Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom

Bottom line: for the love of god, do NOT take generic drugs if you can help it. And most people can’t help it because health care coverage only covers generics in most cases. Eban’s book exposes the greed, deceit, corruption of overseas pill manufacturing where subpar ingredients are substituted in and massive amounts of test data is faked. FDA inspections are scheduled ahead of time, allowing for a farce of an inspection, unlike those on U.S. soil. If your generic comes from India, China, Croatia, you are gambling with your life. Told with significant help from a whistleblower who uncovered the mess in India. You’re left with an unpleasant taste in your mouth about how evil and awful humans are in general. Ugh.

Three Street

I bought this book six years ago when I was living on Mission @ 6th and wanted to slurp up some local flavor—tales from the old SOMA, the Slot, Three Street (not 3rd St.). The book jacket tells me that author Will Stevens was a “prize-winning newspaper reporter for the San Francisco Examiner who has long observed the antics of Skid Row and its inhabitants with a bemused but sympathetic eye. He has won many national newspaper awards, and now lives in Vallejo, California, with his wife and son.” Well well. What we have here is a poor man’s Joseph Mitchell, a newspaper man who takes a turn at lightly fictionalized memorializing of his neighborhood (the Examiner offices were nearby). It’s a brutally hard book to wade through, dialog-heavy and stilted phrased. Occasionally there are whiffs of freshness, but not many.

It’s a work filled with names that try too hard to be clever, like Windmill Willie, Megaton Mike, Johnny from Outer Space, Flower Pot Nellie, Friendless Alice, the Countess. Most of the action takes place at a bar on 3rd, Breens’ Cafe and Bar, where Schultz the Bartender held sway, or at Elite Hotel, a SRO some of the characters lived in. I do like Friendless Alice’s tourist taunt: “Well well well! Another tourist! How are all the other yokels back home?”

What to Do When I’m Gone: A Mother’s Wisdom to Her Daughter

I didn’t like this as much as I’d hoped but definitely teared up at parts. It’s a guide to surviving her mother’s death, collaboratively written by mother and daughter. Advice starts on Day 1, when everyone is calling to ask for updates, “is she dead?”. The mom tells her to step away from the phone. Recipes nestle against the advice, and the days flip quickly to Day 180, Day 365, Day 10,000. Heartbreaking but inevitable.

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise

My sister thrust this into my hands as I was on my way to the airport and it was a delicious read, although mouthwatering prose isn’t exactly soothing at 25,000 feet in the air when you’re stuck with a bag of nuts and tepid water. Reichl covers her time working incognito as a restaurant critic in 1990s NYC for the NY Times, donning disguises and going undercover to get the real scoop on the dining scene. She’s an excellent writer and I gobbled this up quickly.

Guy de Maupassant by Isaac Babel

For any translation nerds, Isaac Babel’s short story is a must. I read Val Vinokur’s translation from the Russian, which was excellent. In a bit over 6 pages you get a tale of struggling artists, the idle rich, and deep insights into the art of translation itself. The narrator gets hired by a wealthy woman to translate Guy de Maupassant from French into Russian, who claims “Maupassant is the single passion in my life.”

He takes home her initial translation, a “tediously correct, lifeless and loud” work, and spends the evening fixing it, “hacking a path” through her words. “The work wasn’t as bad as it sounds. A phrase is born into the world both good and bad at the same time. The secret lies in a barely discernible twist.” She loves his writing, showers him with money which he then goes and blows on a big party for his friends.  Later, he arrives with his translation and finds her in the midst of a party, drunk, and gets him up to speed with an expensive wine. He goes on to kiss her, knock 29 books off the shelf, and stumble into the night, heading home to read a bio of  Maupassant which has him crawling on all fours and eating his excrement?!

