Saturday, January 6, 2024

Fear is Just a Word: A Missing Daughter, a Violent Cartel, and a Mother's Quest for Vengeance, by Azam Ahmed

 

9780593448410
Random House, 2023
374 pp

hardcover

read in December 2023

I came across this book after seeing it written up in  The New Yorker's "Briefly Noted" section back towards the end of  November, and was so taken with that brief mention that I knew I had to have it.   Before the book even arrived, I found myself doing a bit of research on Miriam Rodríguez, the woman at the center of it all, and came across a post on X (what used to be Twitter) that linked to another post by author Gary Shteyngart who  described the book to a perfect T.  He called it a work

"about a personal tragedy set against the canvas of a societal one," 

and after finishing Fear Is Just a Word,  I can't think of a better, more eloquent phrase to sum up this book.  

 On January 4th, 2014, Miriam received a 4 a.m. phone call that would quite literally dictate the direction of the rest of her life.  She wasn't at her home at the time in the small town of San Fernando in Tamaulipas state of Mexico, but rather in McAllen Texas, where she had gone to put some distance between herself and her troubled relationship with her husband Luis.  Two hours later she was in Reynosa, just across the Rio Grande, catching a bus to take her back to San Fernando, where she was picked up by her daughter Azalea.  The news was the worst any mother could hear -- Miriam's twenty-one year old daughter Karen had been kidnapped, and her captors, members of the Zetas cartel,  had demanded a ransom.  Luis had taken out a loan from the bank to pay off the kidnappers,  made the money drop, and was told to be in the cemetery twenty minutes later.  The day passed, no Karen.  Another day passed, same thing.  Sunday another call came, demanding more money; a week went by, no word. Finally, after an agonizing two weeks, another call came in, saying that after Miriam paid "a small payment" in exchange for her daughter, her release was, according to the caller, now ready to happen.  After a month, Miriam realized that "they are not going to bring her back to me," vowing that she would "find the people who did this" to her daughter and "make them pay."     In Fear is Just a Word, author and New York Times investigative journalist/bureau chief Azam Ahmed follows Miriam's "quest for vengeance" and in doing so, examines the wider "societal" tragedy, exploring how Mexico became a country where the rule of law is so dysfunctional that it ceases to function, leaving families of the disappeared with neither recourse nor justice from a government that is supposedly there to help and protect them.  

 As Miriam had said years earlier during a violent assault by the Zetas on her town in 2010, 
"How can they just let something like this happen? ... What is the government doing? Why aren't they stopping this?" 
The author takes on those very same questions, and he also explores how things in Mexico have come to the point where the country has become, for lack of a better word,  broken.  The book moves through present and past to reveal how and why this has happened, offering a look at how the cartels have built and maintained their power over the decades.  He looks at the rise of government corruption and institutional failures that have allowed these groups to carry out their business with impunity, which was also helped by the long-term dominance of a single political party in the highest offices of the government.  The end of that long reign brought a new party to power, with a new government finding itself in a position of holding less power than the cartels, ultimately using militarized violence as a solution.  As if things weren't bad enough, the declaration of a "war on drugs" in 2006 by Mexico's president did nothing except to lead to a major expansion of that violence, unchecked, leaving ordinary people displaced, dead, or often left to suffer a worse fate for numbers of families --  having loved ones who have been disappeared. What it all comes down to, really, is a frightening portrait of a nation in serious decline, where human lives have little value, and there is very little in the way of help coming from the government when it is needed most.  

It is important to realize that Fear is Just a Word is not just another book about Mexican cartels.   Ahmed keeps Miriam's story front and center as she searches for her daughter's kidnappers (and ultimately her murderers), tracking them down using whatever means she could muster.  Talk about a badass woman -- oh my god, some of the things she did in her quest absolutely blew me away.   As of October 2023, the number of disappeared people as recorded on the nation's interior ministry's "official database" stood at 111, 896,  and the reality is that there are probably more.  While many of their families may go as far as searching for their lost loved ones or speaking out publicly, Miriam felt the need to take things even further and do the impossible:  fight back.  She would not rest until she found some sort of justice for Karen, despite the fact that she knew she likely had a target on her back; her rage, pain and sorrow became channeled into something meaningful, not just for herself, but for other  families whose loved ones had vanished. 

My brief encapsulation here does not do the book or the author the justice both deserve but it is  a must read, for sure.  It is beyond timely and relevant especially now, and it is clear that the author must have put in years of research in putting this book together.  Fear is Just Another Word is an outstanding example of great investigative journalism that puts a very human face on tragedy, revealing exactly what people are capable of in the face of utter indifference and hopelessness.  It is one of the very best books I read in all of 2023, and I can't recommend it highly enough.  

