery was no longer an option for them.

Thus, Sea of Poppies is set just as globalization and imperialism really get their groove on, and the scope of this book is absolutely immense because of that.  There are Indian farmers who are forced to grow poppies instead of food, and fall into debt.  There is a mixed race American man trying to make his way in the world.  There are pirates and merchant marines.  There's an Indian raja who is humiliated by debt to the English, stripped of his title and wealth, and forced to go abroad as an indentured servant.  There are, of course, the English, raking in great wealth and secure in their vision of bringing civilization to India and China.  And there's more.  The characters in this book are fantastic.

And those characters speak in a gloriously rich variety of languages.  Honestly, this is where Ghosh's comedic genius really sparkles.  Obviously, a book centered on a former slave ship that now transports opium can have many dark and depressing moments.  But the way Ghosh uses language and shows how so many disparate languages can be combined and influence each other is so great.  It took me a little while to understand some of the English spellings and mispronunciations of the Hindi words, but once I did, I usually smiled or laughed to myself.  They were nice little Easter eggs for people who have some understanding of Indian language.  I myself do not know Hindi, but am familiar enough with common words and names to have caught on.  It was so well-done, and the book includes a glossary at the back for many of the words, too.

And with all of THAT happening, Ghosh doesn't ever lose sight of telling a fantastic story.  Here is a very compelling tale about the wide-ranging impact of colonialism and imperialism, related through extremely personal stories.  I loved that we get to know not only about how the Indian ruling class lost so much of its power and prestige to the British, but also get to learn about the farmers who suffered and the enterprising middle-class professionals who cashed out.  I was thoroughly engrossed in learning more about how Hinduism was practiced in the 19th century, the obsessions with caste and purity and superstition, and how differently it is practiced today.  Ghosh uses India as the setting, but the cast is from everywhere, all doing their best to make their way in a world.  Most of the characters are pushing against rules and norms that have dictated their whole lives, whether due to race or caste or income or sex.  And yet, they all come together on a ship and those rules are tested.  You can see just how huge the social shifts in the 19th century were, all over the world, from societies of rigid class structures based on birth to more malleable ones based on wealth and influence.  I loved that, and I loved this book.  So excited to read the rest of this series!

Monday, July 17, 2017

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie - A Tale of Love and Fallout

Lauren Redniss
Lauren Redniss' Radioactive:  Marie & Pierre Curie - A Tale of Love and Fallout is a beautiful book.  It is beautiful because of the amazingly subtle artwork that implies more than it compels, because of the process used to create that artwork, because of the typeface the author created herself based on manuscripts she saw at the New York Public Library, because of the archives and research Redniss delved into and included in the book to make it both very informative and intensely personal.

Redniss' book is different than many other graphic novels.  It's not structured in panels, but in full page illustrations, sometimes accompanied by dense, descriptive text.  It includes many types of artwork, from cyanotype printing (used to achieve a look similar to a radioactive glow), photos, grave rubbings, sketches, and more.  There is a Chernobyl Situational Map and photos of mutant flowers.  It's absolutely stunning.

Radioactive is described as the story of Marie & Pierre Curie, but that's more of a starting point than the arc of the whole story.  Pierre & Marie Curie's partnership was hugely productive, but Marie lived a full life after her husband's untimely death (including earning herself a second Nobel Prize).  She raised seriously amazing scientist children and inspired other scientists and changed the world.

She slept with a bottle of lightly glowing radium next to her bed.  Her clothes and skin glowed.  She had an affair with her husband's former student.  She won two Nobel Prizes.  During World War I, she made France mobile X-labs.  She died a slow, painful death due to radiation exposure, working to the last as she described her "crisis and pus."


Redniss used Marie Curie's life as the centerpoint of her web, but she goes well beyond the lives of the Curies to describe just how much her work has inspired and influenced other people and how much it has impacted the world.  Her work helped develop chemotherapy, treatment still used by cancer treatments today.  Conversely, it led to significant work on the development of the atomic bomb.  Many people in the world became ill or died due to their work with radium; others were inspired by it to study science.

