Category Archives: journalism

True crime on page and on air: A fan’s notes

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Dreamland by Sam Quinones showed up on a lot of year-end best lists last year. I still resisted it. I know the opiate epidemic, fueled by pill mills, has transition

ed into a heroin epidemic, especially in the midwest and the Northeast, where I’m from. I know they are related, and have been devastating to families and communities.

But I had a hard time getting past the difference between the societal and governmental reaction to this drug scourge, versus crack in the 1980s — which begot the whole three strikes policy that saw people going away for life for a lousy $30 drug buy. Prescription pain medication abuse wasn’t treated the same way. Plenty of people died from the crack epidemic, too. Plenty of lives, families and communities were destroyed. But now pain meds and heroin are affecting white middle class kids and their parents! So suddenly it’s everybody’s problem.

Still, when I saw Dreamland on the table at our new Books & Books at The Studios of Key West I couldn’t resist picking it up — and I’m so glad I did. This is one of the best works of reported nonfiction I have read in years.

Quinones expertly traces the two streams that converged to create our current opiate epidemic: the over-prescribing of opiate medications, on the (mistaken) assumption that they weren’t terribly addictive and the marketing of black tar heroin by young men from one particular region of Mexico.

The pain pills were the result of doctors who genuinely wanted to help people – and drug companies (and less scrupulous doctors) that wanted to make money. All of them relied to an inordinate extent on a short letter to the New England Journal of Medicine about the addictive qualities of opiates – a letter that was later cited as a “landmark study” in the popular press and pharmaceutical sales pitches.

The Mexican heroin trade looks almost admirable by contrast — because the “Xalisco boys,” as Quinones calls them, created an insanely successful, resilient web of heroin sales that relied on pagers (and later cell phones), moving small amounts and an apparently infinitely sales force. They didn’t carry guns and they only imported small amounts and carried even smaller amounts when they sold. It was far easier to deport them than to prosecute them. And the drugs were delivered to clients in fast food parking lots, not scary street corners.

Quinones assembles an astonishing amount of information and tells the story so well you don’t feel like you’re reading a treatise or a sociology text. And he takes time, when appropriate, to address that beef I have with the way the opiate epidemic has been treated – because now the kids of people in power are getting affected.

Listen to that

The other piece of excellent reporting I’ve come across recently is the second season of Breakdown. That’s the podcast produced by the Atlanta Journal Constitution. They said forthrightly that they were inspired by Serial but in some ways I prefer it. It’s more straight-up reporting, with less introspection. And in the first season, they really addressed the systemic problems facing the defendant — and all poor defendants in Georgia.

Ross Harris left his son in a car and the boy died. Was it murder, or a horrible accident?

Like Serial, the second season is not a question of did-he-or-didn’t-he. It’s a what-crime-did-he-commit (if any). And they’ve picked a doozy — Ross Harris, the young Atlanta father who left his toddler son in the car all day. The son died. Harris, it turns out, was a serial philanderer, making the defense’s case even harder.

Throughout, AJC court reporter Bill Rankin is a terrific guide to the case and to the court system in general. He’s knowledgable and good at explaining proceedings for laypeople, as well as consulting attorneys and other experts who know the system from the inside. It’s all exactly what I want from a journalism podcast — going deeper into a story than you possibly could in a 15-inch newspaper story or a 4 minute radio feature. Bravo.


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Filed under crime, journalism, nonfiction, podcasts, recommended reading

Old print dog starts learning new radio tricks

radio_wireless_towerI feel like I’ve crossed some kind of Rubicon by spending more time over the last three weeks listening than reading.

It makes perfect sense since those three weeks have been spent in an immersive radio school — which for an old print person with extremely limited radio experience like myself feels a bit like entering Radio Grad School without having taken Radio 101.

Fortunately, the instructors and fellow students are as nice, smart, helpful and encouraging as could be.

Sometime in the last week between a presentation by a talented podcaster named Jonathan Groubert (whose podcast is called The State We’re In) and grilling a talented classmate half my age who doesn’t own an actual radio, I think I finally Got It about podcasts and how radio reaches people now. I am familiar with podcasts — I used to laboriously download the BBC Newspod and NPR Books podcast to my computer via iTunes, then transfer them to an iPod, then listen while folding laundry or whatever. But that’s a pain in the ass and I got out of the habit. I have occasionally downloaded episodes of This American Life or On the Media to my phone and listened there. But mostly, in a pretty old-fashioned, analog kind of way, I get my radio from the radio.

