nonfiction

Book Review: The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Uncovering Secrets, Reuniting Relatives, and Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland

At-home DNA testing is all the rage these days. How much percentage British are you? Where did your ancestors come from? To whom are you related? So many of us want to spit in that tube and then peer at the pie chart that comes out of it, but the results can be far more complicated than that. I’m one of the millions of Americans who spit in the tube and clicked the link that wound up in my inbox several weeks later, informing me that I’m a good 30% Norwegian, but almost not at all Italian, despite my mother’s Italian maiden name. Fascinating! And that’s why The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Uncovering Secrets, Reuniting Relatives, and Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland (Abrams Press, 2020) appealed to me so much.

The Lost Family starts out following the family of Jim Collins, the Irish Catholic patriarch who had grown up in an orphanage, and who always struggled with his fractured family. Technology hadn’t advanced far enough at the point of his death, but afterwards, when home DNA testing was in its early days, his daughters began uncovering some shocking mysteries. Why weren’t they Irish at all? How on earth were the tests saying Jewish??? Why was Dad (Jim) so very short? What was going on?

Interwoven between the stories of the Collins family and other families whose DNA tests came up with surprises or mysteries are in-depth looks at how the ancestry and at-home DNA testing industry runs: how it began, what it means to the people who ran it (most of them genuinely seem like good people and are super enthusiastic about genealogy), and what the implications are, legally and morally, both for now and in the future. If you’ve ever taken one of these tests or you’re thinking about it, or you just want to put together a family tree, this is a book you need to pick up!

Phew. There is a LOT of information in this book. I was expecting it to be a little bit more about stories like the Collins’ family (and they’re definitely in there; their story and others like theirs are just scattered in between more broad information about companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe), but I walked away with far more knowledge about the genetic testing industry as a whole than I expected. A lot of it was beyond me; I couldn’t begin to explain to you how any of the genetic comparison works and how to distinguish a third cousin from a great-uncle, genetically speaking, but there are plenty of people who could, and they’re REALLY into it (I envy their ability to grasp that kind of stuff. My brain just doesn’t work that way). I did like learning about how the companies grew and how they’re dealing with the more ethical concerns (how to aid customers who are shocked by their results; how to deal when the FBI comes calling and wants to compare genetic data on file with what they have from a crime scene or two), but what I really enjoyed were the personal stories, the family searches and bewilderment, the joy in discovering new relatives, the pain at losing what they thought was family-by-blood, or being rejected by newly discovered blood relatives. Those were the stories I enjoyed most about this book.

This was a slow read for me, simply because the book was densely packed with info, but it’s great science writing with a personal touch. I enjoyed settling down to read this book.

Visit Libby Copeland’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Kissing Bug: A True Story of a Family, an Insect, and a Nation’s Neglect of a Deadly Disease by Daisy Hernández

“You don’t know what you don’t know” is something we say often at my house, and I wonder a lot about how many things are out there that I don’t know about (this is why I’m so drawn to nonfiction! I want to know ALL THE THINGS). And when I learned about a book about a contagious disease that affects millions but that most people have never heard of, my curiosity was immediately piqued. And that’s how The Kissing Bug: A True Story of a Family, an Insect, and a Nation’s Neglect of a Deadly Disease by Daisy Hernández (Tin House Books, 2021) ended up on my TBR. And Ms. Hernández was right: I’d never once in my life heard of Chagas.

Daisy Hernández grew up with a sick aunt. Tía Dora had become sick by eating an apple, Daisy believed, until she was older and learned that her aunt, with whom her relationship was often contentious due to, among many things, the aunt’s homophobia, had been infected with Chagas disease after having been bitten by a kissing bug. Tía Dora suffered terribly throughout her life, and Daisy later learned that yet another aunt had died as well of Chagas in South America. What was the insect that had so troubled her family? Despite the phobia Daisy had developed of it, she set out to learn more.

