Recommended Reads: Rich People’s Movements

Isaac William Martin

Rich People’s Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent

Though originally published in 2013, tax season is the perfect time to reissue this compelling look at the anti-tax movement in America, as documented by rich peoples movementsa sociologist specializing in public policy and social protest. Rich People’s Movements begins with the Tea Party protests of 2010 and traces the history of anti-tax sentiment back to the Sixteenth Amendment. More than mere history, this book examines the ways the affluent borrowed the tactics of the poor and powerless, who, without the ability to confront power with money and influence, took to the streets to make their voices heard.

Why would those with power and influence rely on a protest movement? Martin answers this question and many more, such as why the working poor will sometimes rally to the defense of the 1 percent and their economic policies.

Also available is Martin’s new book, Foreclosed America, co-authored with Christopher Niedt. This is a collection of portraits of Americans who have lost their homes to foreclosure since 2007 — and a look at the housing crisis that still affects our economy and way of life.

Review: Get in Trouble

Kelly Link

Get in Trouble

Ordering the TOC of a short story collection is as much an art as creating the perfect mix tape. A well-crafted opener not only immerses the reader ingetintrouble its singular world and characters, but sets the tone for the remainder of the book and (please forgive the MFA speak) instructs the reader how to manage the text.

One of the finest examples I’ve read is “The Summer People,” which opens this new collection from the brilliant Kelly Link.

In this darkly beautiful fable a troubled teenager, Fran, is abandoned by her derelict, single father. Despite having the flu, Fran is tasked with caring for “The Summer People” on her own. Let’s just say that these are not the usual demanding bnb folks, and their manner of expressing their displeasure is far more sinister than writing a negative review on TripAdvisor.

What makes Fran so compelling is the way she calmly navigates between the grim earthly realm and the fantastical one that is equally familiar to her. Like many teenagers, she is suffocated by her small-town bubble and difficult home life, yet also has the mental elasticity to take the magical in stride.

In short, she is overwhelmed by her father’s alcoholism and religious fugues, yet unfazed by houseguests from the spiritual realm.

And so it goes through all the tales in Get in Trouble. All is possible and plausible in Link’s slipstream world, in which awkward teenagers are thrown to the wolves. These stories are reminiscent of Ray Bradbury, not necessarily in style, but in tone. It’s a celebration of youth, imagination and nostalgia for an age when anything was possible.

“The Summer People” reminds me why I love short stories in the first place.

Next up is “I Can See Right Through You,” a weird and hilarious romp through fame, celebrity and heartbreak. Two past-their-prime actors, who were formerly on- and off-screen lovers, have descended to the depths of shameless quasi-fame: she a television “ghost hunter” and he the star of a leaked sex tape. They cross paths at a “haunted” nudist camp (which sounds like Heart of Darkness reimagined by Chuck Palahniuk), and despite the bizarre premise, the ending is absolutely beautiful.

As are all the stories in this collection, a world of lonely, precocious youth and unlikely superheroes (and the occasional dentist) that blurs the magical with the mundane.

Link is an author who has long teetered on the brink of superstardom, cultivating a diehard following with her first three story collections. Get in Trouble, her fourth offering, should bring her the widespread literary acclaim she deserves.

Review: Words Onscreen

Words Onscreen

Naomi S. Baron

On Feb. 6, I waited in the cold for 7.5 hours to meet author Neil Gaiman at Old Firehouse Books in Fort Collins, Colo. An estimated 2,000 fans bravedWords Onscreen the elements to have the author of The Sandman graphic novels, Coraline and American Gods autograph his new hardcover collection, Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances.

Despite the wait (and the fact that I was terribly under-dressed), everyone was jovial, and it felt more like a bibliophile block party than a reception line. Any weariness I may have felt was quickly (and repeatedly) dismissed with an idealistic sentiment voiced by many in attendance, “Isn’t it great to see this many people waiting in line for a book?”

Indeed, it was this very love of books that compelled me to read Naomi S. Baron’s Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, an impressive work of scholarship and social commentary by this professor of linguistics at American University.