It turns out nobody, or at least nobody under the age of 30, does this anymore.* And that podcasting, now around for 10 years, is hitting its stride in a really interesting way. I had been thinking of podcasts as a way to catch up to radio shows that you missed, or that are not carried on your local station. They are that, but there are also smart, creative people out there making podcasts that aren’t carried on many stations, or any stations at all. And you can get them .. for free! On your phone!

If you have a smartphone, you probably have a built-in podcast app. There are also lots of apps out there that make it even easier (Talented Classmate Half My Age recommended one called Downcast, which seems to be well worth the $2.99).**

So what I have been listening to? Of course This American Life, because how can you not? And I subscribed to some old favorites like On the Media, Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me and a bunch of podcasts from the BBC and KCRW.

But I’m most excited about the ones that are new to me. Start at Radiotopia which gathers seven really cool podcasts — my favorite is 99% Invisible but they are all good. It’s not all new stuff either; Fugitive Waves is work from the archives of the Kitchen Sisters and Radio Diaries has the work of producer Joe Richman. These are people whose stories are used as “texts” in radio grad school — with the added benefit that they are a pleasure to listen to. You learn stuff and you’re engaged/entertained.

You know what else I found out? John Oliver has a podcast! It’s called The Bugle and it’s done with Andy Zaltzman and it’s very funny, especially if you’re an aficionado of Anglo-American humor/satiric political commentary. Since I haven’t talked anyone into handing over their HBO Go password to me yet, I was excited to learn I could get some free Oliver on a weekly basis. Another comedy podcast I haven’t listened to yet is WTF with Marc Maron — and classmates whose judgment I trust say it’s great.

There are tons more and I won’t list them all. But if you’re curious, leave a comment and I’ll try to find a recommendation in your area of interest.

And since this is supposed to be a book blog, I’ll make a reading recommendation. I finally broke down during a trip into Falmouth this week and went into the really nice Eight Cousins bookstore. I bought a copy of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. It was a quick read and exactly what I needed. And it’s set in these parts — on fictional Alice Island, which doesn’t exist in real life but which you reach via ferry from Hyannis.

The titular A.J. Fikry is a cranky widower who owns a bookstore on Alice Island. His life is changed entirely when a 2-year-old girl is left in the bookstore aisle. Blurbs and jacket copy recommend it for readers who liked The Art of Racing in the Rain and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society — books I always felt I should have read when I was working at the library but avoided because I’m allergic to sentimental, uplifting stuff. But this book (A.J. Fikry) manages to be sweet while avoiding the saccharine. And it is suffused with a love of books and reading and writing. So I recommend it, though probably not to my more skeptical reading friends, or those looking for something with sharper edges.

* It’s not just people under 30! Turns out this group also includes … Ira Glass, the godfather of the public radio revolution (wait that’s a bad metaphor — the Fidel Castro of the Radio Revolution? The Leon Trotsky of the radio revolution?). Anyway here’s what he said in response to a reader question in the Guardian:

When do you listen to the radio?

In the morning, when I shave. And really, not for very long. I don’t hear the radio that much. I don’t own a radio. I listen to everything through apps, or on my iPhone. And then I download the shows I like. Shows like Fresh Air,Radiolab, Snap Judgement, all those shows.


** TCHMA and I had a funny moment yesterday in class when we realized we were both thinking about the story of the guys behind the @Horse_ebooks Twitter feed (and more projects that may or may not constitute Internet performance art). I read the story in The New Yorker. He heard it on TLDR, the On The Media spinoff podcast. The title stands for Too Long Didn’t Read — in other words, it’s the anti-New Yorker. We then raced to see which outlet had it first. Turns out Susan Orlean broke the story on the New Yorker’s blog. I think.


Filed under book reviews, bookstores, journalism, On the air

We become the Bone Island BBC Blog

I’ve been an Anglo-phile for a long time, and the BBC is largely responsible. As a kid, we had PBS on a lot, so I got a lot of exposure to costume dramas, via Masterpiece Theater, and Monty Python. In college, I spent a summer in England. I already had the Tudor thing. And it got worse when a good friend married a Brit and moved there, becoming a reason to visit and a resource on the excellent current programming the BBC continues to produce (as well as the continuing steady stream of costume dramas).

So I am of course concerned when I hear references to the Beeb under attack from the new Conservative government — which is closely tied to the Murdoch empire, and if you think this is a bit paranoid, read this investigative takeout from the New York Times. And when I saw a reference to this video on Neil Gaiman’s Twitter feed I immediately checked it out — and was charmed. I just love goofy dorks. I’ve had this song stuck in my head for a week now — and I’m still not sick of it.

Even more amazingly, they posted it, at my suggestion, on the Smart Bitches Trashy Books blog. Woo hoo! Long live the BBC! The comments section is pretty fun, too.