As it turns out, kissing bugs are all over in South America and the southern US. “Every adult with Chagas is a child that wasn’t treated,” one doctor says, and it seems to be true. Many adults who are found to be infected (usually discovered when their blood donation is tested) aren’t symptomatic, though it can take years until symptoms (like heart failure) make themselves known; others begin showing symptoms early on, and no one is sure why. Several years ago, Zika was all over the news, but Chagas, which affects more Americans than Zika, hasn’t gotten a fraction of that kind of attention. With bravery, determination, and a deep-seated curiosity, Daisy Hernández has penned a part-memoir, part-scientific narrative that clues readers in to the dangers of Chagas (with climate change, kissing bugs are heading north – this is everyone’s problem) and the devastation they cause.

When I picked this up, I was a little hesitant. I had just finished a fairly heavy book and wasn’t sure I could handle any intense scientific reading at this point, but Ms. Hernández deftly combines her research with her family’s story. Instead of being bogged down by this, I blew through it in a day. The effects of Chagas are difficult to read about; Tía Dora’s suffering is detailed throughout the book and it’s not pretty, but it’s less shocking than the fact that even with all the medical and science writing I’ve done throughout my life, Chagas had never once appeared in any of it. How does this affect so many people and yet no one talks about it?

The Kissing Bug combines the best of open, honest memoir writing with science writing that is simple enough for even the most science-phobic brain to grasp (I *really* wasn’t much of a science person growing up; it’s only being married to a molecular biologist and getting a daily lecture on All Things Science that has helped me appreciate it more). I appreciated Ms. Hernández’s admissions of how terrifying it was for her to research and write about the very thing that killed her aunts and devastated her family so deeply; knowing how tough it was for her to be out in the field with researchers, collecting kissing bugs in the dark, bending over microscopes to peer at T. cruzi, added another layer of humanity to her story. I’m honestly not sure I could’ve gone on this journey if I were her. Mad respect.

The Kissing Bug is an easy read about a tough subject, and one that desperately needs this kind of light shone upon it. Highly recommended.

Visit Daisy Hernández’s website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Period. End of Sentence: A New Chapter in the Fight for Menstrual Justice by Anita Diamant

I love Anita Diamant. How can you not? She’s the coolest person. She’s an author (likely best known for The Red Tent, but she’s written a zillion other books, including some amazing ones about Judaism; we used her Living a Jewish Life in my in-person, pre-pandemic class), she’s the founding president of a mikvah (Mayyim Hayyim in Massachusetts), she’s funny and smart and interesting (she follows me on Twitter!!!11!!!11111!1!!!), and now, she’s written a book about periods, Period. End of Sentence.: A New Chapter in the Fight for Menstrual Justice (Scribner, 2021). Can I adopt her as my other mom? Because she’s seriously the coolest.

Period. End of Sentence. the film won an Oscar in 2019. This documentary showcased a group of girls working to help fundraise in order to provide machines that would make sustainable menstrual pads for a town in India. Around the world, menstruation is still a challenge for so many girls and women; they’re banished from their communities during that time, not allowed to take part in community rituals, told that their mere presence will cause food to spoil. Girls are forced to stay home from school due to lack of menstrual supplies; some are considered ready for marriage upon the arrival of their first period, effectively bringing their formal education to a halt. Even in the US, period poverty among girls and women is pervasive, and humiliation, including only allowing prisoners five pads per month, permeates our culture.

Anita Diamant has written the film’s companion book, illustrating the (human-created) problems surrounding menstruation and the fight to correct the course. All around the world, women and even some men have joined the fight to normalize menstruation (like, it’s something that happens to half the world; how is this still cloaked in mystery and taboo???) and bring justice and equality to those who menstruate. No one should have their education curtailed because of their period; no one should be kicked out of their home every twenty-eight days; no one should lose their life because they get a period.

