Category Archives: reading

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.

Another View of Southwest Virginia

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

I wrote about Southwest Virginia earlier this year after several trips to this beautiful part of the state. It is a favorite spot of mine, and I count several natives as good friends. This region has been particularly ravaged by the opioid epidemic, especially Lee County, the setting for Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel. She faces the epidemic head on. Demon Copperhead, a modern-day David Copperfield, tells his life story, one tinged by abuse and addiction from the beginning. Ron Charles, reviewing the book in The Washington Post, called it “hilarious and heartbreaking.” Having just finished the book and still reeling from its go-for-broke realism, I’m wondering how I missed the hilarity.

In fact, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to read the book at all after Kingsolver’s early graphic depiction of domestic violence that bordered on torture. Children and the trauma visited upon them through material and spiritual poverty are at the heart of Kingsolver’s story, whether they are raised by their own parents, grandparents or, like Demon, foster families who often do not have the purest of motives for taking in children and a system that doesn’t have the energy to support them. The stories are sad, violent, tragic, and many of these children don’t survive past young adulthood, victims of neglect, violence, and drug use. I worried that Kingsolver was in danger of using her characters for political ends that made them more stereotype than reality. But she held them up with respect and compassion, even those who might be deemed antagonists. I do think, however, that there is a middle ground that isn’t part of Demon’s story that I know from being on site: the middle ground where families and communities are working against the tide, opening businesses, obtaining grants, creating opportunities.

Demon, born as Damon but quickly nicknamed as most characters in the book are, narrates the story. The son of a teenage mother and deceased father, Demon is Melungeon, an ethnic mix of European, Native American and African descent found in the isolated region of the Cumberland Gap, that includes Lee County. His mother is an addict who is in and out of rehab. Demon is forced to grow up quickly as he cares for her and then learns to navigate the sometimes downright dangerous foster care world.

From an early age, he is able to express his self-awareness of the reality of his own situation and how the world perceives his community. They are hillbillies, objects of ridicule, not respect. Yet, despite his awareness, he is unable to extricate himself from this life that has taken so many of his people. There are bright spots in the often dark journey including Demon’s talent as a graphic artist that, early on, offers a psychic escape, and later, a physical one. This ability allows him to see into others, their motivations, their passions, their own demons as well as he sees his own.

Kingsolver’s voice shows up now and then, mostly in the character of Aunt June, a nurse who adopted her niece and moved to the big city. Early on, she returns to the mountains to attempt to save her people from the drug companies represented by Kent, the slick opioid salesman with his brochures and reassurances. This political angle provides some outlet for the anger that builds as you listen to Demon tell his story in his matter-of-fact way. Kingsolver, who has family ties to the area and until September operated a restaurant just up the road from Lee County, acknowledges Dr. Art Van Zee, one of the leaders who pushed back against big pharma. He, along with others, sounded the alarm about the crisis but were largely ignored. I haven’t read Dopesick by Beth Macy, but it is now at the top of my list.

I may also dive into David Copperfield. I am sure I read it at some point but don’t have much memory of the book although Kingsolver stirred a few as Dickens inspired her plot, characters as well as social activism. The treatment of children in both books is horrifying but the more so as Kingsolver is describing recent history.

Wisdom from Austin Kleon

Consider this a second installment of a “people I take time to read and listen to” series. I featured meditation teacher and writer Sebene Selassie on Monday. Today is Austin Kleon, an artist and writer I have written about in the past. I look forward to his Friday newsletter with its ten topics that could take a month to explore. He’s like the New Yorker of newsletters. I can never finish one magazine before another arrives.

I appreciate Austin’s work so much I took the step of becoming a paid subscriber. That means I get an additional email during the week where he muses on life, art and more. This week, he reviewed a dozen books he read this summer and described the guilt associated with being able to read during the day.

I resonated with these sentiments. While I renounced the notion of calling any reading a guilty pleasure, I do understand the idea of guilt at seeing some free time during the day and thinking, “I could read my book.” And then immediately imagining all the people I know who are toiling away at desks, in offices, online and feeling that pang that perhaps I *should* also be doing something other than “just reading”. Prior to retiring, even though I have worked from home for decades, I almost never read during the day unless it was professional literature. My work day mimicked that of the real world, and I felt as though I was cheating clients if I was engaging in hobbies during the day.

Now, however, as I explore this liminal space in which I am living, reading during the day is rapidly becoming part of the routine, both in the morning and in pockets throughout the day. It is all part of the increase in my reading mojo. I created a bookshelf bullet-journal style page and penciled in some of the titles I want to get to before the end of the year.

P.S. And now I *really* feel guilty as I realized the new season of the Great British Baking Show is available now on Netflix and the streaming has begun.

Getting My Reading Mojo Back

Dailyish blog writing went to weeklyish blog writing as I headed into fall: I took one last trip to Pennsylvania, mourned my boy Spot, finished teaching a summer course, and got two fall courses up and running.

With that initial busyness behind me, I am facing a fall with more free time than I have had for decades. Seriously, decades. And I want to make sure I am finding the balance of chilling out and stepping up. One thing I am doing is learning to relish my reading life again.

A painting of a woman reading a book outside by Camille Corot
A Woman Reading, Camille Corot

A long time ago, before you were born*, when I was still single, and life was great (it’s a song it), I used to get up on Saturday mornings, pour fresh-brewed coffee into the thermal pot, add it to a tray with mug, cream and something sweet to eat, and retire to bed for the morning with a book and a cuppa. These were my hours to read and sip and rest after a long week of work before whatever chores and activities the weekend held. Depending on the book and the weekend, morning might stretch into afternoon, and I would find myself sprawled on the sofa at sunset, probably with a glass of wine, mourning the end of yet another book. I know I had responsibilities but somehow they had not come to weigh on me. The *shoulds* had yet to take control. (As in, you should do laundry. You should clean the bathroom. You should call my your mother.)

Somewhere along the line, I lost that reading mojo, as a friend of mine on LibraryThing calls it. That ability to just sink into words, to lose track of everything except the book, to be able to ignore the voices, including your own, that suggest you should be doing something more productive than “just reading.” Was it some combination of graduate school, tl;dr social media syndrome, and life in general that made it a challenge for me to do more than a chapter or two of even the best book?

If you look at my statistics for the years, numbers wise, I read and listened to a lot of books. But, distraction definitely kept me from sinking into a book the way I once could, and I read in bits and pieces except over the summer when I escaped to the pool and floated and read, no devices allowed.

Lately, I have found myself working at getting that focus back. For instance, I take only the book or device from which I am reading to the porch or bedroom recliner, two of my reading retreats when the pool is closed for the season. As for choice of device, I am inclined to take the old school Kindle with me as it offers little in the way of entertainment. It is solely an e-reader, and sometimes a single use device isn’t a bad thing.

I have also disrupted my morning routine, because I have found that early mornings are still a favorite time to brew a latte and slip back in bed with a book. I do love reading at night with just the book light for illumination but, sadly, one of the perils of getting old is falling asleep easily and I wake with the impression of book and light on my cheek. Enjoy those late night reading binges while you can, my younger friends. Now, it takes quite a book to keep me up.

*Seriously, I know how old some of you are, and it was before you were born.