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Fifty Forgotten Books, by R.B. Russell

 

9781913505509
And Other Stories, 2022
224 pp

paperback

Fifty Forgotten Books is, according to author and Tartarus Press co-founder R.B. Russell,
"intended to be a personal recommendation of often overlooked and unloved novels, short story collections, poetry and non-fiction."
If Fifty Forgotten Books had simply stopped there, it still would have been greatly appreciated, but it's within the discussions of these titles that the brilliance of this book shines through.  Russell's idea here is 
"not just to discuss the books, but to explain what they have meant to me over time, thus forming an oblique, partial memoir of my life."  

He is overwhelmingly successful on both fronts.    



the true cover underneath the burnt orange dustjacket

As most memoirs do, Russell begins his journey here in childhood, during which he had no particular awareness of "a point" at which he'd "started to collect books," but he does remember the discovery of a  nearby junk shop with "several shelves of tatty books for sale," where he used to spend his pocket money.   With the discovery of The Outsider by Colin Wilson at age fourteen he'd started buying books by authors Wilson had included in his work; by then, as he notes, he  realized at that point that he'd become a collector.  On then to "jumble sales, junk shops,"  and then it was the "wonderful world of second-hand bookshops."  Of these, he can remember details about the shops themselves,  including such proprietors as a certain Mr. Brookes, who first introduced him to Arthur Machen's excellent The Hill of Dreams, after which he was asking for (and growing frustrated when he was unable to acquire)  books by Arthur Machen "in every bookshop I could find."  Later, Russell would hear from a friend about the "newly formed" Arthur Machen Society, making his way to the society dinner where he "met friends who helped to shape my reading and publishing life..." making "a greater number of lifelong friends on that one weekend than at any other time."  His adventures with the Society (and a rather haughty character known here as "Mrs. X") continue on across many chapters, eventually culminating in the story behind the creation of the Friends of Arthur Machen, still in existence.    And on his way to the present, he reveals how Tartarus Press got its start in 1990 with Russell's "guide to Arthur Machen's favourite pubs," The Anatomy of Taverns, photocopied by his partner Rosalie Parker, while he "folded, collated and stapled."   There is, of course, much more, but at this point I'll leave the rest to potential readers to discover and delight over.  I will add only that there are parts of this book that made me laugh out loud.  

As to the books under discussion here, the list is not only eclectic but as you read through each chapter, it is more than obvious that they are also meaningful in a deeply personal way.  The fact that he begins and ends this book with a chapter entitled "The Outsider" (two different books) seems to reinforce that idea as well.   Some of these titles, as he notes, "have never been well enough known for them to be subsequently 'forgotten',"  although "just as many have always been appreciated ..."  I have to admit it was a bit strange to see Andrew Hurley's The Loney on the list, a book I've been an advocate for since I read it not all that long ago.   Russell also notes in his introduction that his title is "more of a challenge or invitation to readers to determine how many of these works they remember."  Taking him up on that challenge, out of the fifty books listed in the table of contents, I've read fifteen, I have eight that I own but haven't yet read,  and I bought three before I'd even finished reading Fifty Forgotten Books.  So twenty-three are here in my house as of this moment -- not quite at the fifty percent level but close, with the upcoming delivery of the three I purchased tipping things over that line.  Of course, this doesn't begin to count the books he mentions outside of those fifty, and when I have some time I'll be going back through those happily making another list.

I have had the great pleasure to have read more than a few fictional works written by this author (I'll be starting Heaven's Hill here shortly),  and I realized long ago just how very talented a writer he is, so I'm not surprised that he carries that quality over into Fifty Forgotten Books.   Each book the author includes in this volume elicits particular memories over different times in his life encompassing his reading,  the joys of secondhand bookshops and booksellers, book collecting, the people he meets and more, recounted by someone who is obviously deeply passionate about all of the above.   While I enjoyed reading about each title presented by the author in this volume, it's the autobiographical writing that makes Fifty Forgotten Books so engaging and in my humble opinion, exceptional.  

 I'm just a reader, not a critic, but I know when I have something extraordinary in my hands, and this book definitely falls into that category.  Very, very highly recommended.  

Saturday, December 17, 2022

In the Mouth of the Wolf: A Murder, A Cover-Up, and the True Cost of Silencing the Press, by Katherine Corcoran


 "A society without truth is a scary place to live."