This is truly an incredible book that will get you thinking about periods, equality, and what it means to exist in the world as a woman. It’ll get you thinking about what you can do to help, how you can even things up a little. While this would make an excellent mother-daughter read-aloud or mother-daughter book club read, I encourage you to think about making it a family read, too. There’s no reason why periods should be something secretive or embarrassing, and boys should know as much about periods as girls. Our sons should be allies and as dedicated to bringing justice to menstruation as girls and women are, and all that starts with learning and open conversation.

Two thumbs up for this book, and a big high five to Anita Diamant! I really enjoyed this one and will read it again with my daughter in a few years.

Visit Anita Diamant’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Challenging Pregnancy: A Journey Through the Politics and and Science of Healthcare in America by Genevieve Grabman

I’m pretty terrible at being pregnant. I start barfing about ten seconds after sperm meets egg, and I had to be hospitalized twice during my pregnancy with my son (not quite so bad with my daughter, but I still had to be medicated the entire time). But for all the issues I had with both of my pregnancies, the babies were never in danger and I’m truly grateful for that. But those pregnancies left me with both a fascination for all that can go wrong for both parties during a pregnancy and the unnecessarily complexities and sometimes deadly consequences the American healthcare system likes to heap upon pregnant people (would you like to hear how my insurance company wouldn’t pay for medication to keep me out of the hospital, but it would pay for hospitalization? And how during my second pregnancy, it wouldn’t pay for medication at all? I’m still incredibly angry about all of this.) This is why Challenging Pregnancy: A Journey through the Politics and Science of Healthcare in America by Genevieve Grabman (University of Iowa Press, 2022) caught my eye on NetGalley. A quick tap of the request button and it was added to my kindle in just a few days. Much thanks to NetGalley, University of Iowa Press, and Genevieve Grabman for the opportunity to read this thoroughly engaging account of the author’s medically complex pregnancy and the system that stood in the way of solutions every step of the way.

What doctors first suspected to be a blighted ovum turned out to be a set of twins, shocking Genevieve Grabman. And things would only grow more complicated. The twins were soon diagnosed with a complicated condition known as twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome (TTTS), for which the outcomes for both babies and mother are often not good (death for all three is a distinct possibility, along with lifelong neurological problems for the babies). Alongside of this, the smaller twin was suffering from sIUGR, or selective intrauterine growth restriction and a dangerous two-vessel umbilical cord (which was only tenuously attached to the placenta), both boys had heart defects- basically, a lot of what could go wrong did.

Ms. Grabman’s degree in public health and her experience as a lawyer helped her navigate the often difficult-to-understand research articles about the serious medical conditions she and the twins were experiencing, giving her a massive advantage over most other people dealing with similar problems, but even with these advantages, she ran up against the wall of politics. Anti-abortion legislation heavily limits what treatments are available to pregnant women in the US, and time and time again, Ms. Grabman found that what she wanted for her pregnancy and what was considered best practice and safest in a medical sense wasn’t allowed, in favor of more dangerous procedures with worse outcomes, thanks to anti-choice politicians.

Woven throughout Ms. Grabman’s tense and frustrating narrative are facts and statistics about the dire landscape that is American maternal healthcare. For every 100,000 live births in the US, 17.4 mothers die, a statistic that is the highest out of the fourteen most-developed countries. Women’s lives are sacrificed on the altar of politics, and outcomes are decried in favor of placating the religious right. Twin-to-twin transfusion system statistically has a particularly poor outcome (along with suffering from a dearth of good research), and readers will come away from this book with a fresh sense of horror for not only the dangers of such a complex medical condition, but also for the ease of which politicians are willing to disregard medical necessity (for children and mothers they have no stake in caring for) for ideals.

This is a moving, intense narrative. I appreciated Ms. Grabman’s attention to detail in terms of the research available, and her acknowledgement that if she found accessing proper medical care difficult, with her degrees and knowledge of reproductive law, how much more difficult and stressful is it to navigate the medical system for women with potentially deadly conditions who have less education, less ability to read the scientific studies, and fewer qualifications that mark them as someone to take seriously for the researchers and doctors she contacted?