One of Baron’s professed interests is “electronically mediated communication,” and Words Onscreen combines research, anecdote and history to explore the differences between the printed and digitized word. This isn’t a trend piece, but a wide-reaching study on reading, beginning with the inquiry that “if eReading is less well suited for many longer works or even for short ones requiring serious thought, what happens to reading if we shift from print to screens?”

Baron takes us to some expected places (studies on digital vs. print reading habits; the effect technology has on our brains; the digital democratization of information; emerging social norms for electronic devices) and some unexpected ones (the history of anthologies and abridged editions; the slow reading movement; the impact of the scroll bar on reading habits).

Scrolling and reading, if you’re curious, leads to “worse comprehension” of content.

Though Baron’s scope is wide, she never loses sight of her target. She successfully threads each narrative sojourn into the conversation of how we engage with text. One of her deeper philosophical meanderings concerns the definition of reading itself. Is the act of reading simply scanning our eyes across the page? What about those passages whose complexity or sheer beauty cause the reader to set down the book and meditate on those words? What about re-reading? Studies show that pausing while reading and re-reading leads to better comprehension of the material (not surprisingly).

Research is important, as it informs best practices for teaching and learning, but Baron admits the difficulties with measuring reading comprehension. Mere content recall provides only plot summary, and deep understanding takes both time and contemplation. Take, for instance, Gogol’s classic novel, Dead Souls.

“Some of the benefits of literature come from discussions with others or personal reflection at quiet moments. Payoffs may not surface until years later when, having lived and experienced more, we discover the relevance of Gogol’s world to ours. Try measuring that.”


Like many academic books (as opposed to general nonfiction), Baron tends to over-support some of her conclusions, citing studies with overlapping information, but that’s to be expected. The author has many insightful things to say throughout the book, but there’s not much in the conclusion that would be news to an academic audience.

For this, I don’t blame the author, but reality. There’s no closing the barn door on the Kindle or Nook (on which I read my digital galley of Words Onscreen), and it’s hard to predict the direction of accelerated technology. Also, there are many positives to digital reading to weigh against the negative, from minor conveniences (not having to carry five books on an international flight) to those of great importance (the facilitation of increased global literacy).

Baron instead advises instructors and avid readers on how to navigate the digital-print hybrid. Her criticisms of e-reading are fair and supported by research, and her tone is never melancholic or luddite. The ultimate takeaway from Words Onscreen is that the content matters more than the container, although Baron also makes a compelling argument for the container as totem.

For the roughly 2,000 bibliophiles in line with me at the Neil Gaiman signing, the container was still something of value: a beautifully printed and16277386370_74c41c8a45_o bound edition with a personalized signature in permanent ink.

As Baron points out, it’s not just the text on the pages that matter. We fall in love with the smell of books, the crispness of the paper, unique typefaces that digital readers can’t reproduce. We can underline, highlight, write in the margins. Some keep their books in pristine condition, while others dog-ear, fold and break-in a book like they would a new baseball glove. Their utility extends beyond the reading. Bookshelves provide memories for the reader, a conversation spark for guests and ready access to favorite works.

There is something lost in the translation from print to digital.

For me, it calls to mind Harlow’s monkeys. If all they needed was food, then the monkeys wouldn’t object to curling up with a wire mother. Except, they needed the nurturing touch of the cloth mother. For the same reason, meal replacement shakes or futuristic food pills will never take the place of an actual dinner, because eating is not just about the absorption of nutrients.

With technology advancing at a bullet’s pace, who knows what will come of books in the future. It’s clear from Baron’s research that the format of what we read affects how we read, but it’s hard to predict where that will take us.

Wherever we end up, Words Onscreen should serve as an important guidebook. It’s a wonderful and important book, no matter how you read it.

Review: The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins

The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins

Irvine Welsh

Longtime fans will not instantly recognize the author in this new work. Rather than the gray-skied schemes of twinsScotland, the drama unfolds in sun-kissed Miami, and missing is the phonetic text and colorful British slang.

Not absent, however, are the troubled characters, existential peril and sharp-tongued satire expected from the author of Trainspotting.