Lots of Americans, of course, know about Monty Python, the costume dramas and newer offerings on BBC America, like the rebooted Dr. Who and Top Gear. But this song lists — and everyone should consider a region-free DVD player so you can watch — a lot of other great shows, including The Thick of It (if you liked the movie In The Loop, this series is its genesis and continuing sequel), Steve Coogan’s brilliant Alan Partridge shows, and Shameless, Paul Abbott’s great series set in a Manchester housing project, with David Threlfall as drunken, useless but endlessly entertaining patriarch Frank Gallagher. This series also helped launch James McAvoy and Anne-Marie Duff, among others. Another Abbott production is State of Play, a six-hour miniseries that is available on U.S. DVD format (we even have it at the Key West Library). McAvoy’s in that one, too, but the real treat is Bill Nighy as the crusading editor and Kelly Macdonald’s Scottish accent (you haven’t heard someone pronounce “It’s muhrr-duhrr” until you’ve heard her).

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Happy Banned Books Week!

Banned Books Week is here — an issue about which the American Library Association likes to make a big honking deal every year — and with it will come, predictably, a bunch of people pointing out that censorship is not quite the issue here in the U.S.A. as it was in, say, Soviet Russia. This issue is already being debated on our library’s website (check the comments on the linked post).

And while it’s true, the event would be more accurately if less alliterativey called Challenged Books Week, and it’s true most challenges come from individuals concerned about what their kids are reading, not government agencies trying to keep information from the populace, I’m still OK with the American Library Association making a big deal out of this and getting some press and attention to the issue of freedom of information.

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An unnecessary defense

The romance genre does not need any defense from me. It’s doing quite nicely on its own, thank you, with sales up 7.7 percent in 2009 over the previous year — a rise that’s particularly notable amid the decline of book publishing as a whole. I got that figure from a recent piece in Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. That’s where the issue of defense comes in. Because this piece, while noting the success of the genre as a whole, then spent the rest of its time ridiculing the various microniches that have found particular recent success, including NASCAR, paranormal, Amish and (snicker) crafts! You might catch the tone of the piece from the headline — “Getting Dirty in Dutch Country” — though if you’d actually read any of them you’d probably figure out quickly that the Amish-set romances, unlike a lot in that genre, don’t get dirty, and that’s a big part of their appeal. It turns out there are, in fact, romance readers out there who aren’t into ripped bodices and explicit sex. So some smart writers and publishers are catering to them. That’s worthy of ridicule?

There’s another reason the romance genre doesn’t need any defense from me. It already has far more prominent champions, notably the smart women of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, whose response to the Bloomberg piece* is what alerted me to its existence in the first place. Yep, I had good SAT scores, I have a master’s degree, I read a lot, sometimes I read romances and I regularly read SBTB — but I never read Bloomberg Businessweek. Even though a good friend of mine writes for it. What does that tell you?

If you’re genuinely interested in the romance genre and/or the industry behind it, I can suggest a good source of information. Beyond Heaving Bosoms, the book written by the Smart Bitches themselves, is a fun and interesting analysis that reflects what’s so cool about them. They’re appreciative fans of the genre — but also gimlet-eyed realists about its flaws and hilariously harsh critic of ridiculous narratives. Check out some of their low-graded reviews if you don’t believe me.

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Beastly tales

I just reviewed another work of nonfiction for my alma mater, The Miami Herald — the book is Zoo Story by Thomas French and the review ran yesterday. I liked the book a lot — it was obviously based on years of reporting, which is the sort of thing that the St. Petersburg Times has been able and willing to do — and which may be pretty darn scarce on the ground in the future, even at papers owned by nonprofit foundations.

The story follows the expansion and consequences of that expansion at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, where the CEO pushed for an ambitious new Safari Africa exhibit featuring elephants imported from a game preserve in Swaziland. French makes characters out of some of the zoo’s animals, which is dangerous — my only problem with Mike Capuzzo’s otherwise excellent Close to Shore was when he claimed to be inside the shark’s head — but French navigates the perilous territory very well, describing more of what happens to the animals than pretending to know what they’re thinking.

The same book is reviewed today by Salon’s Laura Miller, one of the best book reviewers in the business. Not that I’m intimidated or anything.

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Waiting for the oil

This is not book related but it is writing (by me) so I’m posting it here. Plus it’s my blog, dammit. My second Letter from Key West for WLRN’s Under the Sun ran this morning — and will run again at 5:44 p.m. today (Thursday 5/27) on WLRN, which is 91.3 in Miami, 100.5 Key West and online at

It’s not as fun a subject as my first piece for Under the Sun, but it’s something that’s been all of our minds around here recently so I figured I’d say it.

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