Challenging Pregnancy will have readers questioning everything they thought they knew about the American healthcare system, abortion politics, and what the true consequences are for voting for candidates who call themselves pro-life.

Challenging Pregnancy: A Journey through the Politics and Science of Healthcare in America by Genevieve Grabman is available on March 1, 2022.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis

Obviously, I love nonfiction. If you’ve hung out in these parts for any length of time, you know that I’m a huge, huge fan of that whole section of the library. (I do enjoy fiction as well! I promise!) And I really love nonfiction that reads like a novel. The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis (WW Norton Company, 2021) is exactly that. I learned about it from another one of those best-of-the-year book lists and added it, but I was a little worried about reading it at first. Haven’t we all had enough pandemic at this point? Was my brain too full for this? Yes, and no, respectively. This is an amazing, fabulously-written, rage-inducing explanation of how we got here and why it’s so disgustingly bad out there.

Years ago, a father who worked for Sandia National Laboratories was fiddling with a new work program when his daughter, who had been learning about the Black Death, came in and saw it, and, after realizing that program might be used to predict disease, began working with her father to learn more. They eventually developed a whole project that they managed to get in front of some important people, people who were tasked (mostly self-assigned; kudos to George W. Bush for actually understanding how terrible a pandemic could be and putting together a team to work towards formatting a response. I hadn’t known about this) with working out a nationwide response to a potential pandemic.

This pandemic team saw what was coming. They understood what could happen and began working to put in place a plan to save not just American lives, but lives around the world. The one thing they didn’t expect: that the leadership at the top wouldn’t care. That there was no leadership, that no one cared about saving lives if it meant their egos may take a hit and if the economy might struggle and so, basically, every American would be entirely on their own.

This is a truly remarkable book about a group of wildly intelligent people who understood the dangers of communicable disease and did everything they could to prepare the country, only to be ignored, mocked, and treated as though they were hysterical nutjobs. We could have cut COVID-19 off at the start, could have led the world in the response and saved millions of lives. Instead, we went with the strategy of protecting Donald Trump’s already over-inflated ego and stroking the egos of the people at the CDC (who had little interest in stopping the pandemic, only seeing what happened as it rolled out and protecting the economy instead of lives). We decided to protect the economy instead of people. Michael Lewis has thrown the curtains wide open on how there’s really no such thing as leadership when it comes to public health in the United States.

I’ve pretty much lost all respect for and trust in the CDC after reading this; it’s explained so much to me about why they’re so desperate to get kids into schools with a virus variant that has an R-naught of TWELVE. I’m completely, utterly disgusted, and I’m grateful to Michael Lewis because this book was the perfect read for right now. I understand what’s going on so, so much better now.

If you can’t figure out why the US has made these decisions (or why your country has looked to the US for leadership and has made similar decisions that have resulted in so much death and suffering), if you need to make sense out of why we’re here at this moment in history and absolutely no one gives a shit about the body count, about the trauma being foisted upon healthcare workers (who are leaving in droves because of it), about why the people in charge are insisting that you get back to work even if you’re still sick, this is the book that will grant you some insight into the dearth of empathy and leadership in the top echelons of the United States. We’re all on our own; there’s no one coming to save us.

If I could’ve given this book ten stars, I would have. It was incredible.

Visit Michael Lewis’s website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Children Under Fire: An American Crisis by John Woodrow Cox

Boy, what a timely read. If you’re a parent in the US, you likely heard of Friday’s security threat to schools around the country, which stemmed from a TikTok video. While there were no specific schools named, every parent I know of received emails from their school systems reassuring them that schools were taking this seriously, ramping up security, and urging them to talk to their kids about speaking up if they heard anything. What a nightmare. This happened just after I’d finished reading Children Under Fire: An American Crisis by John Woodrow Cox (Ecco, 2021), so you can imagine how I was shaking my head at all of it.