In his brilliant new book, Welsh entangles the lives of a body-obsessed fitness instructor, an overweight artist and a child-abuse victim bent on his pound of flesh. The three meet on a bridge, when Lucy, seeing a gunman chasing after two homeless men, intercedes to stop the attack. All of this is caught on tape by Lena, who becomes obsessed with the feisty trainer.

Lucy, of course, becomes an instant celebrity, and entertains visions of her own television show and fitness empire. Until it is learned that the men she saved were sexual predators.

Though functioning as satire of social networking, media voyeurism and the fickleness of fame, Sex Lives becomes the story of Lucy and Lena’s budding and devolving codependent and abusive relationship. We are taken for more than a few dark turns by an author famous for dark turns.

I’m a longtime fan of Welsh’s work, but I have to admit that I’ve found his newer books hit and miss. Recent novels have entertained, but lacked the gut-punch of Marabou Stork Nightmares, Filth and Glue. The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins is different from his other novels, but reveals a skilled author straining the old vinegar and aiming it at fresh targets.

Flawed Apologies

Questioning the Bible: 11 Major Challenges to the Bible’s Authority, Jonathan Morrow

Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God, Paul Copan and Matt Flanagan

Every theological discussion between believers and nonbelievers eventually comes to the same impasse: The point at which all argumQuestioningtheBibleents and evidence have been exhausted and one must render a verdict. Here, the believers appeal to faith, while the nonbelievers draw conclusions based on the empirical evidence.

If there’s a bridge between these banks, I’ve yet to find it.

But I’m hopeful, and I recently read two apologetics in pursuit of fresh insights and new perspectives. This is what I found.

Jonathan Morrow—a Christian author and founder of the nonprofit Think Christianly—functions as something of a biblical ombudsman in his new book, Questioning the Bible. This is an admittedly ambitious task, and at the top, I’d like to commend Morrow on the effort. His narrative is earnest and thoughtful, even if his arguments are flawed, and whatever your preconceived notions, you will find something challenging in this book.

In particular, I appreciate the spirit of open-mindedness in the early-going.

“Real Christians aren’t supposed to doubt, are they? Unfortunately this is a common misunderstanding in many churches, and tragically many young Christians are growing up without a safe place to ask the tough questions and wrestle with their doubts.”

Morrow’s plan is to meet doubt on its own terms, and defend the Bible through logic rather than faith. It’s a bold plan.

Unfortunately, the execution is weak.

The first flaw is that Morrow uses the Bible as source material to confirm the legitimacy of, well, the Bible. This is circular logic, despite the author’s denials.

“In summary, if you can get Moses, Jesus, and Paul saying essentially the same thing, then I think you can consider this question settled: biblical faith is not opposed to reason and evidence.”

Well, it was already understood that Moses, Jesus and Paul were pretty much playing for the same team. The corroboration of their testimony is to be expected.

Morrow undermines his arguments with glaring contradictions. One of the biggest concerns the writing of the Gospels. Scholars date their writing to somewhere between the 60s and the 90s—three decades or more following the crucifixion of Jesus—and Christian scholars generally assign a timeline beginning in the 50s. Either way, why the delay? The significance of this time gap is that, considering the unreliability of memory and eyewitness accounts, it calls into question whether we can treat the Gospels as historical fact.

Morrow handles this fairly well at first: “Remember that this was an oral culture and most people in the ancient world could not read.”

OK, that makes sense. For emphasis, Morrow writes, “We have established what the earliest Christians believed about Jesus. But why think any of this should be written down and collected in a predominantly oral culture and have the title ‘scripture’ attached to it?”

In the very next chapter, only 10 pages later, in fact, this changes. Morrow argues that we can trust the validity of biblical documents because (emphasis in the original text) “the earliest Christians understood that covenants in the ancient world were written documents and believed Jesus the Messiah had inaugurated the New Covenant.

(Insert sound of needle scratching across record.)

Wait, what?

Morrow writes, “…it would be only natural and even expected that the apostles write down the New Covenant teachings from God through Jesus the Messiah. The Hebrew Scriptures reveal many examples of God’s revealed redemptive activity needing to be written down for future generations to learn from or be reminded of.”