 

 

Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm

Poetic musings from a farmer who has turned to organic farming as a way to refresh his family’s farm, figuring out a way to save the peaches that brokers don’t want because their shelf life is too short (he finds specialty buyers and also sends some to be made into baby food). Masumoto is a skilled, dreamy writer who brings you into the field and makes you smell the soil, feel the 100 degree heat, wipe the dust from your clothes after a walk through the rows, makes you cringe when the rain arrives too soon or not at all. Originating out of a 1987 article he wrote for the LA Times, the outpouring of support he received was channeled into writing the longer book, and ultimately he became a face of the local food movement. Because his wife had a day job in Fresno, Masumoto was able to keep farming and take the risk of keeping those delicious Sun Crest peaches. As a third-generation Japanese-American, his family story sadly includes the internment camps during WW2. Once released, his family fled to the valley and bought the farm, which remains in his family still.

Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice

As much as I like Janet Malcolm, I’m a little suspicious of her biographical intent, peering into Gertrude Stein’s life with her microscope. Or maybe my hackles are raised whenever anyone attempts to summarize Stein and lacks appreciation (cf this work). At least Malcolm is honest in her appraisal, how reluctant she was to read Stein’s 1911 The Making of Americans, a whopping 900+ page experimental novel which hasn’t gotten its proper due (a fact Malcolm lays at the feet of Katz, the PhD student whose extensive interviews with Alice Toklas left tons of notebooks locked up and unpublished, which would have eased the scholarly notes and transitioned the work into something studied). Malcolm does tend to sneer at the pair, wrestling with how they (as American Jews) were able to live in the Nazi-occupied French countryside without harm. And yet she appreciates Stein’s genius: “Every writer who lingers over Stein’s sentences is apt to feel a little stab of shame over the heedless predictability of his own.” Her usual caveats about biography are evident throughout this, including “The instability of human knowledge is one of our few certainties. Almost everything we know we know incompletely at best. And almost nothing we are told remains the same when retold.”

Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern

Biographies should be so much more than tedious lists of famous people whose paths the subject crossed, and yet that seems to be the sum of Francine Prose’s Guggenheim bio. Her dating/marrying life was prolific—Max Ernst, Samuel Beckett, a violent marriage to Lawrence Vail—and she palled around with some great ladies like Djuna Barnes and Mary McCarthy. Highly influential in bringing modern art to the U.S., nourishing painters like Jackson Pollock, closely advised by Duchamp, she was at the intersection of all post-War creativity and used her money to push art to the forefront.

Is This Guy For Real?: The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman

If you’re a bit confused about Andy Kaufman—as I admittedly was—this is a great primer to fill you in on his antics. His love of wrestling bloomed early but after seeing one of his heroes get knocked out quickly, he turned his back on the sport for a decade and focused on his impressions (Elvis, Mighty Mouse) and bongo playing. A role on Taxi and a recurring spot on SNL made him recognizably famous and he wandered into wrestling again. Elvis himself loved Kaufman’s impressions of him! It was all of the hullabaloo after Elvis died that he was still alive that gave Andy the idea of faking his own death, which he definitely did not do, instead croaking of lung cancer at age 35. His Taxi castmates didn’t make the funeral because they thought it was a joke. Heartbeeps!

The Wolves: A Play

Incredible play by Sarah DeLappe. I knew I was in for a treat when she included a Gertrude Stein quote as the epigraph:”We are always the same age inside.” The intense structure of a play energized the lines, creating a pressure cooker for the handful of teenage girls who perform. It’s a staggering portrait of life as one of those teenage girls, all grouped together on the soccer field. Their lines are said as they perform their warm-up stretches before each game, taking us into the world of over-achievers, being nervous about college scouts, razzing the new girl about living in a yurt (yogurt), #14 pressured by the boy that #7 brings to her birthday party, #7’s abortion/Plan B, breast cancer devouring their favorite coach’s mom, the prim propriety of #2 who doesn’t want them bringing their HBO-GO account-laden laptop over to a sleepover. At the end, tragedy strikes, #14 is hit by an early-morning driver when she’s out for a jog. Soccer mom diatribe at the end. Brilliant.