When news articles discuss school shootings in the United States (because where else does this happen with such regularity?), they tend to focus on the casualties (which includes both deaths and those wounded) and the survivors. The survivors are the lucky ones, but having survived doesn’t mean having escaped without harm. John Woodrow Cox has written an excellent book that documents the trauma of two young victims of America’s fascination with guns. Neither were shot, but both were harmed in life-changing ways. Ava’s elementary school in Townville, South Carolina, was attacked a fourteen-year-old shooter; her best friend, six-year-old Jacob, was shot and died three days later. Ava developed C-PTSD and was unable to return to school even two years later. She rarely left the house, was heavily medicated, and had to wear headphones everywhere she went because loud noises took her back to the shooting and Jacob’s death and furthered her trauma. She struck up a pen-pal- and later video chat-based relationship with Tyshaun, a child living in Washington, DC, whose father had died after being shot. His trauma affected everything about his life as well, including his behavior and performance at school. Life for the two children suddenly became nothing they could trust, and the two developed a close bond based on the dual nightmares they suffered.

Interspersed with Ava and Tyshaun’s stories are stories from the teachers and family members affected by the violence (including Ava’s younger brother, who was feeling the brunt of so much of their parents’ attention and resources going to his big sister), statistics and data, and how we got here to a place where we’re entirely dismissive about our regular sacrifice of human lives, including babies, on the altar of the Second Amendment. (And if you don’t think we’re casual about it, let me know everything you remembered about the Townville, SC school shooting in the comments before reading this. This is an issue I care deeply about and follow closely, and it’s just at the point where I can’t even remember or keep straight all the incidents of murder at our country’s schools.)

Mr. Cox’s writing flows like a novel, but the story he writes is one of horror and despair, so while it’s an easy read in terms of style, the picture he paints makes it tough to get through. Many times, I had to pause and look out the window, and take a deep breath because of the information he shared. But truly, this is one of the best books I’ve read this year. What we’re doing to our children even by having them practice lockdowns traumatizes them and keeps them living in a constant state of anxiety that they’re going to die at one of the places they should be safest- the place where they’re mandated to be 180 days out of the year. This is going to have ramifications for generations, and we’re creating a society of traumatized children who will grow into traumatized adults. This isn’t healthy, and John Woodrow Cox proves over and over again how badly American society needs to take a hard look at itself and stop being so disgustingly selfish.

If you’re American, you need to pick up this book when you have the mental space for it, and join the fight to stop allowing our society forcing our kids bear the cost of the Second Amendment. Our future depends on it.

Visit John Woodrow Cox’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France

I was born in 1980; for people born in my generation, there’s never been a time where AIDS hasn’t existed. I remember first learning about the deadly virus in fifth grade, when my class watched a video featuring Magic Johnson, and my teacher (who was one of the best teachers I ever had) led a class discussion afterwards. In my life, AIDS has gone from an absolute death sentence to a chronic health condition that can be managed with one pill a day (for some folks). The implications of that are enormous. One of the books I recommend most is And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts; it was because I love that book so much that I wanted to read a more recently-written story about the people behind the long, painful journey to an effective treatment for AIDS. I knew as soon as I heard about How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France (Knopf, 2013), I had to read it. At over 500 pages of narrative, it’s a dense, hefty read, but it’s well worth your time.

David France has chronicled the emotional odyssey of the late seventies through the mid-nineties for the New York gay community, from the first few deaths that rang alarm bells and alerted people that some terrible new illness was going around, to the final triumphant moments when an effective treatment was finally on the horizon. The path to that triumph is littered with dead bodies, pain, horrific suffering (both physical and emotional), ruined lives, and grief; it was also lined with friendship, camaraderie, infighting, broken friendships, and young adults coming into their own amidst terrible tragedy.

The government ignored them (“It only affects gay people, so just let it take them out”). Their families abandoned them. Their health providers often turned them away. Hospitals refused AIDS patients treatment. Funeral homes refused to care for their wasted bodies. Scientists didn’t see their suffering as a priority. But the gay community refused to face death sitting down; their voices rose to a fever pitch and remained there, even throughout their grief and suffering, until finally, finally, after so much loss and death, the people who could help began to listen. It would take over 100,000 American deaths for an effective treatment to finally arrive.

