Spring reading – pt. 1, non-fiction by Marjorie Arons-Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog.

With spring, we’re all getting out more. But even with yard cleanup and planting, and longer walks to enjoy, there’s still time for the pleasures of reading.

Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe is a full accounting of Purdue Pharma and its private owners (the Sackler family), the development of OxyContin and the fueling of the opioid crisis. Having read Keefe’s long-form, revelatory 2017 New Yorker article on the subject, I couldn’t imagine that Empire of Pain would be worth the time. I was wrong.  Keefe’s research is vast and deep; he is the master of non-fiction narrative (as I had seen in his book Tell No One, about The Troubles in Northern Ireland). Empire is a spellbinding account of how the family, known for its massive philanthropy (as attested by the academic and cultural institutions bearing the Sackler name), lied about the addictive nature of the drug, manipulated doctors and other putative experts, corrupted FDA officials, funded sympathetic politicians, hid truths about OxyContin’s millions of victims, and lied under oath to prosecutors and investigators to spur billions of dollars in drug revenues.  Three generations of Sacklers lived lavish life styles off this lethal tragedy, and despite Trumpian-level lawsuits against them, have yet to admit guilt or apologize.

In Love: a Memoir of Love and Loss by Amy Bloom is a moving account of the author’s marriage, the love she shares with husband Brian, and his decision to end his own life in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. She cuts back and forth between charming and humorous reflections on their courtship and family life, his medical deterioration, and their experiences with Dignitas, the Zurich-based doctor-run company that, under specific conditions, helps individuals like Brian end their lives with dignity.  She explores why the bureaucracy-encrusted regulations to assisted suicide or doctor-assisted suicide in the United States fall short and why the most humane alternative was, for them, the path they followed.  Bloom’s prose is clear and deeply affecting, though its emotional impact doesn’t rise to the level of Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, an earlier similarly themed book about Alzheimer’s. But Bloom’s book raises profound questions about our role in determining our own medical care and, in the end, how and to what extent we control the terms of our departures.

Organ Thieves: the Shocking Story of the First heart Transplant in the Segregated South by Chip Jones was recommended by Isaac G, a reader of this blog.  It is a well-researched history of early transplant surgery, going back to 19th century grave robbing to provide cadavers for teaching anatomy. Focused on the Medical College of Virginia (MCV) and spanning roughly 150 years, the book is a study of race and class through the prism of medical treatment, transplant surgery and the court system. In 1968, a Black man, Bruce Tucker,54, fell off a wall and fractured his skull.  The EEG showed no brain activity.  A half-hearted attempt is made to contact his family, and the surgeons proceed to remove his heart and transplant it into heart disease patient Joseph Klett, also 54 and white. Tucker’s family doesn’t know his heart and kidneys have been removed until informed by the funeral home. Lawsuits ensue, and the author delves deep into the definition of death, racial bias in medical institutions and the use of Blacks for medical experimentation. Organ Thieves contains echoes of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Its grim substance is important, but the book is too lightly edited.

The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray is deemed “creative non-fiction,” a kind of hybrid format. The book is largely fact-based, about real people and events, but the conversations are fictionalized, making The Personal Librarian a fine example of this genre. It’s an account of Belle Da Costa Greene, the woman hired in 1905 to rationalize and expand the collection of rare books and documents acquired by financier J.P. Morgan.  She represented Pierpont Morgan in Europe, became an internationally recognized expert in rare books, including illuminated manuscripts, and was a powerful figure as she bargained with dealers on Morgan’s behalf.  When, after Morgan’s death, the library opened to the public, she became its first director. Greene had a personal relationship with Morgan but was more deeply involved for years with Renaissance art expert Bernard Berenson.  Well-documented lovers, Greene and Berenson had secrets, never revealed even to each other, but those lies informed who they were and how they interacted with the world around them. Belle is beautiful, witty and flirtatious, and the book invites us into a rarefied world that even she would not have been welcomed into if her secret had come out.  A fascinating book.