Tag 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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Say Nothing: I Read Some Non-Fiction

Is it ‘non fiction’? ‘non-fiction’? ‘nonfiction’? I have so much to learn.

I started with Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing and it was an education. Turns out nonfiction (or non-fiction) is… good. Or THIS book was good. It was also long. Is all of nonfiction long? (Don’t answer that. I’m currently reading a memoir and it’s only medium to short. Maybe memoirs are short? And books about the IRA are long? [Sorry, M., the memoir is not one from your list – but they’re coming!]).

I liked it because I learned some things about Ireland and the IRA but there was also a lot of murder mystery. Less character than I like. Though still some characters. Because there were people.

Guys. When I try to write book reviews about nonfiction it reads like I’m stoned. I am not stoned. Though I did just eat a lot of really salty popcorn?

Okay let me try this again. It’s a book about Belfast and Northern Ireland in the 60s-2010s and the people Disappeared by the IRA through these years and the who and how of their Disappearance. I didn’t know most of the things in the book because I didn’t know anything about the Troubles. And now I know some things!

So yes. So far nonfiction: I learned some things, enjoyed the reading, and am concerned that all of it may be Very Long.

I hope my next review is better. Or else this 2021 resolution of 1 in 5 is going to ruin me as a reviewer. I WILL IMPROVE.

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