This is a moving, tragic, infuriating, and beautifully written narrative of a time in history that should never, ever have happened. It’s horrifying how easily the United States is willing to throw its own citizens away (and this happens in so, so many aspects); it was more than willing to write off the endless suffering of the gay community, telling them they had brought this on themselves and it was God’s punishment (in Judaism, there’s a term for this kind of behavior, which translates to ‘desecration of the name of God;’ I think it fits in this instance. Using God to justify someone else’s suffering, while you stand idly by and mock them? Yeah. It fits).

Author David France pops into the story now and then, as he was in the midst of it all, attending meetings and protests, caring for sick friends and lovers, and grieving many, many losses (people losing hundreds of friends wasn’t uncommon). This adds a personal touch to the story which gives it emotional depth; it’s not all protests, emotionally charged meetings, and observations from afar. This is a story observed up close; it’s personal to him, and he makes sure the reader knows it.

How to Survive a Plague is a heavy, emotional read, but it’s well worth your time.

Visit David France’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South by Chip Jones

The US has a terrible past (and present) in regards to racism. Scratch the surface of just about any topic and you’ll reveal its racist roots- it’s an unfortunately truth, because things didn’t have to be things way, but we let it, and the only way to change things going forward is to confront what we’ve been and resolve not to be that again. The history of medical research leading up to the miracle of modern organ transplantation is no different, and after discovering The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South by Chip Jones (Gallery/Jeter Publishing, 2020) in a Book Riot email, I knew I had to read it. Onto my TBR it went.

In 1968, William Tucker, a Black man from Virginia got a received a strange phone call about his brother Bruce- something about his being in the hospital, and a bizarre comment about them taking his heart. After scrambling for information that no one seemed to want to provide, William learned that Bruce had died following a head injury. The hospital had never contacted anyone from the family, despite William’s business card with his phone number being in Bruce’s wallet upon his arrival at the hospital, and stranger still, they had removed his heart and kidneys without permission in order to use them for transplants, a new and still very much experimental procedure at this time. William was horrified at this desecration of his brother’s body and contacted a lawyer.

But medical experiments (often ones that lead to groundbreaking research and treatments) have a deeply racist history in the US; the progress medical science has made has often been built on brown and Black backs and bodies, quite often without their consent. Chip Jones delves into the history of Black grave robbing by medical schools for research purposes and how that led to William Tucker’s missing organs. His case went to court, and the outcome ultimately led to a change in legislation when it comes to organ donation and consent, but the history is there and cannot be erased, nor should it be hidden. The Organ Thieves shines a light on a subject a lot of people most likely know very little about.

Organ transplants have featured heavily in the books I’ve read throughout my life. In the 80s and 90s when I was growing up, I read Why Me? by Deborah Kent (about an adopted teenager who receives a donated kidney from her biological mother) over and over again, and plowed through a ton of Lurlene McDaniel’s medical dramas for young adults, which often featured teenagers who were awaiting donated organs. And of course there was Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, and recently, Rachel Solomon’s Our Year of Maybe. But I never really knew the history of transplantation, the many failures and deaths it took to get to the place where receiving a donated organ meant a new lease on life, the difficulties doctors first had in recognizing the symptoms of rejection, and what this all meant for Black patients. They were aware of the grave robbing and knew this would have bigger implications, and unfortunately, this proved to be true. And all of this and more (such as history of the Tuskegee study) has led to the hesitancy of Black people in taking the Covid-19 vaccine. History never dies; its consequences ring throughout time like the loudest of bells.

There’s even more racist medical history that Mr. Jones doesn’t touch (the history of gynecology is utterly horrifying), but what he does cover is bad enough. The trial that covered the removal of Bruce Tucker’s organs without family consent is a complex read; the trial itself raised many questions and led to necessary changes in legislation, but at a heavy emotional cost for the Tucker family and the many others who came before them. So much of our progress as a society- maybe all of it- has been made at the expense of others.