9781635575033
Bloomsbury, 2022
315 pp

hardcover

In the preface of this excellent, informative book, the author reveals that on her first day of work in 2010 as Associated Press bureau chief in Mexico City, she received news of a threat from a drug cartel.  If a particular story was not published, they said, the bureau would receive a "special visit."  Part of her job was to ensure the safety of "more than dozen correspondents and twenty freelancers around the region ... protecting the entire Mexico team of a U.S.-based international news agency."   Having worked in Mexico by then for more than two years,  she already knew what needed to be done, knowing that the press in that country was "under siege."  Normally, the international media was left alone, but as she notes, "this was an epidemic," and it was only a matter of time until that would change.  Although Mexico's constitution provides for freedom of the press, it is, as the author notes,  "the most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist, outside of a war zone," with some fifty-one journalists having been killed there since the Committee to Protect Journalists started keeping track back in 1992.   

The death of Regina Martinez, a correspondent for Proceso,  an "investigative magazine"  on April 28 2012 captured the attention of Katherine Corcoran, who had admired her journalistic work over the years and had actually spoken to her on the phone once.     Regina had been discovered brutally beaten to death in her home in Xalapa, the capital of Veracruz.  This was only a few months after she had been away and had returned to find that someone had been in her house, leaving behind steam in the bathroom (as if they'd just taken a shower) and some open bottles of soap.  She was used to threats and had always taken precautions, but the invasion of her space really rattled her.   Despite friends' and colleagues' advice to contact the police, she refused, not trusting the justice system since she had firsthand knowledge of just how the system worked from covering the government in Veracruz, "a state known for corruption" and she had written "many exclusives" on the topic, preferring to avoid covering the cartels because of the danger involved for reporters who did.  The overriding narrative in the cases of murdered journalists landed the blame squarely at their own doorsteps, as they were blamed by Mexican officials for their own deaths, implying that "they must have fallen into malos pasos, 'bad ways'." In Regina's case, the police decided that she had been the victim of a crime of passion, but, as Corcoran realizes after talking to Regina's friends and colleagues, there was absolutely no way that was the case here.   On the contrary, Regina's work in investigating and exposing the betrayals of the Mexican people by the government is what ultimately became her "death sentence."  But what was it exactly that she was working on that would have caused her to be so brutally killed?  




Regina Martinez, from Forbidden Stories

Katherine Corcoran certainly hoped to find the answer to that question.  Meeting with colleagues and friends of Regina Martinez, she hoped to "solve the whodunnit" and "shine a spotlight on those who had gotten away with murder."   That would not be an easy task at all; as she says,  "the realities of reporting in Mexico were far more complicated" than she had encountered anywhere else.  As the dustjacket blurb notes, a lot of people were afraid to even talk about Regina, while Corcoran and Regina's friends "battled cover-ups, narco-officials, red tape and threats," many from the government itself, the institution which is supposed to guarantee and protect the rights of journalists.   

Corcoran's search for answers in Regina's case also shines a light on corruption at the highest levels of the Mexican government, as well as the state of journalism in Mexico where all too often journalists are pressured to either say nothing under the threat of "plata o plomo," or they report the "facts"  sanctioned by the state or other players, going along with the approved version of the news; some, as in Regina's case, are simply killed for daring to publish the truth.   She also makes connections between what was happening in the United States  in terms of freedom of the press, which has come increasingly under attack, where "Truth became optional; and information, a weapon used to control and manipulate," not to mention that somehow the independent press, "the bedrock of our democracy" came to be called "the enemy of the people."  What she saw happening in America appalled her enough to realize that her country had "started to look like Mexico."  It is a truly frightening thought, one that should scare anybody who truly believes in the Constitutional right to freedom of the press in a democracy.    And yet, through all of her work in putting together this book, the author never loses sight of her subject, Regina Martinez, who paid an unthinkable price for trying to bring truth to the people of Mexico, to open their eyes as to what was happening in their country.  

I cannot do justice to this book in just a few paragraphs, but I absolutely loved it and hated putting it down for any length of time. It is well written, beyond timely given what's going on in the US at the moment when journalists are being silenced on Twitter; it is researched in depth, it is informative, and drew me in completely.  It also opened a number of avenues of exploration once I made my way to various websites the author mentions in her book including Forbidden Stories  and The Committee to Protect Journalists, and heightened my interest in the attacks on journalists in Mexico in such stories as the murder of Fredid Román in August of this year, who wrote "critically" about the Truth Commission created by Mexico's President Andrés López Obrador, the purpose of which was to investigate the disappearing of  43 students from Ayotzinapa in Guerrero in 2014.  That in turn led to two different documentaries on Netflix as well as the purchase of a book of in-depth reporting of that incident by journalist Anabel Hernandez called La Verdadera Noche de Iguala.  Any book that can move me to take a further look  (and fall down a few rabbitholes in doing so) is well worth reading, making me appreciate the author's hard work and her meticulous research even more.  

