nonfiction

Book Review: You’re the Only One I’ve Told: The Stories Behind Abortion by Dr. Meera Shah

Abortion has been in the news lately for obvious reasons, and I wasn’t sure if I had the spoons to read a book about it; it’s not always easy to engage with a subject that’s so important but which is also under assault at the moment. After volunteering with a local organization to pack comfort care bags for our local Planned Parenthood a few weeks ago, however, I was ready to pick up You’re the Only One I’ve Told: The Stories Behind Abortion by Dr. Meera Shah (Chicago Review Press, 2020).  

Dr. Shah is a doctor who provides abortion care to patients who seek it out. Because being able to decide when to become a parent is an important part of bodily autonomy, planning one’s future, and in some cases, remaining alive, she is passionate about her work and seeks to help others understand the importance of what she does. Each chapter focuses on one person who, for varying reasons, chose to end a pregnancy; Dr. Shah includes the important medical knowledge necessary to fully understand each situation, and the difficulties that our national climate surrounding abortion adds to what is already often a tense and heartbreaking decision.

The reasons behind the abortion in each chapter are various and complex; from abusive relationships (who wants to be tied forever to a man who has hurt you multiple times???), to a doomed pregnancy where the baby will live maybe minutes after being born (if it survives that long without killing the parent carrying it), to pregnancies that occurred at the worst possible time, to a pregnancy that would render life next to impossible for the entire rest of the family (“Here, person already struggling to pay the rent for you and your three kids! Here’s another new baby; now you can also add $1200+ per month in daycare fees! I’m sure you can handle that!”), there are so, so many reasons why these women choose abortion, and Dr. Shah is respectful of them all, without judgment. Throughout each chapter, she illustrates and emphasizes the importance of being able to examine one’s life and come to the conclusion that becoming a parent (often becoming a parent again) at this moment cannot happen, and how important it is that this procedure remain legal.

So many heartbreaking decisions in this book. Often, the pregnancies were desperately wanted; nature, however, had other ideas about how the fetus would develop, and the parents were faced with the awful knowledge that there was no chance of them ending up with a child even if the pregnancy were continued. At other times, the parents simply realized that bringing a child into their lives was the worst possible thing they could do at the moment. Being allowed to make that decision allowed them to go on to have the lives they wanted – lives that often included, eventually, having more children.

If you’ve never read a book about abortion and are curious as to what could possibly lead a woman to make the choice to have one, this would be an excellent place to start. I’ve noticed that doctors tend to fall into two camps: either they’re terrible writers, or they’re great. Dr. Shah is one of the great ones; her style is engaging and never wanders into stiffy, stodgy medical writing. Her respect for the people she treats is obvious in her gentle handling of the stories in this book, and it’s obvious her patients are lucky to be served by her.

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nonfiction

Book Review: Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker

Little scares me more than schizophrenia. It attacks seemingly without warning; there are very few treatments; science isn’t even completely sure what causes it. I’ve seen the devastating toll it takes on families, thanks to my friend’s openness on her son’s struggle and ultimate death due to the side effects of the medication he took (a not-uncommon outcome; meds for schizophrenia are hard on the heart and various other organs). But I feel a need to keep reading about it, keep trying to understand, maybe in the hopes that one day I’ll read something positive, a sunnier outlook, an amazing breakthrough. When Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker (Doubleday Books, 2020) came out, it sounded like my worst nightmare, and it immediately went onto my list.

CONTENT WARNING: Sexual assault and child molestation.

Don and Mimi Galvin appeared, on the outside, to have an amazing family. An Air Force family, they had twelve children (ten boys, two girls), but perfection evaded the ever-growing family. As the boys grew older, one by one, they became stricken with serious mental illness. Schizophrenia took down one son after another, until six of them were affected, most of them so severely that they lived in hospitals, at home with Mimi, or in supportive housing arrangements. Where had it all gone wrong?

Combining scientific research, the history of mental health research and treatment and schizophrenia in particular, and the story of the Galvins and the tragedy that befell them, Robert Kolker has crafted a deep narrative that spans multiple decades of science, from ‘Schizophrenia is caused by overbearing mothers’ to ‘This is likely due to a complicated combination of genetics and possibly some outside factors.’ Due to the large size of the family, the Galvins became research subjects for multiple studies. The results won’t be available for decades, but this family just might be partly responsible for future breakthroughs on the disease.

My God, this was fascinating. CONTENT WARNING: there is a LOT of sexual abuse mentioned in this book. If you’re unable to handle reading about this subject right now, it’s okay to skip this one. Abuse ran rampant throughout this family; both the daughters and the sons were victimized by both family and people in the community. It’s difficult to read about, so if this isn’t something you can handle right now, it’s okay to take care of yourself and choose a book that will allow you to breathe a little easier.

Hidden Valley Road is about a family unexpectedly stricken with multiple cases of one of the most complex mental illnesses out there, who likely did the best they could at the time with what they had (which wasn’t always much; even today, schizophrenia and how to best treat it remains an enigma), and whom society has often failed. It’s social and scientific history, and despite its large size, it’s an absolute page-turner.