Fleishman Is in Trouble

Sorry, Taffy, but this just isn’t a very good novel. Well-written, yes, but in desperate need of an editor to help you with the narrative arc and various and sundry other details. I got bored but persevered, and it did get better around page 300 when the story shifts to tell what happens from Rachel’s perspective, instead of Toby, but my god that’s a huge request to hang with you on this story for 300 pages before things click. Basic premise is a divorced couple in the throes of early separation. Rachel is the powerful business owner who mostly supports the family in style while her husband Toby is a doctor (liver specialist) whose $250k per year salary doesn’t give them much in Manhattan. Most of the story focuses on Toby, and I suppose that’s because it’s oddly being told from the perspective of Libby, Toby’s old friend from his year abroad in Israel, who inserts herself early on (p 13) mentioning “He thought about calling me”, otherwise you would have thought this was told from omniscient narrator. It’s all weirdly hung together, like an ill-fitting suit that the tailor couldn’t have been bothered to fix because she was getting adulation at every step. Definitely not worth the non-stop praise it’s been getting.

I had to come back to add a postscript about her epigraph, since I liked the one in The Wolves so much. “Summon your witnesses”– Aeschylus. Taffy, simply adding this nod to the ancient Greeks does not elevate the hot mess of your novel. Should’ve gone with something much more pop-culture related, like maybe a Maury Povich quote.

The Far Field

The cover might be the best thing about this book. Shalini is a 20-something, privileged  woman from Bangalore who can’t reconcile with the reality of her mother’s suicide so goes searching for the Kashmiri salesman who delighted her mother when Shalini was a kid. The politics of the region is inescapable but this rich girl somehow finds herself nestled into a cozy village on the side of a mountain, given the opportunity to teach English at the local school. The story dips and weaves between past and present, but the thickness of the underbrush prevents you from really appreciating the story. You have to hack your way with a machete through the fluff to find the narrative.

Boggs: A Comedy of Values

I discovered Lawrence Weschler by way of his book on David Hockney and decided to dip in to the rest of his art criticism. Here he documents the playfulness of J. S. G. Boggs, an artist who draws money/currency and fires up conversations about art and money by trying to spend his drawings. When someone agrees to accept his drawing in exchange for a bill (food, drink, other art, etc.) then he documents the resulting receipt and change, gives it a few days and lets collectors know that there’s a new piece in the wild. The collectors then try to purchase the piece, driving up the value from what was exchanged. He got into legal trouble with the Bank of England, also in Australia, and the U.S. Secret Service was none too pleased with his antics either. Weschler goes deep into research mode about how money even came about, plus other artists who have played in this particular sandbox.

Diogenes of Sinope: The Man in the Tub

How does someone create a portrait of a man who lived a few thousand years ago with snippets of mentions from texts written hundreds of years after his death? Luis Navia delicately reaches back through the mists of time and examines each piece, carefully considered. He quotes other students and critics, like the guy who considers Diogenes “a dog-man, a philosopher, a good-for-nothing, a primitive hippie, and the original bohemian,” and the modern scholar who said because he flouts the rules everyone else has to observe, the Cynic is a “freak, a monster, like every violator of taboos.” This is a man who shat on a stage to make a point about Hercules cleaning the stables, the original performance artist.

First off, the “tub” was more like a large barrel or cistern. Diogenes was a Cynic who refused the comforts and commonalities of the civilization around him, embracing his poverty, begging for food, scorning most/all humans. Navia stresses that Diogenes’ philosophy is relevant and valuable to us because we remain as “intellectually dense and morally corrupt” as the people Diogenes lived among despite our advances in technology and cultural evolution.

Neither in the realm of ideas, nor in the moral fabric of society, nor in national or international affairs, nor, in fact, in any area of human concern and activity, have we advanced one inch beyond the Greeks of classical times. We might even say that cultural stagnation is the appropriate way to characterize the course of human history since the time when Diogenes, carrying a lighted lamp in broad daylight, walked backwards through the streets of Athens, searching unsuccessfully for a true human being. Genuine specimens of humanity are today as rare as they were in classical times.

Navia quotes Oscar Wilde: Cynicism is the art of seeing things as they are instead of as they should be. Characteristics associated with Diogenes: “abandonment of all superfluities, a conscious and unwavering commitment to break asunder the fetters that in the form of conventions and rules tie and incapacitate human beings, an unquenchable thirst for personal freedom, the courage to despise openly rulers and governments and their laws, an indifference toward political affairs, an unwillingness to serve as a pawn in the wars manufactured and managed by the oligarchies, a life unattached to a wife and children, and a disdain for the market and financial preoccupations that entrap practically everybody.” He was associated with having the utmost contempt for his contemporaries.