I recommend this book so very, very highly -- it's certainly one of the best I've read this year.  

Monday, August 29, 2022

We Carry Their Bones: The Search for Justice at the Dozier School For Boys, by Erin Kimmerle

 

"They was throwaways."



9780063030244
William Morrow, 2022
241 pp

hardcover

It wasn't all that long ago that I read Colson Whitehead's excellent The Nickel Boys, 
a novel inspired by the stories of abuse from men who as children were sent to the real-world Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida.   It is also a story of the long reach of trauma that lasts well after the horrific events at the fictional Nickel Academy, and how an investigation headed by a team from a Florida university that uncovers a "secret graveyard" sent one man back to finally confront the past and his pain.  As Whitehead wrote in his book, "Plenty of boys had talked of the secret graveyard before, but ...  no one believed them until someone else said it."  


In We Carry Their Bones, Dr. Erin Kimmerle of the University of South Florida, who is also a leading forensic anthropologist, explains that she had been introduced by a friend to a "local reporter" who had been working on "a series of stories" about "the dark history" of the Dozier School, including "brutal beatings and sadistic guards and mysterious deaths."  

  As she notes,
"The stories raised questions about a purported cemetery on the school's property, and the reporter had hit a dead end.  He had found the families of boys who died in custody and were buried at the school, families that had never found peace, for they'd never been given the opportunity to properly mourn. No one could point to the location of the graves where their brothers and uncles were buried. No state official had stepped up to find those burials."
While there was a small cemetery on the once-segregated black side of the grounds known in the records and among the locals as "Boot Hill," Dr. Kimmerle and her team were not "confident" that this was the only burial site.  Permission to explore all of the grounds was denied by the Department of Juvenile Justice (which had claim to the side of the school where white boys had been confined and which did not close until 2011), and in 2012, the reason given was "pending sale of the property and other liability concerns."    Kimmerle understood that with the sale of the "220 acres of the boys' school land,"  the new owners might very well "pave a parking lot on top of the graves of little boys," and that time was of the essence.   

Just briefly, because it is a book you must read for yourself so I won't go into too much detail here, We Carry Their Bones details the work of Kimmerle and her team in investigating the area while trying to discover not only an actual number of burials, but also in trying to identify some of the remains so that they could be returned to their families.  She realized that a major part of her work was to glean as much information about the school as possible from the historical record, and to get to know as much as she can about the place and the people.  Among her discoveries were the names of boys whose deaths had gone unreported by school officials, including boys who died after having run away, those who died after having been "paroled to local plantations for labor" or boys who died from illnesses while in "overcrowded living conditions, without adequate food or medicine."  Most importantly, her findings didn't jibe with those of  the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), who 2008 were tasked by the governor at the time to "investigate the 32 unidentified graves that were marked by white metal crosses" and to figure out the identities of the dead in those graves.  He had also directed FDLE investigators to determine "if any crimes had been committed."   The FDLE had reported that they found  
"no evidence to suggest that the School or its staff made any attempts to conceal and/or contributed to the deaths of these individuals"

and documented the number of burials as thirty-one, which just happened to correspond to the number of crosses (made out of pipes) placed there in the 1990s.   Kimmerle's  use of ground-penetrating radar suggested at least fifty burials in the area of  Boot Hill, and the historical record speaks for itself as far as covering up crimes.   

Her struggle to gain access to the school's grounds was a tough one.  As one example, state bureaucrats refused her application for  a permit saying that the recovery of human remains was not covered within the scope of the permit, which allowed only for the recovery of "objects of historical or archaeological value."  She also met with stubborn resistance from Marianna locals, many of whom had either worked at the school at some point or had relatives who'd worked there and felt it would be better just to let things be than to rehash the school's history, which might damage the town's reputation and hurt it economically.  As one woman, an archivist Kimmerle spoke to noted, the boys were "inmates, not children,"   as well as "throwaways."  Of course there's also the fact that the school provided free labor from the Dozier boys as part of the convict-lease system and that many of the town's inhabitants had gained financially as a result.  But Kimmerle would not be deterred in her quest,  and with the support of the media, of many of the boys' families and of politicians to whom she appealed, her team would go on to not only excavate remains, but also to examine them forensically and to take DNA samples from relatives in her effort to match those remains to names.   In the end, she would eventually carry some of the bones of the identified boys to reunite them with their families.  

