12 Days of Reading Recommendations, Day 5: Dispatches from America's Drug Economies

Like a lot of people this year, I've availed myself of a few different excellent library systems and gotten a lot of reading done. I thought for an end-of-year treat, I'd share the books I'd recommend and what makes them worth reading. And wouldn't you know it, my reading just happens to sort of self-sift into twelve different subject areas, so it's twelve days of reading! Each day's recommendations newsletter will clock in at 600 words or less, so you can gulp this quick bite when you need a minute to yourself. Enjoy giving your Libby app a vigorous workout or making some independent bookseller very happy.



"Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft."

Mary Schmich wrote this and the Chicago Tribune published it on June 1, 1997; Baz Luhrman subsequently turned it into a song not long thereafter. I've been baffled by the sentiment ever since

The history of California is exactly the opposite of "soft," and living here now is not for the faint of heart. This is clearly laid out in Humboldt: Life on America's Marijuana Frontier, by Emily Brady. Humboldt county is part of the so-called "emerald triangle," known for its marijuana grow operations, and the book details how marijuana has shaped nearly every aspect of civic and economic life in Humboldt, often for the worse

I read this while watching Murder Mountain on Netflix -- a series inspired by the news that 717 people per every 100,000 go missing in Humboldt County every year, the highest disappearance rate in the state -- and I highly recommend that reading-and-streaming combination. The book's well-reported and its outcomes stick with a reader long after; when I read an article later in the year about how Humboldt county's suicide rate is two and a half times higher than the rest of the state's, I was unsurprised. The book made it plain why and how a community can be battered repeatedly by crime, poverty, stress and the sense that the thing which made it worth living is becoming ever more elusive.

If Humboldt does a workmanlike job of reporting on the "what" of a community ravaged by both drugs and the war on drugs, Beth Macy lays out the "how" in Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America. Her focus is some 2000-and-change miles to the east, through Appalachia, and the drug class wrecking mountain communities is opiates. Macy's thorough and exhaustive reporting veers from the sharply personal -- she becomes very involved with one addicted woman's family -- to the superbly sourced political.

Macy's book is very well complemented by Sam Quinones' Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic. Macy's book references the economic hollowing-out of Appalachia post-NAFTA, but Quinones' book looks at the newly booming drug towns of Mexico and how their residents sally forth to the U.S. to apply a formidable discipline and work ethic to the business of bringing customer service and loyalty specials to the business of selling white middle-class Americans opiates. Of the three books about how drugs ravage American communities, Brady's is the most intimate and local, Macy's is the most policy-driven, Quinones' is the most global. All of them are necessary to understanding how the War on Drugs has rocked American communities nearly fifty years on.

As I was reading all these, my brain deflated like a balloon and I ended up checking out From Napa with Love just to have something pretty to skim. This book wears its pedigree in the author's name and the people cheerily ushering you through Napa (the bohemian, the bon vivant, the foodie, etc.) are all casually rich and connected. That doesn't matter. The book is a sparkly invitation to relish unexpected pleasures: the way the sun shines through vineyard leaves in summer, the throwback charm of a hot springs pool, the satisfaction of a perfectly-made milkshake from Gott's Roadside. It's armchair travel to the kind of Northern California that Ms. Schmich would derive as "soft," but the rest of us know is just one part of a very complicated state in a very complicated country.



I love the Redwood National and State Parks and drag my family up there as often as possible. One of my favorite moments on the six-hour drive up is when we can finally get KHUM on the car radio. There's just something about local radio that no Spotify playlist or satellite station can replicate. Enjoy what is one of the most iconoclastic locally-owned stations out there


FOOTER TEXT, BECAUSE THIS IS THE END OF THE EMAIL: Thank you all for reading! It is delightful to know you're all out there -- now add to the army of readers by telling your pals to subscribe! Talk to me via Twitter because I love hearing from you. And I have at last noticed that you can send me email via TinyLetter, so I'll finally answer those emails! What a time it is to be alive.