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 Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control by Steve Hassan

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you know I’m fascinated by cults. Not just the cults themselves, though; I’m also fascinated by the mindset that it takes to join and stay in a cult: the beliefs and ties to reality that followers must suspend, the excuses they need to make, and the misbehavior that must be dismissed in order to continue to defend and remain within the group. What makes all that happen? What kind of perfect storm has to take place in order for a single person to convince themselves that this group above all others has it right, despite glaring evidence to the contrary? In the past few years, we’ve been able to watch- and still watch- this play out on a massive scale in real time, and when I learned about The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control by Steve Hassan (Free Press, 2019), I was interested. I’d heard interviews with Steve Hassan before on the topic of cults, and I had long before made the connection between the many, many cults I’ve read about and the behavior of Donald Trump’s most ardent followers. Onto my list it went.

Steve Hassan had once been a member of the Moonies, the colloquial name for members of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. His family recognized early on that he had been pressured into a cult; it took him several years to leave (with the help of his family, who were not members; it’s obviously much, much harder for people raised in these movements to extract themselves), and he went on to become a mental health expert who specializes in treating people who leave high-control groups. He’s well aware now of the tactics that the Moonies and other groups use in order to pressure people to join and stay in their movements, and he recognized early on that Donald Trump and his entourage have engaged in all of the same tactics in order to build their own movement.

Step by step, Steve Hassan breaks down how Donald Trump engages in the same mind control techniques that cults use, using specific examples not just from Trump and his entourage, but showing how those same techniques played out in other high-control groups (such as NXIVM, Jonestown, Waco, etc). (And this isn’t mind control like in cartoons, where people’s eyes spin around; these are psychological tactics designed to manipulate how a person thinks, to break ties with a person’s prior life and beliefs and instill new, mostly fear-based beliefs that encourage the potential convert to join the group, because the group or the group’s leader alone can fix this. Sound familiar?). The parallels are disturbing.

I enjoyed a lot of the content here. Seeing the tactics used by various cults and the Trump campaign broken down step-by-step is definitely eerie, especially seeing it all in one place. Mr. Hassan isn’t the only one to notice this; the podcast Behind the Bastards has noted this in multiple episodes, and if you’ve ever listened to the podcast Cults on Parcast, you’ll recognize the same patterns of behavior and control over and over again, used throughout all the various groups. There’s no doubt that the Trump campaign used and continues to use these unfortunately effective tactics. They work, yes, but they work by manipulation and fear. If you can’t convince people of your message without manipulation and fear, your message isn’t worth propagating.

The book did get a little dry for me at times, and there were several instances where the text veered into speculation. “Many people believe…” “Some people think…” I didn’t care for that and felt that it weakened his argument. In a book that is making such big claims (claims which I think are unfortunately accurate), I want every claim to be backed up with hard evidence. There’s no room for conjecture when you’re penning nonfiction about a presidential administration that engaged in devastating acts, and God knows there’s enough hard material to base these claims on. The speculation turned me off quite a bit, and I felt that it lessened the effectiveness of the rest of the book. It also strayed into straight-up political discussion more than I expected; I was looking for more of hard look at the Trump administration’s cult-like tactics in engaging its followers and keeping them coming back for more despite this often not being in their best interests (something we’re still seeing today throughout this pandemic, though there are definitely signs that the monster he created is beyond his control, what with his encouraging his rallygoers to get vaccinated, only to have them boo him). While it did contain some of that, it wasn’t as much as I had expected when I put this book on my list.

It’s definitely an interesting perspective, but not as in-depth of an examination as I had hoped for.

Visit Steve Hassan’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham

I was too young to remember anything about Chernobyl, only being five at the time of the accident, and information was slow to leak out in the days after the explosion (and news didn’t move as fast back then, anyway). But it’s become something that fascinates me as an adult. I read Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich in 2019, but I realized I really didn’t know much of the specifics of what happened, and in order to more fully understand, I would need to read on. A friend mentioned Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higganbotham (Simon & Schuster, 2019) after I’d read Voices, and so onto my list it went. I held back from reading it for a while, intimidated by the 538 pages, but fear not; a lot of that is footnotes, and the text in my ebook copy ended at around 50%. It’s not actually *that* huge of a book.