I admit that sometimes this book could be hard for me to follow, and sometimes I had difficulty finding the thread between the Curie storyline and others.  But I really, really enjoyed this book.  The artwork is stunning, almost hypnotic.  Curie's life is fascinating, her work ground-breaking.  And it was so inspiring to read about all these truly amazing women.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Best We Could Do

Thi Bui
Sometimes I'll Google phrases like "best diverse comic books" and come across titles I've never heard of, such as this gem by Thi Bui, The Best We Could Do.  Thi Bui was born in Vietnam and left the country with her family as a refugee during the war.  They eventually made it to the United States, where Bui met her husband and they started a family.  While raising her son, Bui reflected upon her relationships with her own parents and how little she knew about their lives before she entered the world.  This graphic memoir is her attempt to tell their story and her own, and it's a beautiful one.

As I get older, it becomes more and more clear to me that my parents are human, and that they are humans who age.  As I see my friends with their (still quite young) children, I can also see just how exhausting parenthood can be.  There are few relationships in life that can remain as inherently selfish and self-absorbed as that of a child towards its parent.  Even now, as an adult who is capable of doing adult things like cooking her own dinner and doing her own laundry, every time I go to my parents' house, I regress 100% and expect there to be food waiting for me when I arrive, and food ready for me to take back with me when I leave.  I call my dad and complain of medical symptoms so that he will call in prescriptions for me.  I call my mom and ask if she'll come over to oversee work on my house so that I don't have to take a day off of work.

Bui reflects upon this as she takes care of her son and compares her childhood to those of her parents' and her son's.  Her parents came of age in vastly different circumstances; they met in college, got married, and then their world imploded.  They raised children in the midst of war, and then left the country on a boat (while Bui's mother was eight months pregnant) to get to Malaysia.  They arrived in America, still chased by their personal demons, and raised a family the best way they knew how.  Bui struggled with her relationship with her parents, particularly her father, and only began to understand why when she learned more about their childhoods.  The empathy that comes through in the way she describes her family history is so moving, and the title of the book works so well.  Her parents weren't perfect, and they made mistakes.  But they did the best they could do, and their children grew up with better lives, and their grandchildren grow up with even better ones.

The Best We Could Do is a beautiful story, particularly at this time when so much of the world is turning away refugees.  Accepting refugees not only changes the lives of the refugees, but of generations to come.  The book is also a truly heartfelt memoir about family and the deep love that you can have for people you don't always understand and who are far from perfect.


Monday, June 26, 2017

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes

Dan Egan
I have lived my whole life by the Great Lakes, specifically Lake Michigan.  I love the vastness of these waters, like interior freshwater oceans.  I grew up visiting the beaches and now walk along the waterfront quite regularly; I live only a mile away from the shore.  So as soon as I heard about Dan Egan's book The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, I knew I would read it.  I don't think I realized just how depressing and stressful the book would be, though.  (That said, it ends on a semi-happy note!)

The Great Lakes were a bastion of glorious fresh water and bountiful fish for many, many years.  They were difficult to navigate, so they were mostly protected and allowed to grow and thrive as they wanted.  And then the St. Lawrence Seaway was built and things have been going downhill since then.

The lakes have been under attack by invasive species constantly since then.  The first attack by these really, really scary looking sea lampreys, which are basically blood-sucking eels that came from the Atlantic Ocean and attacked our poor, unsuspecting lake fish.  I do not recommend googling images of the sea lamprey because it is not something you'll be able to get out of your head any time soon.  It is ghastly and will likely show up in a nightmare.

Luckily, with some great work (that still continues to this day, at a cost), scientists were able to get the sea lamprey population way down by finding a poison that worked on them and only them.  BUT THEN, someone came back to Michigan from out west and was like, "What the Great Lakes need are sporting fish, not boring fish!" and so then he imported salmon to the lakes and then brought a bunch of species for those salmon to eat, and AGAIN the native fish populations dwindled.  (But recreation on the lakes SOARED into a very lucrative industry.)  And people were happy but the lakes were not really a great place.  AND THEN came the mussels, the true villains of our story (and the villains of lake stories all over the country, I think).  And they ate all the phytoplankton and starved out the salmon and the other fish, and there is NO GETTING RID OF THEM.  Really, I heard a Science Friday podcast with Dan Egan and some other scientists recently, and they were basically like, "Hopefully something will come and solve the mussel problem, but it's not likely to be humans."  Because there are just trillions of them.  If you were to drain the lakes, they would be full of these quagga mussels, cleaning the water and eating all the food and being complete menaces.