If nothing else is worth remembering about Diogenes, we could conjure his ghost from the remote past to remind ourselves that reality is not what the governing oligarchies want ordinary people to accept, or what flows so abundantly from the media, or what those whom we call ‘celebrities’ peddle in the public light, or what the endemic inertia of the human mind sanctifies, but the truth that things and situations speak out for themselves. Diogenes can teach us to see the human world precisely as it is, without distortions, euphemisms, or deceptions.

The biographical sketch is sketchy, impossible to pinpoint details and verify facts. Diogenes is a conundrum, both a pinnacle of philosophical achievement and nothing but a ragpicker and vagabond.

More than in any other philosopher of the Western world, some have discovered in Diogenes the epitome of a long list of praiseworthy personal and intellectual traits and endowments: an absolute commitment to honesty, a remarkable independence of judgment, an unwavering decision to live a simple and unencumbered life, a paradigmatic devotion to self-sufficiency, an unparalleled attachment to freedom of speech, a healthy contempt for human stupidity and obfuscation, an unusual degree of intellectual lucidity, and, above all, a tremendous courage to live in accord with his convictions.

I don’t mean to quote the whole book but some of it is just too good to pass up. Like this bit on why people who love being part of groups can’t understand Diogenes’ philosophy:

How can someone whose psychological predispositions and whose upbringing incline him to accept blindly all social norms and to deify the Establishment and the status quo, and who, as in the case of patriotic enthusiasts and religious zealots, cannot find any fulfillment in life except as part of a group, discover any value and significance in the antics and sayings of a man like Diogenes, who, partly on account of his inborn character and the circumstances of his life, and partly because of certain philosophical influences on him, felt compelled to wage a relentless war against the human world that surrounded him, and found his fulfillment only in the shelter of his self-proclaimed independence?

Broad strokes of his life:

  • Born ~410 BC in Sinope (modern-day Turkey)
  • Some sort of scandal around defiling Sinope currency with his father, he left and went to Athens ~370 BC; received Delphic Oracle prediction about adulterating the currency after the fact (much disputed)
  • Athens 370-350 BC (met Antisthenes, Plato [who called Diogenes a “Socrates-gone-mad”]); lived in a “tub” near Athenian marketplace; walked streets with lamp during the day looking for a true human being.
  • Possibly sold as slave at Crete when pirates capture a boat he’s on, he’s sold to Xeniades who lives in Corinth, and Diogenes teaches his sons. Supposedly visited by Alexander the Great who introduced himself, “I am Alexander the great king” and Diogenes replied, “And I am Diogenes the Dog.” Many Alexander stories abound, like the one where the king asks Diogenes what he can do for him and Diogenes says he can get out of his sunlight.
  • Death in Corinth ~323 BC

Avoided marriage because he hadn’t been able to figure out a way to cope with the demands of dependents. When is the right time to marry? “For a young man, not yet; for an old man, never at all.” Some have accused him of misogyny, but Navia makes the case that he hated women and men equally.

The modern word cynic is a derivation from Greek κυνικός (kynikos), meaning dog-like.

The less we talk and write, the more we act to achieve right living. Navia wonders how Diogenes would have reacted to modern day life, observing people consumed “by the senseless need to acquire unimaginable amounts of information” from the internet. He’d be against the “cobwebs and labyrinths of words constructed by philosophers and poets” and the “senseless training that goes nowadays by the name of career education that prepares the youth to enter blindly and obediently the slave marketplace,” preferring people instead to live a simple and natural life.

Influenced heavily by Antisthenes who was influenced heavily by Socrates. Diogenes a direct link to the Stoics by way of Crates and Zeno. Jesus of Nazareth a typical Cynic philosopher of 1st century AD. Epictetus notes that Antisthenes taught Diogenes that nothing belongs to him (property, people, friends, reputation, places) except the power to deal with external impressions and circumstances. This is jibbing so much with what I’ve been reading about Zen lately that my mind almost blew open (we can only control how we react to things).

