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.

Monday, May 8, 2017

A Closed and Common Orbit

by Becky Chambers
Last year, I dipped my toes into (feminist, multicultural) science fiction at the behest of a very close friend, and this year, I am jumping straight in.  One of my favorite sci fi novels of 2016 was Becky Chambers' The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, mostly because it made me realize that science fiction can be kind and funny and optimistic and deeply moving.

A Closed and Common Orbit is the sequel/companion novel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and I prefer the sequel to the original, though the original is pretty great, too.  I think I just generally prefer stories that are more in-depth in exploring the feelings and motivations of one or two people vs those of many people.  A Closed and Common Orbit focuses on two characters whose paths mirror each other's, and I really enjoyed that.

The book has two parallel plots.  The first is around Sidra, a sentient AI who finds herself, suddenly, in a very limiting human body and has to learn how to make her way in a multicultural society with only the help of a few very kind friends.  The second is around Jane, a lonely girl who escapes life as a factory drudge and has to find a way to make a life for herself, with only the help of one very kind AI, who helps her navigate life.

I almost never want to share the plot points of science fiction or fantasy novels because I think people get caught up in the science or the magic aspects and ignore the greater message.  This book is not about robots coming to take your job or the risks of automation.  It is a deeply moving novel about defining yourself and what you stand for, when you have very few models of what to do to work from.  It's about how terrifying it can be to make yourself vulnerable to another person, and how absolutely wonderful and comforting friendship and trust are.  About how it's good to depend on yourself but also really, really great to trust someone else enough to depend on them, too.

I loved so many things about this book, but one of the biggest things is the way that Chambers allows her characters to test each other and gives them space to question and grow.  For example, Sidra challenges a friend about her body, and how she is not defined by or tied to one body.  Her friend confesses that it is hard to admit, but that it is also a lot harder to feel empathy for an AI in a spaceship vs an AI in a human costume.  Sidra is unhappy to hear this, and says so.  Her friend feels safe enough to ask more questions and come to a more nuanced view over time.  It really hits home on the importance of having a diverse group of friends with whom you can discuss important topics.

I also can't emphasize enough how glorious it is to read a book that has a generally optimistic setting.  Jane's setting is less rosy than Sidra's, but Jane has love and kindness in her life.  She's a nice person.  Sidra, too, never feels unsafe because of people being unsavory; she feels unsafe because she is a stranger in a strange land.  In general, Chambers' book is about how varied and wonderful multiculturalism can be.  It's not a perfect universe, but it's one that is trying.  And that is just so refreshing!  I stayed up very much past my bedtime to finish this one because I just couldn't put it down.  I really, really enjoyed it.  And if you'd like to try science fiction but aren't sure where to start, I think Becky Chambers is an excellent introduction to the genre!

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Trevor Noah's Born a Crime

by Trevor Noah
I don't watch The Daily Show very often, mostly because I don't watch TV all that often.  I didn't know much at all about Trevor Noah when he took over after Jon Stewart left.  I have only watched a few episodes since then, and Noah's style is very different.  He's much less angry, more willing to seek common ground.  That's not to say that Jon Stewart was too jaded for his job, but you could see it wear on him, every day talking about important topics but not seeming to make any real difference.

I became interested in reading Trevor Noah's memoir, Born a Crime, after listening to some interviews with him when the book came out.  I liked many of the things he said, and the very genuine way in which he said them.  He does want to connect with people and find the many ways in which we are alike and can share moments and experiences vs harping on details that can tear us apart.  I appreciate this kindness and empathy in him, particularly as he is someone who works in comedy and late night and news media that depends on ratings.

Noah's book is about his childhood and early adulthood in South Africa.  It's not exhaustive; there are clearly some episodes that are quite painful and he does not dwell on those.  It is more episodic in nature; the only people we get to know well and who feature prominently through the entire book are Trevor and his mother.  Noah's mother seems like an amazing woman.  She is deeply religious, and Trevor grew up going to multiple churches multiple days a week.  She is also fiercely independent.  She chose to live on her own in a dangerous city and have a mixed race child out of wedlock while living under apartheid.  She raised him to believe that he could do anything.  She worked and worked and worked, and when she married someone, she married an abusive alcoholic and the police never once helped to keep her safe.

