CHASING THE SCREAM: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs
By Johann Hari
Bloomsbury, 400 pp., $27
Like many of us who were teenagers in the ’80s, Johann Hari remembers that “drug education consisted mainly of being told that if you tried drugs, your life would be ruined, and that was that.” It backfired, of course: “[a]s soon as you smoked your first spliff and survived, you dismissed your teachers as liars.” This was just one in a series of unintended consequences spawned by the so-called war on drugs, the subject of this passionate, timely book. Hari talks to cops, dealers, convicts, addicts, scientists, and politicians from New York to Juarez to Amsterdam, assembling stories from all corners of what he calls a “global battlefield.” Their combined testimony forms a convincing brief that drug prohibition may have spawned as much crime, violence, and heartache as drug use ever did.
In the book’s early chapters, Hari describes the birth of drug prohibition in 1920s America as “a hinge point in history,” “the moment when the control of drugs is transferred to the most dangerous people.” Criminalization, he argues, was a political choice deeply influenced by racism (a typical newspaper headline of the time blared “NEGRO COCAINE ‘FIENDS’ NEW SOUTHERN MENACE,” he reports), and one that has perpetuated racial inequality through lopsided incarceration rates and felony disenfranchisement. Hari finds some hope in states that have recently legalized marijuana use — “if the sky does not fall in Washington and Colorado,” he observes, “this whole debate will radically open up” — but is most inspired by a programs in Europe that help addicts survive and recover, sometimes even by supplying them drugs. “In a true democracy,” he writes, “nobody gets written off.”
THE TRAIN TO CRYSTAL CITY: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and
America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II
By Jan Jarboe Russell
416 pp., illustrated, $30
Sumi Utsushigawa was 13 when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and the United States, the country of her birth, declared war on Japan, where both of her parents were born. Five months later, five federal agents came and took her father away, a suspected enemy alien. The shameful story of Japanese internment during World War II is well known by now; in this quietly moving book, Jan Jarboe Russell traces the history of one unusual camp that housed detainees from Japan, Germany, and Italy, along with their families, many of whom were American-born. Crystal City was 290 acres of heat, dust, and scorpions; for Sumi and thousands of other kids, it would be home for years.
Even more devastating for the American-born residents of Crystal City, they, along with their parents, were subject to repatriation as part of the prisoner exchanges the United States undertook with Germany and Japan. In December 1945, Sumi arrived at her parents’ devastated homeland, where her father finally accepted that Japan had lost the war (he had refused to believe it). For Ingrid Eiserloh, an American-born daughter of German immigrants, repatriation meant traveling, often on foot, through a snowy war zone, carrying one of her starving younger siblings most of the way. Russell interweaves their stories with those of the adults whose often disastrous decisions led to one of our country’s most disgraceful episodes; no matter what parents or politicians intended, as she points out, “[t]heir children had no choice.”
WHIPPING BOY: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully
By Allen Kurzweil
Harper, 304 pp., illustrated, $27.99
“Obsessively researched” is an ambiguous phrase sometimes seen in book reviews: Are we to admire or pity the book’s compulsive author? Readers of Allen Kurzweil’s “Whipping Boy” will likely feel a little of both. The pity part: Kurzweil chronicles a lonely year at a genuinely weird-sounding English-style boarding school in the Swiss Alps. Bereft at the loss of his father, Kurzweil is not only the youngest boy in school, he’s roommates with a kid who sounds like a genuine sadist.
The admiration part: Kurzweil spins a compulsively readable story out of his hunt for Cesar, his erstwhile tormenter, who (satisfyingly) turns out to have become a white-collar criminal in adulthood. “All writers are stalkers,” Kurzweil observes (or admits). But few bare their neurotic obsessions so entertainingly. In the end, Cesar the bully is the one we pity; not least because of his close bond with his own son, Kurzweil proves that living well really is the best revenge.
LOVE, AGAIN: The Wisdom of Unexpected Romance
By Eve Pell
Ballantine, 224 pp., $25
When she was young, Eve Pell writes, she saw older people as “proper, set in their ways, conventional, slow-moving, and formal.” They were not supposed to be giddy, romantic, or — heaven forfend! — sexually active. Her viewpoint changed as she grew older, radically so when she fell madly in love in her late 60s, a romance that, she writes, “made me feel fiercely alive and happier than I ever was before.”
In this book, which sprang from an essay Pell wrote about her relationship with husband Sam, 10 years her senior, she profiles other couples who found love late in life. Some of their stories are passionate and romantic — like Tricia and Chuck, a Boston-area couple who reunited after having met years earlier in law school, or Dusty and Dorothy, who fell for each other despite Dorothy’s insisting after each night that “this was absolutely not a date.” Others are poignant, as love deepens in the shadow of loss. “There is a sweet intensity to old love,” Pell writes, and the same could be said of this charming, genuinely uplifting book.