Against today’s culture of lies, Socrates states “inaccurate language is not only in itself a mistake but is something that implants evil in the human soul.”

The lack of any extant text allows Navia a bit of leeway to create this imaginary diatribe from Diogenes:

Navia expands on A. A. Long’s 7 tenants of classical Cynicism (1- happiness is living in agreement with nature; 2-happiness is available to anyone willing to engage in sufficient physical & mental training; 3- self-mastery is the essence of happiness, being able to live happily even under adverse circumstances; 4- self mastery is or entails a virtuous character; 5- happy person is the only person who is wise & free; 6- things conventionally deemed necessary for happiness like wealth, fame, power, have no value in nature; 7-false judgements of value are the prime impediments to happiness) with 12 building blocks of Cynicism:

  1. Human existence is only object of philosophy;
  2. Only focus on physical world to make sense of human existence;
  3. Live each moment as if it were the only moment of life; only the here-and-now matters;
  4. You can’t achieve happiness unless you understand its nature;
  5. Happiness can’t be understood in terms of possessions, pleasures, comfort, a long life;
  6. Happiness is living in accordance with nature;
  7. Clarity of mind/reason determines what is in accordance with human nature;
  8. The possibility of a return to nature exists for everyone; you must have clarity of mind to see things as they are and recognize the inherent value of things and activities;
  9. Through discipline we cleanse the mind of confusion and obfuscation and the body of detrimental substances and unnatural habits, to succeed in strengthening the will;
  10. Self-sufficiency is essential to a happy, natural, virtuous life;
  11. The world belongs to all inhabitants, there are no individual countries, we should be citizens of the world;
  12. Inspect, spy on the world and deface its values and habits. The grand building erected by civilization is beyond repair and must be demolished.

Really appreciate how much Navia tears into the other English-language scholar on Diogenes, F. Sayre, whom Navia calls out for some musty opinions and disses by saying Sayre only started studying philosophy when he was 77 years old after a career in the military.

To investigate: Aspasia (native of Miletus, one of the most remarkable women of classical times, established a school for young women, instructed Socrates in art of rhetoric); Hipparchia (married Crates, both were committed Cynics)

Biloxi

I get all my best book recommendations from the Paris Review, I think. At least those that contain writing that makes me swoon. Mary Miller has stolen my heart with this novel about a 63-year-old man, Louis McDonald, Jr., recently retired in Biloxi, Mississippi. His wife of many years, Ellen, has left him. His father has died and instead of leaving a substantial inheritance has left him with piles of bills (including those to support his daughter-in-law, Ellen), and ends up with $14k. He drinks cans of beer while watching Naked and Afraid, and his life changes one morning when he makes a left turn instead of a right turn so he can avoid his ex-wife, ending up adopting a dog (Layla) from a fat old man named Harry Davidson. Because Louis is a big weirdo, he rolls by the house about a week later clutching some church pamphlets so he can go up to Harry’s door and meet his wife. Sasha answers the door and spots Layla in the car, realizes that her dog hasn’t run away after all. Louis comes in and drinks a bunch of vodka and hightails it out of there hours later when Harry comes home. Later, Sasha arrives at his place and camps out for a few days, eventually cleaning him out and stealing what little there was to steal. The glimpses you get inside Louis’s brain reveal what it must be like to be older in a world that has changed exponentially since you were born; like the fact that 10-2 on the steering wheel is no longer recommended because of air bags, and using smart phones for everything, being pushed to fill forms out online by the Social Security office but thankful he gets an appointment to witness the banter between agents. At one point he wants to go to Toys-R-Us to shop for his granddaughter, not realizing that they went out of business years before. I was just talking about this the other day, how there’s no more place that’s filled to the brim with toys, and Louis describes browsing the Target toy aisles: “there were only a few of them and it made me sad for all the children who didn’t know what a whole entire store devoted to them felt like, a trip undertaken solely for them as opposed to an afterthought while their mothers purchased sheets or some such.” The whole novel leaves you with that buzzy feeling of being tipsy and sunburned and driving around the Gulf of Mexico; in other words, Miller transports you directly to the heart of Biloxi.