Honestly, having read this book, the only word I can possibly use to describe Trevor Noah and his mom is resilient.  Noah grew up in a very, very difficult environment.  His family was extremely poor, he often went hungry, he was a mixed race kid in a country that was obsessed with race, and there seemed to be very little stability in his life.  And yet he seems never to have lost his kindness and gentleness.  This book makes me want to watch The Daily Show because I want to support empathy.  It makes me respect religion and deeply religious people more because when religion is done right, it really can make people strive to become better, kinder versions of themselves.

I don't think I finished this book knowing Trevor Noah any better than I did going into it.  I understand his background and his life better, but I do think he holds the reader just a little bit away.  I think he has a lot of painful memories, and I don't think he wants to revisit them or dwell on them too deeply.  Instead, he writes about events that shaped his thinking and who he became.  He talks about the help he received and how grateful he is for that help and acknowledges that a lot of people don't get help.  He talks about his mother and the moment he realized that women are often much more vulnerable than men in a situation.  He talks about the time he realized that the police aren't always great people, that they are human and come into situations with their own histories and biases. And through it all, he shows readers (as kindly and diplomatically as possible) why he believes what he believes.

A quote that exemplifies what I am trying to explain above about Noah's approach:
People love to say, "Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day.  Teach a man to fish, and he'll eat for a lifetime."  What they don't say is, "And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod."  That's the part of the analogy that's missing.  Working with Andrew was the first time in my life I realized you need someone from the privileged world to come to you and say, "Okay, here's what you need, and here's how it works."  Talent alone would have gotten me nowhere without Andrew giving me the CD writer.  People say, "Oh, that's a handout."  No.  I still have to work to profit by it.  But I don't stand a chance without it.
This was an excellent book, and I bought a copy for my keeper shelf.  Highly recommended.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Rolling Blackouts, by Sarah Glidden

Sarah Glidden
I heard about Sarah Glidden's Rolling Blackouts:  Displatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq on NPR's Book Concierge.  Glidden traveled to the Middle East with some friends who work as independent journalists.  They spent several weeks talking to displaced Iraqis and other individuals and trying to think of ways to pitch stories to news organizations back home.  They work on two main stories - one about Dan, an Iraqi veteran who is returning to the region for the first time and wants to talk to Iraqis who lived through the war, and one about Sam, an Iraqi refugee who found his way to Seattle with his family, somehow ended up in the 9/11 Commission report, and was deported back to Iraq.

Much of Glidden's story, though, focuses on her journalist friends, and the work they do.  It's no secret that news organizations have significantly reduced their foreign staff, and that reporting has suffered as a result.  There are very few reporters abroad with long-term contacts, and so they cannot report on longer-term, slower burn stories.  We understand the world less because of it.  Governments are more corrupt because of it.  Reporters are less safe because of it.  We are all less accountable to each other, from individuals to governments to multi-national corporations, because of it.

Glidden's book highlights some of this loss to us.  She shows us an Iraq that suffered through war but still has culture, friendship, delicious food, and beauty.  Some Iraqis are happy that Americans came, mostly because they suffered deeply under Saddam Hussein.  Others hate Americans for ruining their way of life.  I really enjoyed the way Glidden's friends shared stories of Iraqis in multiple countries to provide a broader perspective.  I also liked the way Glidden used light, bright colors in her art to humanize the experience of so many people whose lives have been upended so completely.  Not only the Iraqi refugees themselves, but the lives of the Turks and Syrians as well.

It was particularly chilling to read the Syrian section of this book, as I was reading it while the US bombed Syria after Assad used chemical weapons on his own people.  The book is set some years ago, I think before the full horrors of the Syrian war.  Now I realize just how much the world missed by not having reporters in Syria to cover Assad, so that it felt as though the whole war came out of nowhere.  (At least, it felt that way to me.  No doubt others were better informed.)

I was less enamored with the story around Dan, the Iraqi war veteran.  I feel like his return to Iraq and his opacity in sharing his feelings and whether his feelings about the war and his participation in it took up an outsize amount of the story.  In a way, it felt very "Yes, of course, focus on the white guy's story because that would be the most compelling to everyone."  I don't think that is fair to Glidden's reporter friends, but it seemed like Glidden wanted to focus the most on that story.  She even ends that story arc quite dramatically, with something like, "Sarah never interviewed Dan again" as the only words on a whole page.  Which makes it sound like either Sarah or Dan died, but neither of them did, and they continued to stay friends and talk to each other, she just didn't interview him again about the war.

That aside, though, I really appreciated Glidden's book and her focus on how journalists make decisions on stories, angles, ethics, and so many other things.  It was very illuminating, and I highly recommend seeking it out if you enjoy Joe Sacco's work or Brooke Gladstone's The Influencing Machine.  (Teresa, I'm looking at you!)

