Category Archives: books

My Goal for 2023

In conversation with a LibraryThing friend, I said my goal for 2023 was “less social media and more good books.” She said she needed to turn it into a poster, print it out and post it over her laptop.

I went ahead and created a quick graphic in Canva.

Happy Friday! LibraryThing members have been hosting an unofficial social distancing weekend readathon since April 2020. We informally sign on and then report our reading results including number of pages and hours along with other details such as non-reading activities and snacks. I participated last weekend and have signed on for this one as well. With the start of the new year and various new challenges, I have been pulling books from my shelf, checking them out from the library and buying them from Better World Books. Here are the stacks of books I want to read in the next few months:

I’ll end with a weird coincidence: Doomsday Book, in the right hand pile, is used and came from Better World Books. But, it is signed with the inscription: “To Karen, Gode health & long life! Connie Willis” I think I can hear the Twilight Zone music playing.

Happy reading!

Today’s Challenge: Five White Anti Racists

Book Cover of Black History Saved My Life: How My Viral Hate Crime Led to an Awakening by Ernest Crim III

I follow Ernest Crim on Instagram and have learned so much from him about being Black in America from history to present day. In a recent post, he challenged white people to list five white anti racists, and for white parents to encourage their children to adopt one or more of them as role models.

Not surprisingly, John Brown was the first person the came to my mind as he does show up in American history classes. I also thought of Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Lloyd Garrison, both from the same era as Brown. I wondered about Eleanor Roosevelt and a search found this interview with Vernon Jarrett who describes Roosevelt’s growth as an anti racist. So, I’m up to four…Jane Addams, the founder of Chicago’s Hull House, also came to mind. This time the search revealed the complexities that often surround supposedly “good” white people: Addams was close friends with Ida Bae Wells whose push back on Addams’ views on lynching helped her grow. But, there are still questions about her general views on Black people as being culturally inferior, a typical progressive white view of the time, and Hull House rarely housed Blacks, focusing instead on immigrants.

A larger Google search provided a list compiled by Teaching While White. It includes both old and new white anti racists and I encourage you to check it out. It helped jog my memory with a few more names, mostly abolitionists, and widened my perspective. I’m planning on a bit more reading and research and may choose my own role model for the year.

Required Reading

Book cover of South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation

If you plan to read South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation by Imani Perry, do so when you have time to slow down and savor this rich chronicle of our country and the importance of the South to our past and present. And, if you haven’t planned on reading this book, please reconsider.

Perry, a Princeton professor whose mentor at Harvard was Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was born in Alabama and despite moving Cambridge, Massachusetts when she was five, has close ties to that state. The book moves into and across the South from DC to Miami and Savannah to Houston. Her book pays homage to Albert Murray whose 1971 memoir of growing up in Alabama was entitled South to An Old Place.

Perry’s book is filled with stories of past and present–some we know and many others we have never heard–of communities, rituals and traditions with a focus on lives lived well under often crushing poverty, oppression, and the threat of state-supported violence never far away. I found myself heading to the Internet time and again to seek out writers and artists and activists that she mentions and realized my own ignorance about much of Black culture and art. For instance, I had never heard of Lil Buck, a dancer who specializes in a dance form called Memphis Jookin. He has famously danced with Yo-Yo Ma but here is an early example of his work as part of a TedX Teen event:

Perry’s prose is as rich and complex as the region she explores. And she is always clear that she is part of the telling, her reactions to what she experiences sometimes as complicated as those of the region she is describing. I appreciated her honesty and wisdom. In the end, however, she concludes that just reading her book isn’t enough. Action is required if we are going to finally allow all people to dream great dreams.

This review does not do justice to the book. I highlighted passage after passage where Perry pulled disparate ideas together then clinched them with one short sentence. Her writing is just stunning and I found myself out of breath a few times. I’m still processing the book and already thinking about a reread.

In a section on New Orleans, Perry describes the practice of plaçage, in which white men would contract with black women to keep them as mistresses. As she points out, it wasn’t a mutual consenting contract but one in which young black women were forced as part of the society in which they lived. This practice forms part of the plot of The Thread Collectors, a book that would make an interesting companion read to Perry.

Today’s Word: Tatterdemalion

Author Rosemary Sutcliff

As part of a LibraryThing (LT) challenge related to reading British authors, I have been working through Rosemary Sutcliff‘s Roman Britain Trilogy. In The Silver Branch, the second book, she uses the word “tatterdemalion” several times. From context, it was easy to guess at the definition provided by Merriam Webster: ragged or disreputable in appearance. I also discovered that it is the name of a character in the Marvel comic series.

