Road Reading, Part VIII

I’m currently reading book #82 of this year of travel and can’t put it down. It certainly says something that we are in these gorgeous places, experiencing incredible adventures, and we still have our noses in our books half the time. What an amazing gift to be able to travel where we’ve been, but also where we get to go in the books we read – both to far away places and to step into others’ proverbial shoes. Those of you in deep winter back home in the US: take heart, grab a blanket and a book, and fly far away.

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
What do you hope for as a “happy ending” when you already know that a family was gruesomely murdered in the middle of the night in their own farmhouse? The author of Gone Girl and queen of grisly fiction gives us this compelling and seriously dark novel: the seven-year old survivor of these killings is now in her thirties and finally ready to search for some answers – maybe even get her possibly-innocent brother off the hook for the murders all those years ago. The journey leaps back and forth chronologically, different characters highlighted in each chapter, and the plot gets wider and stranger as it continues. It’s like the best episode of Law & Order: SVU you’ve ever seen but infinitely more confounding. The only reason I’m happy it rained for four days straight while we were in Sydney? This book.

I was not a lovable child, and I’d grown into a deeply unlovable adult. Draw a picture of my soul, and it’d be a scribble with fangs.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: A Novel by Jonathan Safran Foer
A winding, hilarious, heartbreaking novel – Jonathan Safran Foer has written a story that anyone can relate to. Themes of deep regret and guilt are introduced with the poetic prose of long lost letters and often mitigated by the hilarious voice of an exasperatingly curious nine-year old boy. After losing his father on 9/11, Oskar finds a mysterious key in his closet, and begins a journey that ends where no one expects. He knocks on doors all over New York City to enlist help in his search and encounters some interesting characters along the way. It took me awhile to piece together how Foer has architected the story, but through and through I couldn’t put it down.

What if the water that came out of the shower was treated with a chemical that responded to a combination of things, like your heartbeat, and your body temperature, and your brain waves, so that your skin color changed according to your mood? If you were extremely excited your skin would turn green, and if you were angry you’d turn red, obviously, and if you feel like shiitake you’d turn brown, and if you were blue you’d turn blue. Everyone could know what everyone else felt , and we could be more careful with each other, because you’d never want to tell a person whose skin was purple that you’re angry at her for being late, just like you would want to pat a pink person on the back and tell him, “Congratulations!” Another reason it would be a good invention is that there are so many times when you know you’re feeling a lot of something, but you don’t know what the something is. Am I frustrated? Am I actually just panicky? And the confusion changes your mood, it becomes your mood, and you become a confused, gray person. But with the special water, you could look at your orange hands and think, I’m happy! That whole time I was actually happy! What a relief! 

Alive in the Killing Fields: Surviving the Khmer Rouge Genocide by Nawuth Keat and Martha Kendall
Nawuth Keat was seven years old when the Khmer Rouge occupied his village and killed most of his family in one night. Finally, at the age of 18, he has the opportunity to flee and find freedom and safety in America. His professor, Martha Kendall, has helped him piece together his story in English through this simple but profound book. Since we arrived in Cambodia and spent a week there in December, I’ve had so many questions about the motivations of Democratic Kampuchea and the Khmer Rouge. This book didn’t answer many, but did help me understand that there was little strategy, and simply a lot of evil, during their reign.

While throngs of people trudged out of the city, the Khmer Rouge started killing “the enemy.” They shot educated people, advanced students, civic and military leaders, old people, and anyone with money. The Khmer Rouge had no laws. There were no courts. If they did not like somebody, they killed him. If a bystander complained, he got shot too. We watched in horror, silently. Fortunately, the Khmer Rouge did not know Van Lan was a teacher. They simply did not notice him. We got out of the city safely, but we had no idea what awaited us. 

In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson
Bryson’s books are informative and hilarious and this one is no different. Exploring Australia from nearly every angle, Bryson takes us along with him on his journeys along the coasts and even across the arid outback. Since we only spent five days in Sydney before jetting off to New Zealand, this was a perfect supplement to our Australian learning. Weaving in arcane historical facts and stories, and painting vivid mental pictures, he shares his love for this often ignored country in such a way that you can’t help but be drawn in.

Australia is mostly empty and a long way away. Its population is small and its role in the world consequently peripheral. It doesn’t have coups, recklessly overfish, arm disagreeable despots, grow coca in provocative quantities, or throw its weight around in a brash and unseemly manner. It is stable and peaceful and good. It doesn’t need watching, and so we don’t. But I will tell you this: the loss is entirely ours.

Generation Rx: How Prescription Drugs Are Altering American Lives, Minds, and Bodies by Greg Critser
This critical look at how our national dependence on prescription drugs has developed was thick but interesting. My eyes glazed over a bit during the descriptions and biographies of all the top pharma execs and stakeholders, and their moves, like chess, to place big pharma at the apogee of the US economy. The book chronicles the pharmaceutical environment from the 1950s to today and unpacks huge regulatory changes which have led to massively expensive direct to consumer ad campaigns, once illegal and unheard of. It explores the complex marketing systems that employ over 90,000 pharmaceutical reps to build relationships with doctors and hospitals. Finally, Critser discusses the long-term effect chronic illness drugs have on our bodies’ different organs. It was an incredibly eye-opening read that got me questioning all the things we take for granted in our healthcare system and helped bolster my resolve to always use long-term medication as a last resort for any ailment.

Although it is illegal for a drug company to pay physicians to prescribe a drug, it is not illegal, technically, to pay then for being special consultants. Parke-Davis paid thousands of physicians to become such consultants; the only (rarely enforced) requirement was to attend one meeting. Almost all of the money went to doctors who “wrote” Neurontin heavily, particularly those for bipolar and pain. Then there was the so-called preceptor program, in which physicians were paid $350 every time they allowed a Parke-Davis rep to visit. The visits almost always included discussions of patients and often resulted in sales reps meeting actual patients. In one case, documented in internal company papers, a sales rep was able not only to meet with patients, but to them convince the physicians to write off-label prescriptions to treat the patients. 

Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All: A New Zealand Story by Christina Thompson
Passing the hours waiting for her bus on a New Zealand vacation, Thompson meets a local Maori man, her future husband, and thus begins her education in Maori culture. Though the title might lead you to imagine differently, this is a delightful account of their unique multicultural relationship. Thompson also explores the rich history of white people encountering the native New Zealand population, as her dissertation was on the writings of early Pacific explorers. We did not get the opportunity to learn deeply about Maori history or culture on the North Island, and this book was an excellent supplement.

The Maori author Patricia Grace once wrote that “there’s a way the other people have of telling a story, a way where the beginning is not the beginning, and the end is not the end. It starts from the centre and moves away from there in such widening circles that you don’t know how you will finally arrive at a point of understanding, which becomes itself another core, a new centre.” I often felt like this about Seven when he tried to tell a story or give an account of something he knew; it was as though he told it inside out or explained it starting in the middle. His narratives, like his ingenuity, seemed part and parcel of a larger sensibility, the logic of which twisted and turned like a set of French curves or the coils and branches of a Maori carving.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
A fictional account of a dystopian society much like our own, Ishiguro’s novel is confusing, intimate, and revelatory. It takes a long while to piece together what’s going on, but the writing is extremely easy and fluid; I finished this book within 24 hours. Though the system in which they live is dysfunctional, cruel, and normative for the time, and though they are the victims of it, the book focuses on the friendship of three students throughout their childhoods and adulthoods. I was motivated to finish this book just to figure out what the heck was going on, but it wasn’t overall compelling or thought-provoking; just an interesting read.

“We took away your art because we thought it would reveal your souls. Or to put it more finely, we did it to prove you had souls at all.”

The Best American Non-Required Reading 2014 edited by Daniel Handler/Lemony Snicket
Not quite as riveting and eclectic as its 2013 collection, BANR 2014 still delivers a refreshing wave of short stories and poetry from around the world. The BANR yearly anthology is chosen by high school students from Dave Egger‘s nonprofit writing and tutoring center, 826 National. The stories within, both fiction and nonfiction of varying lengths, are as different as they are invigorating. There are essays, plays, and even a podcast transcript; a journalistic piece about Dave Chappelle’s reasons for leaving the comedy world and a poem called “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love”. Though 2014’s collection doesn’t take the cake, you can’t go wrong when you pick up one of these.

If you were a dinosaur, my love, then nothing could break you, and if nothing could break you, then nothing could break me. I would bloom into the most beautiful flower. I would stretch joyfully toward the sun. I’d trust in your teeth and talons to keep you/me/us safe now and forever from the scratch of chalk on pool cues, and the scuff of the nurses’ shoes in the hospital corridor, and the stuttering of my broken heart. (From If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love by Rachel Swirsky)

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman
It was such good timing that I read this book near the end of our journey and not the beginning! This work of nonfiction chronicles Gilman’s harrowing adventure backpacking into communist China in 1986 with another recent college graduate friend that, it turns out, she doesn’t know as well as she thought. I related so much to her feelings of both euphoria and depression that accompany long-term travel and learned a thousand new ways to be grateful for our own journey. This is an excellent read and a great story about messy relationships, bravery and improvisation under duress, and the acknowledgement that even when a trip is a “failure”, it can still produce great fruit and wisdom.

For a few minutes Harry and Jonnie walked over to the other side of the van and conferred. Claire, Gunter, and I stood there dumbly like babies waiting to be diapered, fed, burped. Being a tourist, I was beginning to see, meant being infantilized much of the time. All power is contextual. Take a brain surgeon in Uzbekistan and stick him in Manhattan; take the toughest homeboy from Compton and leave him in Tuscany. Drop any of us, anywhere, in an alien environment, and you’ll see our IQ plummet. “IS THIS THE BUS STOP?” we’ll holler at strangers, while dementedly pointing to the bus stop. To buy a sandwich, we’ll pantomime chewing. This is why, I suspect, so many otherwise decent people back home behave like assholes abroad: There’s nothing quite like feeling helpless to turn you into a world-class control freak, to make you forget your manners and throw a tantrum if your room isn’t ready and there’s no ice in your drink. In a strange environment, you feel like a baby, and you’re often treated like a baby, and so you act like one. Claire, Gunter, and I were no exception. We stood there, stupefied, fretting. 

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann
There is so, so much we take for granted about pre-United States American history. We are given the image of a pristine land, inhabited by a handful of natives living light upon the land for hundreds of years before us. Mann gathers the most recent archaeological and anthropological data to show us that we are basically wrong on all accounts. Indigenous people began inhabiting the Americas long, long before they ever arrived in Europe. They were far more advanced than we ever thought and they manipulated their environment in a multitude of ways, many of which surround us today. Mysteries still remain but what we are learning is becoming uncovered constantly and debated ferociously. (Or as ferocious as archaeologists can be). This was a super interesting read, involving a lot of references to both Peru (where we were last spring) and New England (home we long to get back to).

One way to sum up the new scholarship is to say that it has begun, at last, to fill in one of the biggest blanks in history: the Western Hemisphere before 1492. It was, in the current view, a thriving, stunningly diverse place, a tumult of languages, trade, and culture, a region where tens of millions of people loved and hated and worshipped as people do everywhere. Much of this world vanished after Columbus, swept away by disease and subjugation. So thorough was the erasure that within a few generations neither conqueror nor conquered knew that this world had existed. Now, though, it is returning to view. It seems incumbent upon us to take a look. 


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