Also, asian carp has infested the Chicago River and is likely to already be in Lake Michigan and who knows what will happen then.

Suffice it to say, things do not look great for the Great Lakes.  Not only are there the many invasive species, but the lakes are bordered by eight different states, and two countries, and they have all these river tributaries, and people travel from the lakes to other parts of the countries, and the EPA seems to really not care that much about the lakes (to an appalling degree, really), and Chicagoans really want to keep taking from the lakes without giving a lot back, and the fishing industry really wants the salmon back, and other groups really want the trout and perch back, and it is very disheartening to read about.  Very important and fascinating, but fairly disheartening.  People can understand a forest fire or can see glaciers receding, but they don't care nearly as much about things happening underwater.  They don't understand just how different the lakes are now than they were 50 years ago, or 100 years ago.  There has been an incalculable loss to the whole world, and we seem not to notice.

Egan goes into excellent detail not only about the many rounds of invasive species in the lakes, but also about the people who depend on the lakes but also hurt them, the many government agencies that seem pretty ineffective in managing the lakes, and the people who are trying valiantly to help the lakes as much as they can.  I noted many quotes about the lakes that I was going to share in this post, but they are fairly sad and long, and I don't know if that's the best.

Instead, I'll leave you with the uplifting fact that Egan gave me at the end that made me feel a little better.  Native fish species in the lakes may be learning how to eat and digest the evil quagga mussels!  They never did before, and they were starving because the mussels ate all their food.  But now, since the mussels are so plentiful and the fish food is not at all plentiful, the fish are going after the mussels.  This is glorious.  I hope this continues and helps put the lakes in a little bit of a better balance.  Of course, this could all be of no help if more invasive species come in and wreak havoc on the system, or if we continue to pollute the lakes at the same rate that we do now.  But it's a story of resilience and adaptation and rooting for the underdog, and I think that's grand.

If you live by the Great Lakes, or any lake, I highly recommend reading this book!  If you enjoy books about environmental impact, or even if they cast you into despair, but you like to feel well-informed, I recommend this book to you, too.  I plan to do some research to see how I can help the lakes!  If only to go and clean up the beaches sometimes.

And if nothing else, I recommend a listen to the Science Friday podcast I linked to above!  It's excellent.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Testosterone Rex, by Cordelia Fine

Cordelia Fine
There are a few times in her book Testosterone Rex in which Cordelia Fine self-deprecatingly talks about how, when she introduces herself to people, she is always saddened by the fact that she is not immediately surrounded by fangirls and fanboys who carry copies of her book around and want her to autograph it right then and there.

I admit that I don't carry Fine's Delusions of Gender around with me, but I am a HUGE fan of the book, and I'm pretty sure that if I were ever to meet Fine in person, I would be a total fangirl and absolutely ask to take a photo with her and all sorts of other things.

SO NOW YOU KNOW, CORDELIA - you are just meeting the wrong people.  You have LOADS of fans who love you and your work.

I was pretty excited to learn that Fine had a new book out, this one about how people assume that testosterone is a hormone that creates vast differences between men and women (besides the private bits), and that it can explain a lot of things about human and animal behavior, from risk-taking to spreading the seed to being successful at work.  And, as she does, Fine shoots all of these assumptions down using science.

The book clocks in at less than 200 pages before the footnotes, so it's not long, but there's a LOT packed into its pages.  I don't remember this happening at all while I read Delusions of Gender, but I admit that reading all these details about the sex habits of fish and insects was a little trying for me.  I didn't love every page of this book the way I loved every page of Delusions of Gender, but I do think the pay-off for this book is really just as good!  Just know that I skimmed some parts of it.

Fine makes a lot of great points, and some of them really resonated with me.  For example, she talks about risk-taking and how studies have shown that men are more likely to take risks than women are.  Then she totally breaks apart this whole thing, and it was amazing.  FIRST, she says that when you separate people by ethnicity, it is actually mostly just white men who feel the world is super-safe and therefore are quite willing to take risks.  And, within that subset, it was white men who were "well educated, rich, and politically conservative, as well as more trusting of institutions and authorities, and opposed to a "power to the people" view of the world..."

Who would have thought?  The people with the most privilege are the ones most likely to take "risks," possibly because they are the least likely to lose.