Colson Whitehead's blurb on the front of this book notes that "In a corrupt world, Kimmerle's unflinching revelations are as close as we'll come to justice," and at every turn it is obvious that her objective was to offer any support and help she could to the families of the Dozier boys who never made it home.  As she points out at the end, "the door was closed to us in the search for historic justice by many who had the power to open it," but Kimmerle's  determination and that of all of the people involved made it so they would not and did not fail.   It is a difficult book to read on several levels but on the other hand, it is a story that seriously needs telling, right now. 

Very, very highly recommended.  

*****

If anyone is interested, there's a documentary highlighting Dr. Kimmerlee's work available online called "Deadly Secrets: The Lost Children of Dozier"

or if you want to read Dr. Kimmerle's report on the Documentation of the Boot Hill Cemetery at the Former Dozier School for Boys, Marianna Florida, you can find it here. 


Wednesday, July 13, 2022

No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War by Hiroo Onoda

 

9781557506634
Bluejacket Books/Naval Institute Press, 1999
originally published 1974
translated by Charles S. Terry
paperback

219 pp

I bought this book last year when I read that Werner Herzog had written a novel based on the strange story of Hiroo Onoda, author of this memoir and a soldier in the Japanese Army during World War II.   I've now read both books -- this one and Herzog's The Twilight World, and I've watched the film Onoda: 10,000 Nights in The Jungle which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2021.  Evidently I couldn't get enough of this man's story -- it seems that indeed, sometimes truth is even stranger than fiction.

It was 1942 when Onodo was called up for his army physical; in December of that year he reported to the Two Hundred Eighteenth Infantry Regiment.  After a brief time  in Nanchang, he took and passed his officer examination, eventually ending up at the Futumata branch of the Nakano Military school where he was taught how to engage in secret warfare.   In October 1944, American forces landed on Leyte; Onoda and forty-two other trainees were told they would be going to the Philippines.  First, though, he would have a bit of leave, which he spent at his family home; ironically, as it happens, on leaving to report back to the army he told his mother that if she is informed that he had been killed, 
"don't think too much about it, because I may well show up again after a few years."

 Given what happened with this man, that turned out to be an understatement.  Onoda was assigned to Lubang Island, to "lead the Lubang Garrison in guerrilla warfare."    The objective: "to hamper the enemy attack on Luzon." Onoda was directed to destroy both the airfield and the pier at the island's harbor; he was further tasked with destroying enemy planes and killing the crews "should the enemy land" there.   His final orders, however, were that he was "forbidden" to kill himself:  

" It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens we'll come back for you.  Until then, so long as you have one soldier, you are to continue to lead him.  You may have to live on coconuts. If that's the case, live on coconuts! Under no circumstances are you to give up your life voluntarily."

 

from Semantic Scholar


The situation on the island, for many reasons, started to go south almost immediately.  By December of 1944 when Onoda arrived at Lubang, the tide of war had already started to turn in favor of the Allies and it was so grim that people back home in Japan were already bracing for enemy forces to land in their country.   The "best outfit in the whole Japanese army" on Lubang weren't really up to fighting; they just "wanted to get off Lubang" and Onoda was hampered by the officers who refused to listen to him or to allow their soldiers to help him in his mission because they were "too busy."  In one garrison, only half of the men were actually fit for work, the others sick and plagued by fatigue; newly-arriving soldiers failed to bring food with them and had to share in what little resources were available. As he notes, the five-month supply of rice would likely last for two months at best.   He wrote that the troops he was supposed to be leading were "a bunch of good-for-nothings, concerned with only their immediate wants," and he had no authority to set them straight.  With all of this (and much more) going on, Onoda couldn't convince anyone of the need for guerrilla warfare; even worse, when the Americans came to Lubang, they captured the airfield Onoda had been ordered to destroy.  

Fast forward to October of 1945, when Onoda received word via a piece of paper on which, written in Japanese, was a statement that "The war ended on August 15," and that the Japanese soldiers should "come down from the mountains."  Onoda believed none of it, thinking it was an enemy ploy, and later at  the end of the year, leaflets dropped from a B-17 offered copies of the surrender order from General Yamashita as well as a directive from the chief of staff.  Once again he refused to believe what he was reading, deciding that these were "phony."  These messages continued, and in every instance Onoda decided that it was the work of the enemy, that they were being tricked via propaganda into surrendering.  By 1946 he was down to just four men, all of whom vowed that they would "keep on fighting."  It wouldn't be until 1974 that he stepped out of the jungle, once he had word from his commanding officer that Japan had indeed surrendered and that he was ordered to return home. 