One would think a question or two about the savior’s murder and resurrection might be on the test, and per Jewish tradition, it was expected that Christ’s followers would have etched it in papyrus.

So why didn’t the apostles take notes? Why was it left to others to write the New Testament? Morrow fails to acknowledge these obvious questions and doesn’t seem to recognize (or think his target audience will notice) the contradiction.

To summarize: In response to challenges that the Gospels are unreliable because they were written years after the events they describe and were not written by the people who were there, Morrow’s defense is that it was an oral culture: “…why think any of this should be written down… and have the title ‘scripture’ attached to it?”

Then, in arguing for the Gospels’ authority, he writes that Christ’s followers would have “expected” the apostles to write it all down, as was standard operating procedure with covenants.

Yet the apostles didn’t do this.

Morrow’s argument is limping at this point, and he stumbles into the standard pitfalls of the Cosmological Argument and Intelligent Design. Morrow claims there is “significant scientific evidence that undermines the plausibility of Darwinian evolution and points toward Intelligent Design”—yet doesn’t cite any of this “significant scientific evidence.”

Up to this point, Morrow has given us an interesting book—flawed, certainly, but interesting—and in the grand scheme is harmless. I would have given Questioning the Bible a more positive review had he maintained this tone.

Then in a chapter titled “Is the Bible Sexist, Racist, Homophobic, and Genocidal?”, Morrow takes the offensive—emphasis on offensive—in defense of the Bible’s most indefensible passages.

First up: the Bible’s approval of slave-keeping. In a shocking bit of spin-doctoring, Morrow states that “Christianity did not invent slavery,” and, well, everybody else was doing it. Then he attempts to qualify the different varieties of bondage: “The two biggest causes of slavery in the ancient world were war and poverty, not skin color.”

I did a spit-take when I read that. Slavery comes in many forms (race-based slave trading, sex trafficking, exploitation of migrant workers, etc.), but the end result is the same: It’s forcing another person to labor against their will for your benefit. Whatever the motivation of the oppressor (racial or not), Morrow can’t sugar-coat the Bible’s endorsement of the ownership and forced labor of another human being.

Unless Christianity had a good reason to tolerate slavery? “The immediate abolition of slavery would have created serious cultural problems,” Morrow writes. Sure, but then he audaciously quotes John Mark Reynolds—an academic officer at Houston Baptist University—that abolishing slavery “could have been a worse evil” than slavery itself.

Uh, anyone else getting uncomfortable?

So twisted is Morrow’s utilitarian logic that slavery becomes a vehicle of economic and social benefit, in which the most impoverished of God’s creations “typically became slaves to provide sustenance,” much like the poor in modern America: “If we haven’t solved poverty in the most prosperous country the world has ever seen, then how much more challenging would war and poverty be in a severely under-resourced community.”

True, but we’re not talking about the existence of poverty or the relationship of poverty and exploitation. We’re discussing the Bible’s green light on slavery.

“Jesus came to set captives free, restore, heal and transform—that is the good news of the kingdom of God,” Morrow writes.

Yet, slavery continued.

If that’s the good news, I’ve got some better news: The Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

That sentence accomplished what apparently Jesus couldn’t or wouldn’t do.

For biblical contrast, try Ephesians 6:5: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.”

Back to the Constitution. Morrow claims that “Atheism did not lay the groundwork for inherent human dignity and equality; it borrows that from a Judeo-Christian worldview. If you remove God from the equation, you also remove inherent human dignity and equality.”

Yet, it was a secular document that actually freed American slaves—and their liberation didn’t result in the “evil” societal collapse Reynolds warned us of. (I do, however, want to be clear in separating Reynolds’ comments from Morrow’s beliefs. I certainly don’t think Morrow prefers slavery to abolition, but rather that he’s made a poor choice in selecting sources to make his point.)

Next, Morrow takes on genocide, particularly Deuteronomy 20:16-18 (in which God advises his followers to “save alive nothing that breathes” and completely destroy the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites).