Fine goes on to state that people view risks very differently, and someone may consider one thing quite risky and something else quite safe.  For example, a skydiver could be very conservative with his money, and a Wall Street speculator could drive a Volvo.  It's the individual's perception of the risk that is important, not a general idea of what is risky and what is not.

A salient point to bring those two facts together?  "When asked about the risks to human health, safety, or prosperity arising from high tax rates for business, now it was the women's and minority men's turn to be sanguine."  (Ah, so rich white men were very worried about the risks that would come with taxing business, whereas the people who would more likely benefit from taking that risk were not so worried!)  Basically, people of both genders and all races take risks all the time, it is just that we seem to value some actions as being more risky (skydiving) than others (accepting a job at a company where that you will be the only woman, surrounded by bros).

Cordelia Fine is one of those people with so much glorious righteous anger PLUS a fantastic sense of humor that you kind of want her to fight all your battles for you.  She shares a story about how she went to a school sale and some woman was selling plastic knives, and made a point to say the girl could have a pink knife, but her brother could have red or blue.  She talks about how early kids become aware of gender and what they are "supposed" to do.  (She goes into even more detail on this in Delusions of Gender).  She reminds us that we should never say stupid phrases like, "Boys will be boys," as though we should give them a free pass for being jerks.  She really carries the banner on gender equality, and I love her for it.

Really excellent book!  Go read it!

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Rita Williams-Garcia's One Crazy Summer

Rita Williams-GarciaI first heard about the book One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia, on Ana's blog in 2014.  Me being me, I read the book in 2017.  So I'm a little late to the party, but the party is still excellent!

One Crazy Summer is set during the summer of 1968.  Delphine and her sisters are shipped from their home with their father and grandmother in Brooklyn, New York to stay with their mother (who emphatically did not want them) in Oakland, California.  Their mother, Cecile, is pretty eccentric and hands-off, so Delphine and her sisters spend much of their time in a summer camp run by the Black Panthers, learning about civil rights, strength, and unity. 

Williams-Garcia's note at the end of the book emphasized that there were children also involved in the fight for civil rights, and this book is a brilliant way of showing that involvement.  It's also about as complex as a children's novel can be about familial baggage. Cecile left her family and took off for the other side of the country.  She isn't motherly or very caring at all in the book, to the extent that the resolution at the end felt a little forced to me.  But as an adult reading the book, it's easy to empathize with her and her desire to make her own choices and live her own life.  Serious kudos to Williams-Garcia for making Cecile a complex, complete person with her own struggles and motivations, some of which are unrelated to her role as a wife or mother or caregiver.

And Delphine and her sisters are wonderful.  I loved the way they stick together and then bicker and then come together again.  I love how they all know each other so well but continue to surprise and challenge each other.  I love that they all just got up and went to San Francisco together for a day on their own.  I loved the sweetness of Delphine letting herself go one moment to scream with joy as she goes down a big hill, instead of always being the grown-up.

One of my favorite things about this book is the way it portrayed the Black Panthers.  This is not the paramilitary, extremist organization that many people learn about in school.  It's one that provided free meals in neighborhoods and organized summer camps that taught children that they were important and valued.

 I read this book for a bit of lighthearted fun after so many heavy, difficult books over the past few months.  It was so easy to read and so lovely, but it certainly has depth and more heart and kindness than you would expect in such a slim, quick read.  I can't wait to continue the series!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic

Sam Quinones
I read Sam Quinones' Dreamland:  The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic for a new book club I'm joining.  I have had it on my radar since it came out, but I admit that I was wary of reading it.  I've read a lot about the trials and tribulations facing America's rural and forgotten towns and cities since the election, and I no longer want to read about them in a vacuum.  I would rather read about the country as a whole, finding ways to work together.  I am sick of reading about how every single group feels forgotten and left behind (well, mostly how one group feels left behind just because everyone else is starting to catch up).

What I wanted from Dreamland was a meaty account of the way our country has approached drugs from the past to the present, from procurement to addiction to prosecution to rehabilitation.  I wanted Quinones to look frankly at how drug use and abuse channels into our prison system, but he didn't really touch that at all.  And, honestly, he never implied that he was going to touch it.  The book is about the opiate epidemic, and about how it became an epidemic.  It is not about our law enforcement or prison system.  It is about the drug, what it does to you, and how it became so easy for so many people to get addicted to it.