In the meantime, his little group of four became just one, with Onoda the only one left standing.  His story reveals how he tried to do his best to continue his original mission while trying to survive in the jungle of Lubang Island, not an easy feat by any stretch.  By the time his band of soldiers came down to just his comrade Kozuka  and himself,  Onoda says that they had "developed so many fixed ideas" that they were "unable to understand anything that did not conform to them."   He stood firm in his tenacity and his commitment, not just to his mission but also to his firm belief that there was absolutely no way that Japan could have lost the war, let alone that his country's government had surrendered.    It would only be after he was on board the helicopter that would take him home in 1974 that he would finally question his time in Lubang, asking "Who had I been fighting for? What was the cause?" 





Onoda leaving the jungle with former commanding officer Tanaguchi after he'd officially relieved him of duty. From Rare Historical Photos



At the same time, it is important to remember that this is Onoda's story as told to a ghostwriter  and it is likely incomplete.  As so many readers have been quick to point out, it says nothing about the crimes the Japanese on Lubang perpetrated against the people who lived there.  At a website called Rare Historical Photos, the writer discussing the photos of Onoda notes that "he and his companions had killed some 30 people in their long war" (pardoned by President Marcos), and there is also a trailer on Vimeo for a new documentary by Mia Stewart called "Searching for Onoda" in which she turns to her family on Lubang to express how Onoda's war affected the island's people.   I can't find any information about when this documentary will be available to the viewing public, but I definitely plan to watch when it is released.   And there's this: according to an article I read at the BBC's Culture page,  the ghostwriter of this book, Ikeda Shin, published his own account, Fantasy Hero, in which he felt "it was his responsibility to inform the public that he believed Onoda was not a hero, nor a soldier, nor even a brave man."  

 I had a lot of  trouble putting it down once started and every time a new announcement would come for Onoda about the war being over, I was just floored by his logic as to why he refused to give up.   I would also definitely recommend reading No Surrender if you are planning to read Herzog's book or if you're thinking about watching the film based on his book just so you have some background.  However you choose to view Onoda in light of the criticisms against him, the book still makes for great reading, and it's one I definitely recommend if you're looking for something well out of the ordinary. 






 

 

Friday, April 22, 2022

Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography, by R.B. Russell


9781912586363
Tartarus Press, 2022
396 pp

hardcover, signed, #326


My introduction to Robert Aickman's stories came some years back via the Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories with "The Trains" in volume one.  I remember sitting there mentally scratching my head, wondering what was going on there and puzzling over it until I gave up, deciding that I'd definitely have to come back to it another time.  My inability to decipher "The Trains"  might have made for a  frustrating experience and turned me off Aickman for good, but no, the opposite happened --  not only did I make my way back to "The Trains," but little by little I also started picking up his story collections and little by little I became a huge fangirl of his work.  I'm still mystified by many of his tales, but as Russell quotes author Sacheverell Sitwall in Chapter 22 (whose words from his For Want of the Golden City Aickman originally chose as the epigraph in Cold Hand in Mine), I've come to realize that "In the end, it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation."  

 Aickman wrote two volumes of  autobiography entitled The Attempted Rescue (1966)  and The River Runs Uphill, published posthumously in 1986.     While "both are full of colourful personal details," we are told,  Aickman's  "version of events is not always to be relied upon." As the dustjacket notes,  in  An Attempted Biography, Russell "disentangles the myths that have surrounded Aickman and his life."  He also focuses on Aickman's long-lasting legacy of  two great achievements: his work for the Inland Waterways Association and his writing.   He also reveals much about the man himself -- Aickman was more than a bit over the top politically, often a downright cad when it came to how he treated women (most notably his wife Ray Gregorson who somehow managed to stay with him for sixteen years),  great company and charming with some people while unpleasant, rude and opinionated with others.  Somewhere in this book or elsewhere I've seen the word "polarizing" to describe Aickman, and that would be about right.  Through countless interviews, correspondence, his subject's own writing and many other sources,  Russell has written what just might possibly turn out to be the definitive biography of Robert Aickman.  

Without going into any kind of detail here,  Russell begins with a  quick run through Aickman's childhood including his life with his mother and eccentric father;  Russell also touches on the "complex phantasies" which Aickman noted in The Attempted Rescue were what allowed him to survive his "first sixteen or seventeen years" of his life, "adolescent daydreams" which "were of the greatest importance to him."  By the 1930s, however, what Aickman really wanted was to be a writer --  Aickman's grandfather was Richard Marsh, author of The Beetle (1897) and the namesake of the literary agency Aickman would create with his wife Ray in 1941 after his claims of being a conscientious objector kept him out of the war.   