I spent a bit of time poking around the Internet to learn more about the author. My favorite find was that Rosemary Sutcliff has a fandom Wiki site. I had never heard of her before–that’s part of the reason I do the LT challenges as they get me out of my comfort zone–but others certainly had. I was a bit surprised to learn that the books, which feature plenty of bloodshed and death, were written for children.

Through the Wiki, I was led to her memorial Twitter site kept in her honor by a god child. The first tweet was a quoted retweet of one of those gorgeous library pictures of multiple levels of books. The poster agreed it was beautiful but pointed out its drawbacks and I like this god child already.

I’ve enjoyed the first two books and the third one is on the library pile so may dive in tonight. My goal of reading more and doom scrolling less has already led to many happy hours with a book in my hand.

The Real Life Story Behind Demon Copperhead

Cover of Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America with a picture of Lee Country, Virginia, by Beth Macy

I followed up my reading of Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead with Beth Macy’s nonfiction report of the opioid crisis, Dopesick. I missed it when it was published, or rather knew it existed, but figured I knew the story. And, I did, but in only a general, standing outside looking in kind of way. Drugs were devastating communities in southwest Virginia, already devastated by poverty as the coal industry tanked.

Macy, a reporter based in Roanoke, Virginia, a city central to the story, introduces us to the human beings living out my truncated summary. Like Kingsolver, she begins in Lee County, Virginia, where a few locals were sounding alarm bells decades before anyone was paying attention, and then moves her narrative up Route 81, the “heroin highway,” Along the way, she stops in Abingdon, Virginia, where Purdue Pharma executives, makers of Oxycontin, were forced to face at least some accountability, a fine with no jail time, an insult to those who suffered from their ruthless marketing and deep legal pockets.

She spend times in her own town, particularly the privileged suburbs where nice white kids were suddenly dying, and one of them, son of a local business woman, was heading to prison for providing the killing dose of heroin. From there she goes to Woodstock, a bucolic community in the northern Shenandoah Valley where a mother hopes to ease her grief a bit if she can understand why her beloved son died.

As most of the victims themselves are either deceased or disappeared, Macy spends most of her time with mothers and local activists, some of whom managed to survive addiction and are now devoting their lives to saving others against overwhelming odds. It’s clear that, while Kingsolver used David Copperfield as the basis for her characters and plotting, the contemporary setting and events are drawn from Macy’s book from sleazy doctors who take advantage of addicts to pharm parties where young people pass around bowls of various types of pills, a sort of Russian roulette.

A friend told me that after I read Dopesick, I would be pissed. And, he was right. If you want to hear directly from a primary source, Dr. Van Zee, the Lee County doctor who sounded those early alarms, testified in front of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions in 2002 as part of a discussion of balancing the risks and benefits of Oxycontin. The whole testimony is worth a read but do a search on Van Zee to get to his remarks. And just a reminder that these remarks were made ten years before that Roanoke County boy went to prison for supplying the heroin that killed his friend and sixteen years before Macy’s book was published.

Kingsolver’s characters are largely poor rural whites, those at the forefront of the epidemic, the ones Van Zee was seeing in his clinic in the early days of Oxy. Demon references the rich kids in high school, those whose parents owned the coal mines and other industries, but they are not really part of the story. And for most people the opioid crisis wasn’t a story until it moved out of the inner cities and mountain hollows. Nice, middle class white kids were dying, and suddenly people wanted to know why. But, even then, the response from law enforcement, medical authorities and government officials was simply inadequate to the magnitude of the problem and, as Macy calls it, the morphine molecule itself.

I learned a new word from this book: iatrogenic, or doctor-cause addiction. I was reminded of an interview Terry Gross did with Travis Reider, a bioethicist who found himself addicted to painkillers after a motorcycle accident. He described the dysfunction around opioids and makes the same point Kingsolver and Macy do: the medical community is good at getting people addicted but then walk away when help is needed to get clean as though it wasn’t their fault that you followed their directions.

I have just begun Macy’s new follow up, Raising Lazarus. She is chronicling the work of those on the front lines of the continuing epidemic, particularly people who are doing harm reduction through handing out syringes, fentanyl test strips, and Narcan, all controversial practices. Underlying their work is the belief that those suffering from substance abuse disorder are loved and respected as human beings under the power of a force greater than themselves.