Once again, Morrow utilizes semantic chicanery. First, he gives God a pass, since it was an isolated event that was “unique, geographically and temporally limited, and not to be repeated.” He argues that Canaanites, practitioners of idolatry, had it coming, since “God had given them 430 years to change their ways.”

Then, Morrow, as he tried with slavery, attempts to change the definition of genocide: “While Israel carried out this judgment against a specific people… their actions were not motivated by racial superiority or hatred. Therefore the language of ethnic cleansing and genocide is inaccurate. Idolatry, not ethnicity, is the issue here.”

Dude, that’s still genocide, which Merriam-Webster defines as “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.” How exactly does killing all the Canaanites not qualify? By blaming it on idolatry?

Finally, in an act of desperation, Morrow attempts to rationalize or reinterpret God’s instructions by claiming that “rather than the total destruction of everything that breathes, the main targets were the key military centers.” He theorizes that most of the women and children in the city probably escaped unharmed.

This rose-colored revisionism—suggesting that God’s commandment to “save alive nothing that breathes” didn’t include women and children—undermines Morrow’s claims elsewhere in the book that the Bible is inerrant.

Or is it only inerrant when it’s convenient?

For some reason, biblical literalism does apply when it comes to homosexuality. Morrow takes the view that being gay isn’t the worst sin—it’s just a sin, and hey, we’re all sinners. (How generous of the author to grant that gay people aren’t as bad as suicide bombers.) Better yet, “there are plenty of people who have struggled with and overcome same-sex attraction. And as long as at least one has ‘changed’ then change is at least possible for those who struggle with same-sex attraction.”

Morrow writes, “They have hope” in the form of honoring God through celibacy or heterosexual marriage, if not outright change.

Gee, that is good news! I’ll be sure to pass on to all of my sinful gay friends that Morrow has gifted them with a bright future of celibacy and sham marriages!

Next we come to the sexist parts of the Bible. How does Morrow justify these? I won’t waste any ammo on this one. Morrow has enough bullets to shoot himself in the foot once again.

I’ll grant him this: I respect Morrow’s bravery in attempting to defend the Bible’s most unsavory parts. It’s not easy, and he doesn’t shrink from the challenge. But his semantic maneuvering is inadequate to convince any rational reader.

I love philosophy and religious discussion, and at times, Morrow proves himself capable of both. He begins the book with an open, inquisitive and welcoming voice, but as his arguments unravel, his thinking becomes less logical and his tone more troubled and intolerant.

I don’t believe that Morrow is ill-natured or ill-intended, but that he overreaches in his attempt to defend everything in the Bible with logic. It’s an ambitious effort, but one that, not surprisingly, fails in its mission.

Likewise, apologists Paul Copan and Matt Flanagan fail to offer fresh insights on biblical interpretation in Did God Command Genocide?. Their task seems less daunting than Morrow’s, as they are only addressing the passages concerning genocide rather than the entire book.Genocide

But where Morrow embarks on an earnest intellectual inquiry, Copan and Flanagan have clearly put their conclusions ahead of their questions. The result is a scriptural shell game attempting to exonerate the almighty from the more unseemly bits of his book.

Again, we’re dealing with God’s directive to “completely destroy” those pesky Canaanites. In their attempt to gloss over this troubling fact, Copan and Flanagan turn to WIlliam Lane Craig’s argument of appropriation, which suggests that God does not necessarily endorse everything that’s in the Bible. “That is, God is not always affirming what the human author affirms.”

Sooo, which parts of the Bible are legit and which are “jk”?

The authors come to curious conclusions, but their flawed arguments reveal it to be wish fulfillment rather than critical thinking. Like Morrow, it can be summarized as the Bible is the word of God when denouncing homosexuality, but human interpretation when ordering the deaths of women and children.

When God’s words are inconvenient, Copan and Flanagan argue that there is a “textual God,” and that his words “have nothing to do with God’s character, who is nonviolent and loving.” But our basis for understanding that God is “nonviolent and loving” is from God’s words, certainly not from his alleged creations. Why is it that we are to believe God’s claims in some places but not others? And how do Copan and Flanagan know which is which?

Of course, they’ll argue that the answer is in this book, but nothing in its pages would stand up to academic scrutiny.