Adam Higginbotham has created a masterpiece here, weaving a story of incompetence, shame, national pride, and suffering that takes the reader back to the early days of Soviet nuclear innovation, where anything was possible and the USSR was large and in charge (if only in its own propaganda). The desperation of the Soviet Union to appear as a major force in nuclear power on the world stage required its architects, builders, and engineers to cut corners at every turn in order to keep up with the pace demanded by its leaders. What happened at Chernobyl was inevitable, caused by a major design flaw; if it hadn’t happened there, it would have eventually happened at another Soviet nuclear plant.

At every turn, Mr. Higginbotham shows how the wrong decision was made that cost lives and increased human suffering and environmental damage to the extreme. The truth was hidden for ages as unsuspecting citizens were exposed to massive amounts of radiation. Those in charge were loath to admit that mistakes had been made (by themselves or anyone else); what mattered more was how the Soviet Union appeared in the eyes of the rest of the world. The dangers of nationalism and pride are illustrated on every page of this remarkable book about a disaster that opened the public’s eyes to the dangers of nuclear power plants.

This book is a LOT. A lot of history with which I wasn’t familiar (I was born in 1980; I vaguely remember learning bits and pieces about the USSR when I was growing up, but I very much remember having a class discussion after the USSR fell and what that meant), a lot of explanation about the science behind nuclear power that I will admit flew right over my head, a lot of Russian names I struggled to keep straight (part of this is due to the fact that I read it as an ebook; I have a harder time reading nonfiction on my kindle. There IS a handy guide to who’s who in the front of the book, and I would really have liked to have been able to flip back to that!), a lot of anxiety-inducing scenes where the radiation levels were off the charts, and days upon days where leaders failed to evacuate anyone and instead let them marinate in radiation in order to save their own stupid pride. While I couldn’t explain anything about nuclear physics or engineering, I definitely have a better sense of the story of Chernobyl: what happened, what was covered up and lied about, and why.

This has all left me with a massive disdain for nuclear power, although Mr. Higginbotham is clear that things have gotten safer since then, with better design and different sources of power that are much less likely to melt down. But that’s still not zero danger, as Fukushima has shown us, and I’m not sure I’ll ever feel totally relaxed when it comes to the subject of nuclear power plants at all. I’m definitely glad I read this, though, because I absolutely feel better informed about the disaster and tragedy that was Chernobyl.

Visit Adam Higginbotham’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini

It’s no great secret that women have been left out of a lot, if not most scientific research in the past, from behavioral studies to medicine- because why bother? They’re totally basically the same as men, right? Except wrong, and that has had serious, often deadly, consequences for women all around the world. I’ve read a few books on this topic in the past few years; Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong- and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini (Beacon Press, 2017) was the latest on my list. It’s a short book; what’s it’s not short on is science and information that’ll make you think.

For most of recorded scientific history, women have been left out of research and studies. There was no need to study them, (male) scientists thought, and the reasons were many: there was no difference between men and women, scientifically. Women could get pregnant and medications might harm the developing fetus, so better to leave them out and just assume the medication worked on them in the exact same way it did men (uh…sorry ‘bout that, dead women). Science already knew how women were different than men: they were passive, subservient, incapable of understanding difficult scientific concepts like men, and less intelligent, with their tinier lady brains…if you’re not screaming by now, check your pulse.

Angela Saini shines a light on the myriad ways that science has ignored women (and not just human women! Why bother studying the females in ANY species, amirite?!!??? *screams again*), and the new research- oftentimes spearheaded by the women who are beginning to engage in research in larger numbers than ever before. This new research isn’t without its detractors, often men who still cling to the juvenile idea that women are just weak, limp creatures incapable of engaging in more than cleaning and child raising and cooing over big strong men, but it’s shoving science in a direction that it should have gone ages ago.