Visit Robert Kolker’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: In Pain: A Bioethicist’s Personal Struggle with Opioids by Travis Rieder

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or a non-US country, in which case, lucky you!), you likely know that there’s a massive opioid epidemic going on here in the US and has been for over a decade now. Doctors overprescribe, patients get hooked, and little by little, whole towns have been devastated because of this dependence on opioids. But that’s not the whole story, and in his book In Pain: A Bioethicist’s Personal Struggle with Opioids (Harper, 2019), Dr. Travis Rieder unveils his own struggle with opioids and the underlying problems the US has that have created and continue to sustain this crisis. As a person who suffers from chronic pain with periods of acute pain caused by flares of various sorts, I’ve taken opioids before, and they scare me, so I knew this book was something I needed to read.

Travis Rieder’s life was going perfectly fine – great wife, beautiful baby daughter, a new job – until a motorcycle accident in 2015 that crushed and partially degloved his left foot changed everything. His doctors referred to his foot as ‘a salvage situation,’ his injuries were that severe. After five surgeries in five weeks and a lengthy hospital stay, Rieder was on a substantial amount of opioid pain medication – a necessary amount at first, to be sure, after an injury of that caliber. But when it came time to decrease his dosages, none of his doctors knew what to do, and none of them would take responsibility for helping him through what turned out to be an absolutely horrific withdrawal process lasting over a month and getting increasingly worse throughout that time before it got better.

Shaken by his experiences and feeling the societal shame that goes with dependence/addiction (there’s a different that he explains!), it takes Travis Rieder a while before he’s able to speak up about what happened and his suspicion that something went very, very wrong. And as he learns, his experiences weren’t uncommon. Taking a deep dive into America’s history and ongoing problem with opioids and pain control, Dr. Rieder illustrates the urgency of this problem and the steps we must take – the steps we absolutely, 100% lack the political will to take – in order to fully conquer this crisis.

What a remarkable book. Dr. Rieder’s description of what opioid withdrawal put him through alone was enough to make this a five-star read. During my last major flare, a nurse practitioner sent me home with a muscle relaxer (which I occasionally need for spasms; I only ever treat the worst of these) and a very small amount of what I think was Tylenol with codeine (of which I still have like half of the bottle left). All of this was to get me through until the next week, until my appointment with my physiatrist, who immediately put me on the schedule for a steroid epidural (which helped so much…until I mangled something else in my back and needed it redone a month later). Before this, it was about a decade before I’d received opioids for another acute flare (which took about ten weeks until I could walk normally, without a cane, and without dragging my leg behind). I could absolutely sense the danger in that Vicodin; it took away the awful pain, but it also made me feel deliciously relaxed and floaty, and that’s not something I want to get used to. There are BOOKS TO READ. THINGS TO DO. I don’t have time to sit around floating like that, and I knew I had to do whatever it took to NOT need those meds as much as possible. Fortunately for me, my doctor had also prescribed steroids, and by day three, the steroids had taken the swelling down enough that my pain had dropped to a level low enough that I could tolerate it with my normal Celebrex.

That experience alone, though not the first time my back had gone bad, was enough to scare me away from opioids, and it’s why I knew I needed to read this book. Dr. Rieder’s story is absolutely terrifying, and I never, ever want to go through what he went through while in withdrawal. This convinced me that any future use of opioids for acute pain (especially if I ever need surgery) will have me asking my doctor what the plan is to get me off those meds, and how soon.

Dr. Rieder delves into things I hadn’t considered before, such as the difference between dependence and addiction, and the societal shame surrounding both. He does mention the racial issues of the opioid crisis: why was this not a crisis when it was black folks dying of heroin use in the inner cities, but it’s a crisis now that white folks are? (Racism, obvs, and this is very much something we need to have in the forefront of our minds when it comes other present and future crises), which I appreciated. He also discusses our attitude toward pain and how living with zero pain is unrealistic, and how that’s something we all need to think about. That’s a truth I long ago accepted for myself, and while it takes a while to get there, it IS possible. And what I really appreciated most about this book: Dr. Rieder absolutely understands how unrealistic the solutions to this crisis are. We don’t care enough about each other. We don’t have the political will. We look at drug addiction and dependence as a moral failure, instead of a health condition, and thus we look at addicts as people who made a personal choice to place themselves in a bad situation, and we don’t want our tax dollars going to that. We also don’t want our money going towards a socialist, healthcare-for-all system, and thus the more expensive solutions, like extensive physical therapy for pain control, etc., are only available to wealthier patients; the rest get prescriptions for opioids, which can cost pennies per pill. As a nation, we’ve built a system set up for failure, Dr. Rieder argues, and now we’re sitting here wringing our hands over it while rejecting all the solutions.

In Pain isn’t necessarily a hopeful book, but in the right hands, it could very much be an eye-opener that gets the ball rolling. I hope that’s the case. We all deserve better.

Visit Dr. Travis Rieder’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

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.