The authors even admit that biblical texts have been misused for ill purposes. My question to the authors: How could a perfect being provide imperfect or incoherent instructions? And if there were misunderstandings resulting in violence and oppression, wouldn’t a “nonviolent and loving” being want to clarify what they meant?

In defending their position, Copan and Flanagan fling about every argument they can think of, hoping something will stick. They argue that God didn’t command us to “slaughter” the Canaanites, only Joshua. And it’s not as if God was writing a blank check: Israel was forbidden from attacking other nations—only the Canaanites.

I’m sorry to have to break it to the authors, but that’s still genocide.

So which is it? Did God not command genocide? Did he only say it was OK for Joshua? Is he cool with mass murder, but only if the victims are Canaanites? Clearly, Copan and Flanagan have some more work to do. You can’t argue that God didn’t command genocide by admitting that God commanded genocide, but putting qualifications on it.

Another sad argument is that the Canaanites were sinners. Israel wasn’t allowed to attack them until they scoffed at the laws of God without repent. Those sins? Just some good old-fashioned incest, bestiality, child sacrifice and, of course, homosexuality.

Ah, there’s the old chestnut of prejudiced wingnuts: homosexuality is on par with incest, bestiality and child sacrifice. And apparently, according to the authors, God meant what he said about homosexuality, but not genocide.

I’d still like to know who their Deepthroat is. Who is the inside source providing them these brilliant insights?

And like Morrow, they fall back on semantic gymnastics: Since the Canaanites were slaughtered for their disobedience, not their ethnicity, it’s not technically genocide.

The authors should be ashamed of themselves for making such a cowardly rationalization. This is the same sort of logic that allows people to gun down cartoonists for perceived blasphemy. Killing people will send you to hell, but killing certain people will get you paradise.

When rationalization fails, the authors turn to qualification. You didn’t take that “totally destroy” command for realsies? Oh, you took that literally? No, what God meant by “totally destroy” was “drive out.” Like, LOL.

Bill Clinton gave more convincing testimony to Kenneth Starr.

And to add insult to inanity, the authors again turn to Craig (for some reason), who argues that if the Canaanites had simply abandoned their city, they wouldn’t have been killed. “There was no command to pursue and hunt down the Canaanite peoples.”

So, it’s the fault of the vanquished. All they had to do was surrender their land, possessions and become willfully homeless and they would’ve been spared. The nerve of those Canaanites. They were clearly just asking for it.

I could go on, but it’s not worth dignifying Copan and Flanagan’s “argument.” Rather than supporting their thesis, the authors merely provide justification for horrific religious violence.

In both books, we inevitably come to the impasse of faith versus empirical evidence, and neither of them can bridge the divide between believers and nonbelievers. To his credit, Morrow raises some interesting questions and makes some good points along the way. Agree or disagree, I recommend giving Questioning the Bible a read. But despite his earnest effort, at the end we’re still standing on opposite banks.

Review: Being Mortal

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Atul Gawande

I believe strongly that doctors are women and men who work in a health-care facility of some kind, including Being Mortalhospitals, clinics, shelters, combat support hospitals, etc. Doctors, ahem, do not host talk shows. Medicine is a challenging, ever-evolving field of study and practice. One cannot be both a practicing doctor and a television personality.

That is, unless you are Atul Gawande.

On Feb. 10, PBS will break this rule when the Frontline documentary crew shadows the surgeon, author and New Yorker writer. The show is a tie-in with Gawande’s new book, Being Mortal, which chronicles the history and current state of end-of-life care, an issue that’s come to the fore through the proposing and passing of “death with dignity” initiatives in many states. Gawande takes us inside the nursing home, assisted living communities, to learn what these institutions are getting right and getting wrong, and to offer a view of the alternatives, such as hospice.

I have enjoyed most of Gawande’s writing, but I believe he’s surpassed his previous successes with Being Mortal. While his other books have been intimate and instructive, there is greater depth here that opens the author to his audience as never before. As the book progresses, it becomes a memoir, of sorts, of his father’s final years, a touching, factual documentation that delivers a bold-stroke illustration of his argument without overshadowing the narrative.

