Books

In Brief

Four recent nonfiction titles

SPEAK NOW: Marriage Equality on Trial

By Kenji Yoshino

Crown, 384 pp., $26

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Filed just months after the 2008 passage of California’s Proposition 8 banned same-sex marriage, Perry v. Schwarzenegger (later renamed Hollingsworth v. Perry) sought to challenge the law’s constitutionality. As Kenji Yoshino writes in this quietly stirring account of the case, the lawsuit was controversial even among those who hated Prop 8. In an effort to avoid the “seismic backlash” triggered by an earlier court ruling on marriage equality, which led to the 1996 passage of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), veteran movement lawyers had been pursuing what he calls an “inch-by-inch approach” to gay-rights litigation. The successful pursuit of justice through the courts, as the history of civil-rights cases leading up to Brown v. Board of Education reminds us, requires thoughtful strategy and timing; many worried that Perry, to be argued by big-shot lawyers Theodore Olsen and David Boies, would backfire.

Yoshino, a professor of law at New York University, writes elegantly and compellingly about the background and lead-up to the case; the book really gets going once we are in the courtroom. “As much as anything, this book is a paean to the civil trial,” he writes, and in his telling, the trial presided over by Judge Vaughn Walker was a mechanism for clearing away myth and misconception. After testimony by a score of expert and lay witnesses, Walker overturned Prop 8, a ruling the Supreme Court later let stand. It’s impossible to read Yoshino’s book without thinking ahead to the court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, expected next month, which may clear the way for same-sex marriage nationwide. In “Speak Now,” Yoshino has told a story that’s both timely and durable.

WHY GROW UP?:

Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age

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By Susan Neiman

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 240 pp., $25

Don’t let this book’s modest size and balloon-festooned cover fool you: Neiman is a philosopher, not a self-help author or writer of silly epigrams. Here, she argues for the value of adulthood in a society that, as she writes, “is supported by a web of interests that operate against our coming of age.” Some of those interests are political. “As Kant often reminds us,” Neiman writes, “governments prefer immature subjects to independent citizens.” Against this backdrop, then, seeking to be an adult is indeed “a process of permanent revolution.”

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Neiman brings in other voices and ideas, including Plato, Rousseau, Hannah Arendt, and Simone de Beauvoir, but Kant remains her sturdiest guide to why adulthood matters, and what it is: primarily, a process toward independence of thought, which is not exactly the same as learning. “Growing up is more a matter of courage than knowledge,” she writes, “all the information in the world is no substitute for the guts to use your own judgement.” The world often keeps us “dazzled by a wealth of small decisions,” Neiman writes; readers may find clarity in this small book of big ideas.

DREAMLAND:

The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic

By Sam Quinones

Bloomsbury, 384 pp., $28

“The story of the opium poppy is almost as old as man,” writes Sam Quinones toward the beginning of this devastating dive into what may be America’s most extensive drug crisis. Although the story has received less attention than crack in the 1980s or meth in the last decade, opiates — whether pushed by heroin dealers or pharmaceutical companies — have become “the worst drug scourge to ever hit this country.” A California-based journalist with deep reporting experience in Mexico, Quinones masterfully weaves together individual tales — from junkies in Portland to pill mills in Appalachia to entrepreneurial heroin traffickers from small-town Mexico — to describe a “catastrophic synergy” in which over-prescription of opioid painkillers begets addicts, many of whom then turn to heroin, which is cheaper and just as ubiquitous.

Heroin addicts are no longer the counterculture outsiders we once associated with the drug, Quinones points out; today’s users are overwhelmingly white, young, and middle class. Even though more Americans now die of overdoses than in car accidents, he adds, stigma isolates survivors and shame stops families from speaking out (thankfully, some tell their stories to Quinones).

If this book has a villain, it’s the pharmaceutical companies that downplay the dangers of addiction to grow a massive market for painkillers. One doctor tells Quinones that, of the hundreds of rural, white heroin junkies he’s treated, “I’ve yet to find one who didn’t start with OxyContin.”

Quinones builds his case with an accumulation of narrative detail that at times can feel overwhelming. But in the end it’s necessary, for how else to truly portray an epidemic?

ASK THE PAST:

Pertinent and Impertinent Advice From Yesteryear

By Elizabeth P. Archibald

Hachette, 304 pp., $20

We live in an era of artisanal this-and-that, but even the steampunkiest barista might quail at this 1774 recipe for a “catchup to keep twenty years,” whose ingredients include “a gallon of strong stale beer” and “one pound of anchovies washed from the pickle.” In this book, derived from a blog she also writes, historian Archibald delivers snippets of advice gleaned from sources published mostly in the past 1,000 years or so. While the imperialist ketchup (“You may carry it to the Indies”) sounds awful, a 1393 cheese omelette recipe sounds essentially modern and perfectly tasty.

“The advice contained in this book is a rowdy assortment, preserved in libraries, curated by whimsy,” Archibald writes. Indeed, this kind of book can go overboard on the whimsy. Lucky for her readers, Archibald has a wry wit and keen eye for absurdity. Some of the book’s advice makes the past feel very far away (“How to Harvest the Mandrake,” for instance), but much of it reminds of what we have in common with our ancestors, who also worried about attracting lovers, raising children, and killing bedbugs (the secret is gunpowder).

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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