At times, the story gets just the tiniest bit dry, but The Organ Thieves is so important that pushing on through is necessary and rewarding- you’ll be better informed, a better ally, better at knowing what shouldn’t be. If you’ve ever read or watched a medical thriller or drama and enjoyed it, or benefited from organ transplants or medical research that came from corpses dug up in the dead of night (and this is probably everyone), this is a book you should be aware of. We owe those unnamed people and Bruce Tucker that much.

Visit Chip Jones’s website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness by Alisa Roth

Ever since reading Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation by Joseph T. Hallinan in my early 20’s, I’ve been fascinated by prison and have read about it often. And with prisons being the largest supplier of mental health care in the United States, I knew I needed to read Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness by Alisa Roth (Basic Books, 2018) when I learned about it- partly because of this fascination, and partly for semi-personal reasons.

In Insane, Ms. Roth details the challenges the prison system faces being the provider of mental healthcare for its millions of prisoners. Funding is short, so providers- whom it’s difficult to hire for various reasons, including safety and lower-than-civilian-jobs salaries- are constantly lacking. Therapy is challenging when it can only be given out in the open, with no privacy. Fewer providers mean services don’t get rendered in time; meds don’t get handed out in time; diagnoses don’t get made for months, sometimes years. Officers get little-to-no training in how to deal with severely mentally ill prisoners. Overcrowding exacerbates symptoms and strains already strained resources. If you’re unaware of just how overburdened the prison system is in regards to mental healthcare, you’ll have a pretty good idea after reading this book.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t places trying, and Ms. Roth points that out throughout the book. It’s just that this is a monumental task, and the country does almost next to nothing in order to keep these mentally ill patients treated so that they don’t end up in prison in the first place. (Our garbage healthcare system, tied to employment, shares a lot of this blame, as does the lack of therapists and psychiatrists- and I’d say the problem of affordable higher education is also an issue there.)

This is a deeply distressing, heavy book, full of information that I wish everyone knew and cared about. We’re all just one slightly different brain chemical away from ending up as a patient on the wrong side of the law- and that’s if we’re lucky, because far too often in the US, mentally ill people end up being shot by the police. A dear friend of mine had a son who suffered from schizophrenia and one of her greatest fears was always that he would end up being shot by the police during an episode. I learn so much about mental illness from her, and I think of her son and her continued fight to improve mental health care in this country every time I read a book like this. The two of them are a continued reason why I pick up these kinds of books; what Ms. Roth is doing, shining a light on the conditions faced by inmates who are often incarcerated due to the affects of their illnesses, is so necessary, and it’s such a service to the mental health community.

Insane isn’t an easy read. It’s a tough subject matter, and a lot of what she talks about will probably scare you or make you uncomfortable. It should. But you should use this information to become better informed and a better advocate for the mentally ill. Because stigma is bullshit and mental illness is illness- like cancer, or heart disease, diabetes, or epilepsy. It deserves research, resources, treatment options- treatment BEFORE tragedy, as my friend Laura says. And mentally ill people deserve dignity and respect, which Ms. Roth definitely affords them all throughout this remarkable book.

Visit Alisa Roth’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

I’m perpetually about ten years behind in my reading. I mean, pretty much every book in the world is on my TBR, so I’m never actually caught up, but if something is popular at a certain point in time, that basically ensures that I will ignore it for the next decade in favor of reading things people read ten years before now. Reader problems, amiright??? I never got around to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper, 2007) when it first came out, but I grabbed a copy at a used book sale last year, since I figured the price was right (man, I miss those book sales, but it’s giving me a chance to catch up on reading from my own shelves!), and this was what came on next on my by-the-TV shelf.