Monday, April 17, 2017

Whatever happened to interracial love?

I heard about Kathleen Collins and her collection of short stories, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, in the New York Times Book Review, where I get many of my reading recommendations (and which has gotten better at reviewing books by people who are not white and male).  Kathleen Collins was active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but most of her artistic work (films, plays, short stories) was produced in the 1980s.  Her short stories were, for the most part, never published.  Her daughter discovered them in a trunk.

It's always hard to judge artistic talent by stories left unpublished in a trunk, mainly because it's hard to know if these stories were complete or if the author still wanted to work on them.  But the romance of the whole situation is just too much to pass up!  Undiscovered author!  A trunk!  The perfect cultural moment!  Stories on race, gender, sexuality!  It's a lot of awesomeness.  If it could happen for Emily Dickinson, can't it happen for other people, too?

I think it can, sometimes.  But sometimes the collection can also be pretty inconsistent.  I think that's true for Kathleen Collins.  There is so much wit in her stories, so much that speaks to how fascinating and vibrant she must have been, how much fun she must have been to talk to.  But there are other stories that feel unrefined or directionless.  Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? is more a collection of what was great potential, lost too early (Collins died of cancer in 1988 at age 46). 

The stories are mainly pretty short, and race is alluded to in almost all of them.  One story is told from the point of view of a man describing the perfect family, a close-knit unit that was beautiful, intelligent, and got along well.  But then cracks start to show, and it turns out the family's future is not nearly as happy as one would hope.  In another, a woman loyally sends letters and gifts to her husband in prison.  When he gets out and moves to a foreign country (without her), she finds peace in a small, rural home and some new friends.  In "The Uncle," the narrator relates the story of his uncle, who is ill and whom many describe as lazy for his whole life.  But the narrator, upon reflection, thinks that his uncle was a hero, just for surviving..
But his weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth brimmed potent to overflowing in the room, and I began to weep for him, weep tears of pride and joy that he should have so soaked his life in sorrow and gone back to some ancient ritual beyond the blunt humiliation of his skin, with its bound-and-sealed possibilities; so refused to overcome his sorrow as some affliction to be transcended, some stumbling block put in his way for the sake of trial and endurance; so refused to strike out against it, go down in a blaze of responsibilities met and struggled with.  No.  He utterly honored his sorrow, gave in to it with such deep and boundless weeping that it seemed as I stood there he was the bravest man I had ever known.
There was silver and gold in all the stories collected here, even if all of them didn't stick with me.  So much about how difficult life can be when people expect so little of you, or treat you like you are less than what you know yourself to be.  So much about the struggle to understand your parents or your children, about competing priorities for different generations and what they decide is worth fighting for.  It's a lovely collection and well worth seeking out.  Not only because it's amazing to discover the unknown work of a feminist civil rights cultural icon, but because the stories are quite good, too.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Women Culture and Politics

Angela Y Davis
Women Culture and Politics is the first Angela Y Davis book I've ever read.  For those of you who may not know, Angela Davis is a hugely influential feminist communist activist.  She was very active in the 1960s with the Civil Rights movement, fought hard against Ronald Reagan when he was governor of California and when he was president, and continues to serve as a voice of resistance and strength.

Women Culture and Politics is a collection of Davis' essays and speeches from the 1980s and 1990s.  I am not sure if it is the best book to start with, but I think this is mostly due to the format.  I admit that my grasp of history from the 1980s and 1990s is not quite as extensive as I would like, and Davis' essays are very much commentary on the times.  I wish that there was an introduction to the collection as a whole or to each specific essay so that I had a better grasp and understanding of the context in which she was writing the essay or delivering the speech.  That would have helped me a lot to fully understand Davis' points.

[Side note:  That said, I really need to learn more about the entire Reagan presidency.  Does anyone have a book they recommend for that?  I feel like Reagan comes up a LOT these days, and I would like to understand more of our history with Russia and Latin America and all the rest.  So, please let me know if there is any book you think would be a good one to get some background!]

While some of the context of Davis' points was lost on me, a concerning number of points were still very relevant.  I suppose in the grand scheme of things, 30 years is not so long a time in which to make real change in society.  But it still feels depressing. 