I enjoyed this, but it’s pretty deeply scientific and not the most casual of reads- to be honest, it often read like listening to my biologist husband speak (which isn’t a bad thing!). It was a little bit of a slow read for me, both because I was busy getting stuff done around the house and because I kind of wanted to digest all the information thrown at me. While I knew from other reading that women have long been left out of medical trials and health-based research, I hadn’t really known that scientists hadn’t bothered studying the behavior of female chimpanzees, bonobos, even female birds were left out of the research for a puzzlingly long time, simply because scientists assumed, “Oh, they’re just out there mothering. They’re built for mothering, they just want one single mate to be strong providers with strong genes for their babies, and they’re no more complicated than that.” Shockingly, it turns out that lumping all female creatures into one ladyparts-means-THIS pile is incorrect (and you’re going to be so grossed out by how many dudes are offended by the fact that they got this wrong, and who straight-up seem to scoff at Ms. Saini for questioning them on this). There’s a lot on animal research in the second half of the book, which didn’t interest me quite as much as the medical research bits, but I’m glad I read it, so that I better understand the depths to which half the population has been ignored in all facets of science.

Interesting book, though infuriating to read in terms of subject and how arrogant male scientists have been throughout history.

Visit Angela Saini’s website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum

The 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge required me to find a book set in the 1920’s. Not my favorite decade to read about, and I’m really not sure why. The fiction choices on the list weren’t really appealing to me (a lot of them were more literary fiction, and I’m not really a fan), but one book finally caught my eye: The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum (Penguin Press, 2010). Nonfiction? Awesome. History?Awesome. Poison? WHOA. This sounded like a pretty cool book, and I dove right in.

In a nutshell, before, during, and slightly after the 1920’s in America, everything was made of poison, deadly poison of every sort was widely available for pennies, people constantly poisoned themselves, often to death, and if they weren’t doing it to themselves, their friendly neighborhood poisoner (often a family member) would do it to them. Add to that a medical examiner’s office whose corruption and cronyism resembled something ripped straight out of today’s headlines, and you had a major mess on your hands, along with a disturbing amount of murderers running free.

Enter chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler. Together they revolutionized the study of forensic medicine and revealed what poisons of all sorts do to the human body in every stage. They designed and ran experiments that not only helped to identify killers, they helped educate the public on the effects of the many poisonous substances that surrounded them so that they could exercise better care in what they were consuming and so that they would be familiar with the process of forensic medicine when it came time to serve on a jury and convict a murderer. This was no easy task; Norris fought his entire career for the New York government to take his lab seriously and fund it appropriately, but the advances he and Gettler made changed the face of science forever.

This is a seriously fascinating book that nearly reads like a novel. Did you realize that the United States government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition? And when people died, instead of, you know, NOT poisoning the alcohol, they just shrugged and said, “Eh, they shouldn’t have drank it, then,” and upped the amount of poison in it!!! And the US went through a radium craze- NO, SERIOUSLY- where radium was in a ton of different products, including RADIUM WATER THAT PEOPLE ACTUALLY DRANK. This worked out about as well as you might think. Like I said, basically everything was poison.

There are a lot of parallels between the society of this time period and today. Even though so much has changed, enough has stayed the same that chunks of this were really depressing. Like when men who worked in the plants that manufactured leaded gasoline began getting sick, going crazy, and dying, the owners of the plants blamed the men for not being able to handle the hard work (turns out it was the lead. Which they knew really early on). And most of us know the story of the Radium Girls who painted watch dials and died from radium poisoning after putting the tips of their paintbrushes in their mouths to make the brush pointy, a technique taught by their employers, who assured them that this was safe, then blamed the women when their jawbones and hipbones and femurs began crumbling. (It was all that promiscuous sex they were having, and not, you know, the fact that these women would glow in the dark when they went home.) There are a lot of stories like this in the book. It’s frightening, to be honest, because I kept wondering what’s being hidden from us today. (And I’m *not* a conspiracy theorist at all; there’s just enough disturbing historical content in here that it really freaked me out.)

There are so many interesting stories in this book, ones I didn’t know and never learned about in school. Deborah Blum has written a book that made the 1920’s come alive in a way they never have for me before. The Poisoner’s Handbook is information-dense, but it’s information everyone interested in American history or the creation of forensic medicine should know and understand. If you like true crime, this should probably be on your list as well, since it’ll give you a better understanding of what it took to get to today’s lab procedures that pin down whodunnit with chemistry.