Author Barbara Kingsolver and her family moved from their home in Tucson to the farm property her husband owned in Virginia in search of a more authentic life in which they could grow their own food and eat more locally, taxing the earth’s resources less. They began a year-long experiment in growing their own food in sizeable gardens, raising chickens and turkeys (and doing the slaughtering themselves), and eschewing almost all food products that didn’t come within a hundred (or so) miles of their home. Starting in the spring, they realized they’d have to give up a few staples- no more bananas, fresh fruit was hard to come by at that time of year and they had to substitute with locally grown rhubarb, etc.- but they soon realized that almost everything they needed or wanted could be grown on their land, obtained from a local source, or foregone entirely. It wasn’t easy- it involved hard word, sacrifice, occasionally paying a little more or doing a lot of research to find a local source- but it changed the way her family saw their own abilities, their community, and the world.

Ms. Kingsolver is a master storyteller; The Poisonwood Bible is one of my favorite books, and I have a copy of The Bean Trees waiting for me on my downstairs shelves. The stories she tells in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle are lovely; they make me want to plow up my entire lawn and plant a massive garden (how is it that I always manage to read these books at the end of the season???), and it definitely got me thinking more about buying local products and paying attention to where my groceries come from. It doesn’t always make sense to purchase products that come from thousands of miles away when there might be a similarly-priced alternative that comes from our own area, that doesn’t have as much packaging and hasn’t used up so much fossil fuels to land on our doorstep (sometimes only to liquefy in the crisper bin, yikes!). Ms. Kingsolver makes a good point that we must do better eating locally; our climate and the future of our planet depends on it.

What I didn’t particularly care for were the sections on meat and her proclamation that vegetarians would totally chow down on meat if they could see the happy lives of the animals on the farms where she purchases her meat products. That felt dismissive and reductive; I stopped eating meat and cut way back on the animal products I consume in general after a bad cholesterol test a few years ago. I don’t sit around eating tofu burgers, as Ms. Kingsolver claims (and what little tofu I do consume comes from about twenty miles away anyway); my diet consists of legumes, vegetables, fruits, and grains (not much of the fancy stuff like quinoa, either, it’s usually outside our budget), and that wouldn’t change even if Happy Lamb Farm took their lambs to Disneyland every other week and bought them all Mickey Mouse shirts and balloons. I’m doing the best I can for what my body is telling me it needs, and I didn’t appreciate having my health concerns dismissed in this manner. It seemed a bit self-righteous and didn’t mesh well with the rest of the tone of the book.

The other bone I had to pick was about farmers’ markets. We have a lovely one here near us that sells a lot of really awesome local produce and locally made products; we haven’t been since last year, because it just gets SO crowded, but I really enjoy going. That said, Ms. Kingsolver seems to be attending different farmer’s markets than I do in terms of cost (as do the majority of people I’ve seen singing their praises). I do understand that local food is often going to cost more, but I can’t afford to pay six dollars for a pound of strawberries or tomatoes. So many of us are doing the best we can with our food budgets; a lot of Americans live life on the edge, paycheck to paycheck, and asking us to pay more for the food we eat isn’t always a tenable suggestion when you can either buy a pound of local strawberries, or apples and broccoli and a head of cabbage from the grocery store to feed your family for the week for that same price. It’s a terrible choice; we need those local farmers and their produce, but we also need full tummies and a varied diet. It’s frustrating to read that her experiment saved her money in some areas and her meals cost so little, when I’ve seen some of the prices of produce at our famer’s market and thought, “I could buy that and no other vegetable for the week.” Doing our best here, but there’s only so much we can do.

But the rest of this book absolutely put me in a warmer state of mind, in lush gardens with sun-warmed soil, in steamy kitchens with pots of tomato sauce bubbling on the stovetop with sterilized glass jars glinting on the counter nearby. The weather is turning here; we’ve got rain in the forecast for most of this week and chilly temps in the 40’s and 50’s, so it was lovely to curl up on my reading chair and follow Barbara Kingsolver into her barn and kitchen as the rain streaked my living room window.

Visit Barbara Kingsolver’s website here.