One thing Davis talked about in her essays comes up a lot in liberal discussion these days.  And that is identity politics.  I have been very up and down on identity politics and the impact of identity politics on our election and on the way people describe themselves now.  I 100% believe that people should feel comfortable being their truest, best selves, and that they should feel safe enough to be open about who they are.  But I also can feel exhausted by the number of identifiers everyone feels the need to use these days.  And I am very concerned by the way identity politics has led to white nationalism and supremacy.  Davis' approach to this is that everyone should come together. 
"...we must begin to merge that double legacy in order to create a single continuum, one that solidly represents the aspirations of all women in our society.  We must begin to create a revolutionary, multiracial women's movement that seriously addresses the main issues affecting poor and working-class women."
This comes up again and again in Davis' writing, this idea that rich, white women seem to fight a completely different battle than working class women of color, and that they often forget to fight for the rights of people who are not as well off as they are.  This is still relevant today, and it came up a lot with the Women's March on Washington and it continues to come up with women's rights now when we talk about Planned Parenthood (which we seem to talk about all the time).  It continues now as people obsess over the rural white vote.  I feel like there must be a way to talk about the issues in ways that are less divisive but that doesn't make people feel left behind.  But do we all just jump too quickly now to take offense, to say, "What about me?  You mentioned everyone's suffering but mine!"  And instead of giving a person the opportunity to go back and consider and grow, we assume the worst and shame the person and then the person gets so nervous about saying anything wrong, but doesn't actually change his/her inner thoughts.  Just hides them.  And then we are where we are.

There is a LOT in this book that is amazing.  I folded so many pages down to note down quotes.  It would be too much for me to share them all with you, so I recommend that instead, you just read the book and feel all the feels and become a Davis fangirl.  I plan to read much more by her, and I look forward to the way she will challenge my thinking.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Association of Small Bombs

Book Cover
Karan Mahajan's The Association of Small Bombs is one of those books that is very popular with critics.  It's also one of those books that you read and know that is it incredibly well-written and has a really strong message.  It tackles huge issues in a very personal way.  I am very glad that I read it, but I don't think I will read it again because it is so profoundly sad.

The Association of Small Bombs starts with a "small" terrorist attack in New Delhi in 1996.  Two brothers are among the victims.  Their friend, Mansoor, survives with a strain in his wrist.

The book follows the brothers' parents, Mansoor and his parents, and the terrorist who committed the attack (and the progress of a terrorist in the making) over the next several years.  We see the way the parents come together and then drift apart.  The way Mansoor's parents are overprotective and then feel like they are losing their son.  The way Mansoor first feels so lucky to have survived and works hard to make the most of it, and then slowly loses that momentum.

While I found this book quite depressing, there were things that I also found very valuable in it.  I appreciated that Mahajan focused on a "smaller" terrorist act in India vs on a "major" one in the west.  Just as Americans seem to have become inured to mass shootings (which is horrifying), much of the world seems to think that terrorist attacks in certain parts of the world are totally normal.  But Mahajan shows readers that senseless violence is never normal to the people who experience it and have to deal with its consequences, no matter how regularly it may happen.  He shows how difficult it can be for parents to recover from the randomness of an act, to rethink so many decisions, to see their lives go down a completely different path than the one they had set out on themselves.  Similarly, he shows how survivors can continue to suffer even when it seems like they have minor injuries.  When you consider how many of these small bombs have detonated in the world, and how many lives they have upended, you can imagine that there are countless people whose lives have been profoundly changed by acts committed by complete strangers who don't care about them at all.

I also appreciated that Mahajan did not focus on an extremist Muslim's hatred of western influence.  He focused on an internal Indian issue - Kashmir.  This is important because so many people (*white* people, mainly) seem to think that the only victims of terrorists are westerners and that terrorists are all brown people against white people.  This is not the case.  Terrorists and their victims are of all races and beliefs and walks of life.  It may be difficult for some readers to understand the political background that informs this part of the book (I certainly had some trouble), but I don't know that it matters - what matters is that people believe in something enough to commit desperate acts in its honor.  Or they feel trapped that they have no other option.

And that was the last thing about this book that I appreciated.  It really takes you inside the mind of someone as he veers from a path of non-violence to one of extreme action.  It's difficult to see this happen, especially with a character you liked.  But it's important, too, to understand that people are motivated to actions by many different things.  It's not always a belief in extremism.  A lot of times, people feel trapped or forced into an action.  Or they feel they have no one to talk to, they have no real future.  That's not to justify committing an act of violence, but more to show that circumstances can inform our life decisions more than we are often willing to admit.

But, as I said earlier, this is a tough book to read.  It's supposed to be a tough book.  Make sure you have a chaser for it.