The focus of the book, however, is not on Gawande or his family. It is on the thousands of families struggling with end-of-life issues everyday. An indirect consequence of medical progress, Gawande argues, is that extending life has overshadowed sustaining quality of life, and in modern times, we have the luxury of distancing ourselves from our mortality.

“Technological society has forgotten what scholars call the ‘dying role’ and its importance to people as life approaches its end,” Gawande writes.

Being Mortal begins with a scholarly frame: the author calls up one of my favorite books, Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, drawing attention to the relationship between the titular character and his butler, Gerasim. Without falling down the rabbit hole of Tolstoy’s existential treatise, the takeaway for Gawande is at what point do we stop pursuing cures (which agonized Ilyich) and provide comfort instead (as offered by Gerasim).

As Gawande puts it: “…it is clear that there are times when the cost of pushing exceeds its value.”

Defining when it’s that time is an uncomfortable topic, and as the author explains, it leads to many difficult conversations, but is important for the benefit of the dying as well as their caretakers.

The Frontline episode should be fantastic, as the show usually is, and will hopefully wean Americans off the junk food of television doctors Oz, Phil, et al. and snake-oil salesmen like Eben Alexander.

Instead of junk food, Gawande gives us science, history and heart in a page-turning treatise on the way we die now, and how we could do it better.

Dispatches from the War on Drugs

Two new books explore the macro and micro effects of failed drug policy

In 1996, Dan Baum published the definitive account of America’s complicated relationship with psychoactive Drugs Unlimitedsubstances. Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure is an exhaustive, apolitical narrative history of the war’s origin, evolution and cost, and though public opinion has changed (a recent Pew Research study found that Americans now favor treatment over prosecution and are against mandatory minimum sentencing by a two-to-one ratio), the book remains an important document of the human toll of the drug war.

I bring up Baum’s work because Drugs Unlimited: The Web Revolution That’s Changing How the World Gets High, by UK journalist Mike Power, is its 21st century bookend. At the time Smoke and Mirrors was penned, the Internet was in its infancy, data transfer rate was measured in kilobytes and computer literacy was limited.

In the decades since, the Web has expanded the chemical landscape, altering which drugs we do, how we acquire them, and in an effort to stay a step ahead of the law, Power writes, producers, suppliers and consumers have shifted into the wildly erratic world of “research chemicals”—legal alternatives to and analogues of illegal compounds sold widely over the Internet.

The consumption of psychoactive plants is nothing new (the earliest known head trip dates back about 13,000 years), but until the 1970s and ’80s, recreational drug users had only a handful of chemicals to choose from. In 1971, the United Nations identified just 234 legal substances; 243 new compounds have been identified in just the past four years.

Accelerated culture, indeed.

These new chemicals are often untested, of shady origin and composition and can be far more lethal than their outlaw counterparts. They’ve also inspired media-invented “epidemics” of bath salts and synthetic marijuana—fueling a digital age reefer madness that keeps drug policy mired in the past.

But Drugs Unlimited is as much about hypertext transfer protocol as politics. The psychonauts who once explored inner-space have journeyed into cyberspace, and the market has moved from the corner to the CPU.

Power’s narrative is thorough and engaging, but at times can be too thorough, particularly when it comes to the chemical names. For example, Power is compelled to include a complete stock list from a chinese distributor, which includes more than 90 compounds with names like 5-MeO-DALT, Methiopropamine (MPA), Fluoromethamphetamine (and its analogues), Desoxypipradrol (2-DPMP) and so on.

Granted, he does this for effect: “Among that unreadable alphabet soup of drug names there are hallucinogens, stimulants, empathogens and cannabinoids. Working out which of them are legal or which have been outlawed in various countries would require thousands of hours of legal time or case law study.”

This certainly helps shed light on the challenges facing consumers and law enforcement, but at times, the emphasis on product names can be overwhelming.

Aside from that, Power crafts an accessible narrative that is one of the most important books of the millennium. What Baum did for the American drug war, Power does for the U.K., from the digital age to the Deep Web.