Which is an important story to tell, absolutely.  But did not feel that different to me than other stories about how drugs come into the country and get people hooked.  And so the story felt fairly repetitive and even within the book, it felt repetitive.

The book also made me feel uncomfortable.  The premise of the book is basically that white, suburban, and fairly well-off Americans are addicted to opiates, and the fact that it's people from "good families" that are addicted that this is a story worth telling.  The phrase "good families" is used multiple times.  The flip side of this, of course, is that people who are not white or suburban or rich but become addicted to drugs are somehow less.  That even within addiction, there is a hierarchy, and these opiate addicts are at the top.  This was particularly frustrating because all of these white people seemed to hardly ever go to prison, or if they went to prison, they soon got out, and then they were at it again.  They seemed to get so many chances whereas many other people who did less never get out.  Quinones never even hints at this disparity.

Most of the "black tar heroin" that people graduate to from prescription painkillers comes from dealers that connect back to a small town in Mexico, Xalisco.  Quinones details their operation in  great detail (fairly repetitively), talking about how the key difference in their approach is to deal with heroin like a business that grows quickly, stretching across America.  They value product integrity and quality, just-in-time inventory, and customer satisfaction.  They work hard to keep their clients (meaning they work hard to ensure no one tries too hard to get clean), and they have a very vast, complicated network.  They are also very polite and well-behaved and don't ever use.  So they aren't like most drug dealers, who are also addicts.  They're just there for the money, and then they want to go home to Mexico and live better lives.  They want to take care of their families and impress their neighbors.  That's why they come to America.

The dealers also don't ever sell to black people.  They only sell to whites.  That's part of the reason why they target the smaller towns and suburbs, not the cities.  They don't go anywhere too white, because they need an immigrant population to blend into.  But they also don't go anywhere near black people.  This is stated unambiguously, and again, Quinones does not go into this.

Quinones does go into the herculean efforts put forth by the pharmaceutical industry to get opiate painkillers on the market and approved for any sort of pain medication, and the (very flawed) study they cited over and over again that claimed opiate painkillers were not addictive.  (Spoiler:  They are.  Very.  Addictive.  For some people.)  These were the most informative sections of the book to me, mostly because they highlight just how unscrupulous people can be when they are incentivized to focus on profit and sales, and when they are given information that aligns with what they want to hear.  It was horrifying to read about the lengths to which companies would go to get doctors to prescribe their drugs, and to ensure that they kept prescribing their drugs, and to combat even the slightest idea that their drugs could have very negative side effects.  It's scary, and the more I read about things like this, the more I want strong government oversight of the free market.  The market may force companies to self-correct when they go too far, but how far can they go, and how many people [from "good families"] have to suffer before they get to the tipping point?  Also, how much money are companies able to make from people suffering overall vs the small amount they then pay out in damages?  Generally, the pay-out is way less than the profit, so... we are not really incentivizing them to do anything different in future.

Quinones also goes into detail about the difficulties the medical profession faces in trying to deal with the guidance first for and now against opiates.  This I found particularly good reading, mostly because my father is in general practice, and he's dealt with a lot of patient demands and these patient satisfaction surveys that are both really useful and really horrible.  It's really hard to be in general practice these days, and it's only getting harder, and people still trust their general practice doctor more than any other doctor, so it's REALLY hard to imagine these poor doctors trying to help alleviate their patients' pain, and then these patients trusting their doctors and getting addicted to painkillers and then to heroin.

There were many things about this book that made me sad and angry.  I don't personally know anyone who has dealt with opiate addiction in their family, so I can only imagine the hurt and bewilderment these families must deal with as they grapple with addiction that starts from something as seemingly innocuous as lower back pain.  Addiction is hard to understand.  Pain is also extremely hard to understand.  Understanding pain and addiction together is really hard.  I think it's very valuable that this book was written to bring these things to light.

But, I also think Quinones could have done much more here in bringing up the disparities in the way we treat addiction in this country.  People in the suburbs who are addicted to heroin that they buy on the street from drug dealers are "suffering a disease" and deserve "treatment."  People in the city who are addicted to anything else are "dangerous criminals" and are locked up.  I feel this book was lacking for missing that whole piece of the puzzle.  Granted, it's a big piece of a huge puzzle and well worth its own book.  But it could at least be acknowledged.