SUPER cool book! I didn’t expect to enjoy this one as much as I did.

Visit Deborah Blum’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal- Mary Roach

I adore Mary Roach. Reading Stiff set off a fascination about what happens- or can happen, if we so choose- to our remains after we die, and has introduced me to so many other excellent books (such as Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty, and Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell Tales by William Bass and Jon Jefferson). Her Bonk was hilarious and made me admire her courage to insert herself into the research process, if you will. I always meant to get to her Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (W.W. Norton Company, 2013); I may have checked it out of the library once but time got away from me and I had to return it unread. When I saw it as a suggestion for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt of a book by an author with flora or fauna in their name, I knew Gulp‘s time had come.

Mary Roach is a science writer with a sense of humor, and she’s out to make sense of the world and present her findings in a way that will keep her readers laughing out loud long after they turn the final page. In Gulp, she goes on a quest to look deeper in the system of tubes that makes up the human alimentary canal: its function, its processes, its ability to produce gas so pungent, it could floor an elephant. If you have even the least bit of curiosity about fecal matter (why do we poop so much? How long can we really hold it? Why do some animals eat their own poop?), digestion (what’s the deal with how long it takes? How powerful is stomach acid?), saliva (why do we swallow our own without a second thought but can’t get anyone to swallow their own spit after first having spit it into a cup?), and gas (what’s the volume of a human fart? What exactly makes some farts smell worse than others?), or you have kids who think poop and farts are hilarious and would love to regale them with factual information about these things, you’re going to want this book.

Gulp is filled with so much random trivia about human bodies and nature, most of which is completely inappropriate to talk about in polite company, but which makes me love Mary Roach all the more and think that she must be a fantastic person to hang out with (if you’re a friend of hers, know that I’m deeply jealous). Despite having owned cats for the past fourteen years, I didn’t realize they’re primarily monoguesic, which means they stick to a single type of food. If you have an outdoor cat (which is generally recommended against, for reasons of health and safety; mine are strictly indoors) and they consume outdoor critters, for example, they’ll tend to eat either mice or birds, but not both. One of my housecats will eat canned cat food (though she’s picky about what kind), and will gladly accept offerings of fish or chicken, but she wants nothing to do with anything else. The other cat will eat cat food (his own, the other cat’s), any type of carb, vegetables (like carrots from my salad, or the green bean he stole off my plate and then shot me a filthy look as he consumed it under the piano bench as I yelled, “Hey!”), which makes me wonder whether he’d be a mouser or a birder or more of a junkyard cat who gets his calories ransacking the neighborhood garbage cans.

There are a lot of laughs in here, because Mary Roach really goes whole hog when it comes to research projects, and I deeply admire her for that. Example: after noticing that the facility that prepares human fecal matter for fecal transplants uses Oster brand blenders to blend their fecal samples in order to prepare the material for transplant, she actually emailed Oster for a comment, which they declined to give. (I mean, they could have mentioned that they were proud that their products are being used in exciting new medical technology bound to change lives around the world, but I guess it’s understandable that they don’t necessarily want their product associated with, well, poop.) This was only one of the many places I actually laughed out loud. If you’ve read any other of her books, you know Ms. Roach makes heavy use of asterisked footnotes, which are usually packed full of humorous tidbits, and Gulp is no different in this.

Eventually, I’d like to get to the rest of Ms. Roach’s oeuvre, but I’m entirely swamped with reading material right now and so this will have to be good, for now. Gulp is a joy to read. Heads up if you’re squeamish, though: she doesn’t shy away from much at all, but that’s the mark of an excellent scientist and investigator, I think.

Have you read any of Mary Roach’s books? Do you have a favorite? Stiff was my first and remains my favorite; I don’t know if I’ll get around to Packing for Mars, since anything about space tends to freak me out. Although, with the humorous way Ms. Roach presents things, I might be able to handle it…

Visit Mary Roach’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.