After the publication of  L.T.C. Rolt's book Narrow Boat  in 1944, Aickman sent the author a letter telling him how much he and Ray admired his work, also making the suggestion that perhaps "some body" could be formed 
"a disinterested group of enthusiasts (but not fanatics) could do much to better the state of the canals,"
and  offering to meet Rolt to talk about his idea.  As Russell explains,  the canals 
"had been neglected for many years, a large proportion of them owned by railway companies that initially brought with them the aim of removing objection to their  proposed new railway lines,"
and that the four thousand miles of "navigable canal" had been reduced to half by this time.   Rolt agreed, and from this meeting (which Aickman  attended with his wife Ray but neglects to mention her presence in his autobiography, an ongoing thing with him evidently)  would be born the Inland Waterways Association (IWA), which became something Aickman "could really get his teeth into."  As it happens, Russell devotes a great deal of his book to Aickman's role in the IWA, and it's worth saying that Russell never lets the topic become dull -- while his subject was seen by some as a "pugnacious, persistent and fighting leader of the highest calibre," Aickman's time with the organization and his relationship with other members was often anything but smooth sailing (if you'll pardon the pun).   

Of course, Aickman's writing career is an integral component of this biography,  especially his "strange" stories, which really started to be noticed after he and Elizabeth Jane Howard (with whom he worked on the IWA and with whom he had a lengthy affair) had their collection of stories published in We Are For the Dark  in 1951.  At this point, Russell notes, Aickman's "career in fiction was set... 'for the dark'. "  He also had stories published in periodicals, including The Tatler, which not only ran his "The Trains" but also some of Aickman's ghost stories in Christmas issues over the next two years.  It wouldn't be until 1964 when Gollancz published his The Late Breakfasters and Collins published his first Aickman-only story collection, Dark Entries, that his  "long-time ambition" of being a writer was realized "to his satisfaction."  He was also busy editing the first of eight volumes of Fontana's Great Ghost Stories.  Russell goes on to discuss Aickman's various works,  with the added bonus of  insight into his stories, then moves on to the "new generation of fans" he'd gained via his writing.  Ramsey Campbell, for example, read his Dark Entries in 1965, writing to August Derleth that Aickman was "the only new light on the fantasy horizon I could think of," then finally met the author in 1968.   The final section of An Attempted Biography goes on to discuss Aickman's "Posthumous Reputation,"  about which Russell notes that it now "appears to be secure."  I have to say that the fact that Aickman refused to "write with an idea of popular appeal" is one major quality that continues to draw me to his work.  

As has been the case with each of R.B. Russell's books I've read, the writing is excellent, but of course, the true star of this book is Robert Aickman himself, a man who was "determined to realise his ambitions" and in so doing "often made enemies," as well as a man with "a great capacity for love and friendship."  It's obvious that Russell has not only done an incredible volume of research, but in doing so, has come to know his subject very well.  

An Attempted Biography now enjoys a place of honor on my favorites bookshelf -- I am just completely in awe of what Russell has accomplished here.  Nicely done.  

Friday, January 28, 2022

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Family, by Patrick Radden Keefe

 


9780385545686
Doubleday, 2021
535 pp

hardcover



In the afterword of this book, the author notes that he'd started working on this project in 2016, having come to it "indirectly."  While researching the Mexican drug cartels ("not just as criminal organizations but as businesses"),  his research had led him to the "new emphasis, among the cartels, on heroin."  From there, Keefe was led to OxyContin, and to reading Barry Meier's Pain Killer and Dreamland (an excellent book, by the way) by Sam Quinones as well as articles published in the Los Angeles Times.  He notes that he 
"was astonished to discover that the family that presided over the company that made OxyContin was a prominent philanthropic dynasty with what appeared to be an unimpeachable reputation."   
In an interview at Esquire in October of last year, the author explains what was behind the writing of this book, saying that he didn't want to write a book "in which the Sacklers felt like cyphers, in which they felt very remote."   Since they would neither speak to or communicate with him,  writing a book would feel "ineffective -- as though you were seeing them through a telescope, very, very distantly." But then litigation against the company and later the family resulted in  a "huge body of documentation ... getting released in these lawsuits, including lots and lots of private emails" that offered Keefe a way to tell a "vivid and engaging" story, one in which "you feel like you really come to understand these people."   An engaging revelation of the lengths this uber-wealthy family would go to to avoid any accountability, Empire of Pain  is also a story of a family that somehow failed to pass on any sort of empathy through the generations, valuing their "good name" and their ongoing wealth above all other considerations.   

