Category Archives: Non-fiction

Empire of Pain: It Won’t Feel Good (and not just because it is literally very heavy) But A Must Read

I did commit to reading more nonfiction this year, and so in the waning months of 2021 I thought, why not read something cheerful, like a 560 page deep dive into the Sackler family and their obscene greed that brought the world mass marketed pharmaceuticals and Oxycontin and the subsequent hundreds of thousands of overdose deaths?

I didn’t realize when ordering it from the library that it was from the same author, Patrick Radden Keefe, as my previous 2021 nonfiction win, Say Nothing. But happy discovery, as like Say Nothing the writing is ‘novelistic’ in that people (cough characters) are afforded full depth and complicated motivations and that there is a plot that one can latch onto. So no dry, dull non-fiction for this reader. (Sure, sure, I get it, 2021’s experiment has proven that non-fiction is… pretty great. Don’t rub it in, NHFH.)

What this one offers is on the surface a biography of the Sackler family, beginning with the three brothers that found Purdue pharmaceuticals, but chiefly Arthur, who is something of an impossible figure to believe in the range of interests, the maniacal pursuit of them and the ‘success’ he brought in merging the fields of advertising, medicine and drug development. We then follow the subsequent generations of Sacklers and their truly relentless and amoral pursuit of profit over the clear and consistent and unequivocal proof the dangers of their opioid products. The level of corruption within the government and government agencies, of doctors and pharmacies, the collusion and feigned ignorance, it’s all… a lot, and yet, somehow not at all surprising.

The book explores with some complexity the complicity of later generations and what level of involvement within the Sackler business should ‘taint’ a Sackler family member. Or whether benefiting – directly or indirectly – from Sackler profits besmirches the character or actions of an individual family member, some of whom (though not many) were tangential to the direct business dealings.

I especially appreciated the section detailing the work of activist artist, Nan Goldin, and the demonstration of the power of art to unsettle and unseat power. A meta commentary, I’m sure, on the potential of the book to provoke change, of books to make a difference.

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Hidden Valley Road: Iffy, but maybe still worth it

Like The Emperor of All Maladies, Robert Kokler’s Hidden Valley Road takes the exploration of illness as its focus. A biography of a disease, I guess you could say. Though woven through with the proper biography of the Galvin family: twelve children, six of whom have schizophrenia. Where this book is at its best is in exploring how researchers develop theories of the illness, challenge on another, reform theories, test them and grow frustrated with the limits of what can be known, or is known. Which is to say, the book is most fascinating when it’s thinking about the nature of how we know things – an irony, perhaps, in a book about an illness that radically alters the way reality operates.

I did find the narrative of the family captivating. (True, I’d probably find a biography of any family with twelve children engaging: like how many loaves of bread do they eat in a week? And where do they all sleep? And how prolapsed is a uterus after that many babies?) But captivating aside, I think on the balance the family element was more unsettling than it was revealing. Even while the book tries to emphasize that schizophrenia cannot be ‘blamed’ on environmental causes, or more properly ‘bad mothering,’ the narrative nevertheless slips into a sort of trauma porn element that risks reinforcing the idea that mental illness is caused by inattentive moms. Similarly, just as the book – at least toward the end – poses class advantages as one factor in different experiences of mental illness, the attention to class as a significant determinant of how schizophrenia will be experienced by the individual is under examined. (I mean, there is some discussion of how treatment options varied depending on access to private versus state-run hospitals, but little is made of this except to say that there are differences). And I didn’t relish the moments where some of the children’s hallucinatory episodes are captured – as if verbatim – I guess in order to shock the reader? And finally the book offers only a glancing nod to the idea that individuals with schizophrenia might elect not to take medications with harsh side-effects and might instead suppose that the people around them adjust their expectations of a stable reality.

All those issues raised, I think I’d still recommend it, if only for the way it explores the way schizophrenia is more a symptom (like a fever, the book at one point suggests, is a symptom of an infection) than a single illness. And also for the answer to how many loaves of bread. Spoiler: many.

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Man’s Search for Meaning: In Which I Do Not Offer a Review

I’m not sure reviewing Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is what I want to do with what remains of this nap. So instead I’ll note that I read it. And had some feelings about it. Also that it was the third non-fiction book IN A ROW that I have read (and I’m reading another one right now). So much for not enjoying non-fiction.

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Uncanny Valley: Why Was This Book Such a Big Deal?

I think we are meant to be shocked reading Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley to discover the Silicon Valley and the tech industry is toxic for women, or that tech companies are tracking and using our data (for nefarious purposes) or that most of the CEOs of companies are young and some of them are mean. I think.

Wiener leaves her shitty job in publishing in New York, moves to Silicon Valley, learns about computers and software and does customer relations. She’s good at her job because she has feelings and emotional intelligence and apparently none of the programmers do. She gets paid well but always feels a little uncomfortable (but not that uncomfortable) about how much money she makes. She buys fancy boots. Her boss makes her cry once and it is Traumatic.

I don’t know. I just didn’t care about most of it, and didn’t find any of it particularly revealing or surprising. Like I think we’re supposed to be Shocked at gentrification and the San Fransisco housing crisis. Or floored by the revelations that companies are selling our data (the only time I’ve known anyone to be upset about data collection is when the Canadian government created the Covid App and suddenly every one I know was Deeply Concerned about the government possibly having a tiny bit of data). Or horrified by the dismal state of diversity in the tech sector. And I mean, we should be outraged by all of it, but the book doesn’t make a case for outrage. It’s more “hey, did you know this was happening?” Which maybe it’s not a fair complaint to ask a memoir to be about action rather than description, but Wiener’s ‘conclusion’ of dropping out of the tech sector to turn to writing hardly seems an inspiring course for the world.

Oh. I do think Wiener has a spot on eye for describing whole classes of white men by the way they dress and shave. [Which let us pause and consider whether this kind of synecdoche would be okay if it was for any other group].

But sure. It’s on a bunch of best of lists and maybe it is very, very good and I missed the point. But for this reader I just shrugged and thought yeah.

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