The Triangle: A Year on the Ground with New York’s Bloods and Crips

Kevin Deutsch

While Drugs Unlimited operates at a broad level, The Triangle goes micro. For a harrowing year, journalist Kevin The TriangleDeutsch shadowed the gang-bangers of Hempstead, Long Island, in a place known as the Linden Triangle—ground zero of a 2012 turf war that turned an already rough neighborhood into a slaughterhouse. Forget the stereotypes of suburban Long Island. Think The Warriors rather than The Great Gatsby.

Dramatically reconstructed from interviews, legal records and first-hand experience, The Triangle is as fast-paced and action-packed as a first-rate thriller—a literary narrative as entertaining as it is troubling. The cast includes leaders, hitters and corner crews from both the Bloods and Crips; the terrorized residents of Hempstead; cops, criminologists and others in the justice system; and a minister who leads midnight prayer groups on the corners.

Deutsch stitches together their stories with a novelist’s skill. He’ll (rightfully) earn high marks in the press for his research and daring, but his ability to manage this Dostoyevskian cast without disrupting the narrative flow is worth noting.

Racial and social problems emerge that are intrinsic to the drug war. Incarceration and surrounding gentrification has turned Hempstead into an island of poverty. The gangs are the biggest employers in the Triangle, and those who would oppose the gangs are financially trapped in their territory.

Deutsch doesn’t give us an easy out. The reader is forced to confront the capriciousness of life in Hempstead, the social and legal conditions that created it and the self-defeating strategies of the gangsters that maintain a vicious status quo.

There is something heroic about the ability to survive in this environment, particularly in defiance of hateful neighbors (one Nassau County government official recommends that they “carpet-bomb Hempstead”: “Let the blacks and Hispanics go back to New York City. They’re better off there. Long Island isn’t that kind of place.”) Yet, Deutsch is wise to avoid romanticizing thug life, and not afraid to reveal the cowardice of its so-called soldiers:

Tyrek, leader of the Crips set, earned his membership by stabbing a pregnant teenager in the stomach. His ace card in the turf war is a suckerpunch, not a fair fight. J-Roc, a rising soldier in the Bloods, talks a big game, but struggles to intimidate a senior citizen. Ice, leader of the Bloods, helps promising kids get an education, yet orders the kidnapping and gang-raping of his rivals’ sisters, girlfriends and mothers.

Sadly, for all the lip service about honor, the Crips and Bloods mostly prey on the vulnerable. The true casualties of this war are the women in the crossfire. “The gangsters see sexual violence as a strategic and tactical weapon, as important to their arsenal as guns and blades,” Deutsch writes in the chapter “Extreme Tactics,” which includes the retaliatory abduction and gang rape of a female Crips employee.

At least the victim, in this case, actually works for the gang. That is not a prerequisite. Flex Butler, a Crips lieutenant, brags about assaulting the 15-year-old sister of a guy who’d stolen $2,000 worth of cocaine.

“‘[He] was hiding from us,’ Flex says. ‘So we got his sister when she was walking home from school. She fought hard, but there was a lot of us.’”

So yeah, these are not sympathetic characters. Deutsch doesn’t condemn, patronize, glorify or victimize, but presents the residents of Hempstead in all their unresolved moral complexity. For the most part, he avoids the cinematic histrionics common to gang narratives. The lone exception is D-Bo, a promising kid whose attempt to escape the corner gets a bit of the Hollywood treatment. Much is made of the timing of a confrontation with his gang (even though he’d been at home for a month), which leads to a chase scene, a misunderstood shooting and a dramatic exchange between the corner boy and the officer who tried to help him escape while awaiting the paramedics.

But I’ll forgive Deutsch this one instance of going for the heart strings. Otherwise, this is an unflinching look at the fear, fame and futility of gang warfare.

Strong writing, compelling characters and front-line reporting make this an entertaining read, but Deutsch’s detached, yet compassionate handling of the material makes The Triangle an important one as well.

Both Drugs Unlimited and The Triangle are worthy books on their own, but for anyone with a love of history, sociology or just damn good journalism, this is a one-two combination that, together, offers a wide perspective of the War on Drugs.