And what a story it is indeed.  In 1904 Isaac Sackler arrived in America from Galicia, and along with his three brothers, opened up a small grocery store in Williamsburg, New York.  He did well enough to invest in real estate, but during the Depression when his fortunes started to wane,  he reminded his three sons that he had "bestowed upon them something more valuable than money... a good name."  As the sons' wealth began to grow, they delighted in seeing that "good name" adorn many a philanthropic enterprise, all the while keeping silent about where their money originated. In Empire of Pain, the author examines the Sackler dynasty, revealing a 
"story about ambition, philanthropy, crime and impunity, the corruption of institutions, power, and greed."

Isaac Sackler always hoped that his sons would "leave their mark on the world,"  which  they did, but my guess would be probably not in the way Isaac had intended.  

The three Sackler sons (Arthur, Raymond and Mortimer) went on to become doctors, the latter two joining Arthur  working in a state psychiatric facility in New Jersey, Creedmoor Hospital.  In 1942, while still working at Creedmoor, Arthur accepted a position with the William Douglas McAdams agency which specialized in pharmaceutical advertising, where the focus became one of "how do you sell a pill?"  Sackler was savvy enough to know that the real money would come from advertising directly to physicians rather than consumers, and beginning with a Pfizer product called Terramycin, he laid the foundations for future pharmaceutical marketing.  Without going into detail, Sackler's strategies included marketing to "the prescribers" in medical journals,  hiring a force of energetic sales reps, convincing prominent doctors to get on board with endorsements, having drug companies cite certain scientific studies (often underwritten by the companies themselves) that claimed that the new drug worked well and that it was safe.   What Sackler had created was a "synergy between medicine and commerce,"  and the strategies worked:  while the product itself wasn't particularly "groundbreaking," it was highly successful since "it had been marketed in a way that no drug had ever been."  Not only had "Arthur invented the wheel," but he'd also laid the foundation for the future of pharmaceutical sales, including Valium, which more than cemented the Sackler family fortune.  He also bought a "small pharmaceutical company" in 1952, by the name of Purdue Frederick, the running of which would be left in the hands of his brothers.  

Flash forward in time: Richard Sackler, son of Raymond, got his medical degree  and in 1971 joined Purdue Frederick as assistant to the president (his dad).   When MSContin came along, Purdue started manufacturing and selling it in 1984, generating hundreds of millions in sales, "dwarfing anything that the company had sold in the past."  By 1990 though, Purdue was set to "lose the monopoly on its flagship painkiller" due to patent issues, so they needed a "successor." Enter OxyContin, in 1996.   The word at Purdue Pharma (formed in 1991)  was that this drug was so good that it would "sell itself" but Purdue was taking no chances.  The Sacklers followed Arthur's template in influencing government agencies like the FDA, co-opting physicians, completely downplaying the addictive qualities of the drug, faking reports, offering "capless" incentives to the sales reps, financing organizations advocating freedom from pain as well as pain research, and the list goes on.   OxyContin became "the one to start with and the one to stay with."  That turned out to be true: Purdue created a huge market for OxyContin, which in turn led doctors to prescribe it and to people becoming dependent on it.    It also launched a major public health crisis -- by 2010, "millions of people had become addicted to OxyContin and other opioids," and America was "in the grip of a full-blown opioid epidemic."   Purdue's answer:  it's not the drug, it's the people abusing the drug. 

 In the long run, as Keefe so skillfully reveals, the Sacklers did anything and everything necessary not only to deny and refute the claims of addiction, but also to preserve their "good name."  

There is much more to this book than I can describe here, but as the dustjacket blurb notes,  Empire of Pain is "a portrait of excesses,"  as well as a 
"study of impunity among the super elite and a relentless investigation of the naked greed and indifference to human suffering that built one of the world's great fortunes." 
I don't know how anyone can read Empire of Pain and walk away unaffected.  What struck me the most was the family's sheer lack of empathy, the lack of any sort of accountability, and the ease with which they managed to co-opt the institutions that are supposed to protect the public, including the FDA and the Department of Justice.   The icing on the cake comes in watching the HBO documentary "Crime of the Century," which not only shows certain members of our government allowing all of this to happen, but also reveals how much Sackler money they'd received in campaign contributions.  But read this book first. 

Highly, highly, highly recommended.