I put off reading The Library Book by Susan Orlean because. . . enough about books already! But I’m glad I finally decided to pick it up. Once I did, it was hard to put down. Not only does Orlean remind us of the extraordinary role that libraries play in the civic life of our communities, she showcases her skill at narrative reconstruction. The book is about the fire that consumed the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986, the investigation that followed, and the ramifications of such destruction on people throughout the community (including the main suspect in what was widely assumed to be an act of arson). Fascinating!
While addiction to heroin and other substances has been around for a long time, the current opioid crisis really is something new. It grew up fast around the 1996 introduction of OxyContin to the market, and the juggernaut of aggressive marketing, high dosages, and powerful pills that could be swallowed, snorted, or injected got people hooked fast. At this point there are some 2.6 million people addicted to opiates nationwide. Overdoses are the leading cause of death for those under age 50, and in a decade the total deaths from opiates exceeded all deaths from HIV/AIDS. The statistics are numbing. But let them be the gateway for the invaluable stories Macy has to tell about individual users, their families, doctors, and communities. Macy is a passionate reporter and while she focuses on the western part of Virginia--the region she knows best, and which is also among the hardest hit by opiates—she gives a comprehensive look at the history of drugs in this country, traces their different demographic trails, totes up the costs, and outlines the nation’s wrong-headed and/or conflicting criminal justice, drug, and health-care policies. The heart of her book, though, are those suffering because of OxyContin and related opiates. She traces the wrenching downward trajectory of several Lee County young people, dramatically showing how their lives were taken over by the drugs, how hard they struggled to get clean, and how many times they failed. While there are programs and new approaches that replace policing with medical care, so far, there aren’t enough statistics to see a turn in the tide. At this point, opiate deaths are expected to peak around 2020, with about 250 a day.
Griswold’s riveting look at the effects of fracking is by turns a social history of mineral extraction, a close profile of a handful of citizens, myriad medical mysteries, and a legal thriller. The focus is a Pennsylvania town called Amity. Economically depressed, it saw natural gas as its salvation—much as the neighboring town, the ghostly Prosperity, once looked to coal. And though fracking did bring in money, like coal it also brought a host of problems, including illness, animal deaths, water contamination, and damaged infrastructure due to the dramatic increase in truck traffic. Only the last could be directly tied to the energy companies and it was easy for officials as well as residents to attribute sicknesses to lifestyle or the residual effects of coal mining, or even to see claims of damage as merely resentment at getting too small a piece of the pie. For Stacey Haney, a nurse and single mother of two who owned a farm near a major waste-water containment site, it was impossible to look away. Though she’d thought it was her “patriotic duty” to lease her land to a gas company, when her son became chronically ill (due to arsenic in the water, among other things) she spoke up, eventually filing suit against Range Resources. While a courageous pair of local lawyers devoted years to building the case—and foregoing payment—Griswold talked to a wide range of Amity citizens. She presents their views on government and corporate power, tells us their dreams and how fracking furthered or broke them, and shows how arguments about the greater good of the nation can ride roughshod over the basic rights of citizens, especially citizens who lack the means to fight back. Yet as Haney’s experience proves, difficult as it is, fighting back is not only possible, it’s essential.