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 transitioned 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?

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.

Serial: The Case For Season Two

Unlike its first, celebrated, season, the second season of Serial kind of snuck up on me.

Today's installment is apparently the last one and I was really sad to hear that. Both because I thought this season was great — and because I haven't heard or read other people talking about it.

Which is a damned shame because in my opinion, season 2 is better than season 1. Here are my reasons:

1) It's an entirely different subject. This may be more of an argument in favor of the Serial approach as a whole rather than this individual season. But they deserve huge credit for taking on  a whole new subject (Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. Army soldier who walked off his base in Afghanistan and spent five years as a prisoner of the Taliban) rather than going back to what had been so spectacularly successful in their debut (true crime).

2) It's not fair to call this less complicated — Adnan Syed's case was immensely complicated. And it's not really fair to say this has larger implications because I think Syed's case illustrates a LOT of problems with our justice system in general — even if most people who get all into stories like Serial or Making A Murderer seem to focus only on those individual stories. But Bergdahl's individual story, as investigated by Koenig, wound up telling a hugely important story in a way that it almost never gets told: how terrible conditions are for the soldiers we send to Afghanistan. Not because Bergdahl is some kind of hero. It's pretty clear that he was a young man who was more than a tad delusional about what his individual actions might mean and how he could accomplish his goals. But he's also, it turns out, a guy who washed out of Coast Guard boot camp — and then was accepted anyway when he enlisted in the Army. And anyone with any sense knows he is far from the only person not prepared to handle the conditions he faced when sent to Afghanistan, or any war zone. That's why PTSD is such a widespread problem — and has been from time immemorial. I think in this season, compared to last, host Sarah Koenig and her team did a much better job in conveying the wider social implications of the story they were telling. You really shouldn't listen to the last episode without going through them all — but that last episode was magnificent in spelling out the context. Bergdahl's story reminded me of works of literature from "The Red Badge of Courage" to "A Bell For Adano." I'm sure if I knew my classics better I'd be thinking of Homer, too. And it also made me think pretty hard about my responsibility, as an American citizen, toward the people we send off into these places. The season as a whole also gave me so much respect and compassion for the individual soldiers who served with and looked for Bergdahl. Those of us who don't have a lot of direct contact with the military can find it pretty easy to categorize and dismiss them but they are, wouldn't you know, a group of diverse, intelligent, complicated humans who, like Bergdahl, were trying to cope with some pretty horrific conditions. Because we, as a country, asked them to.

3) Another aspect of this season that I liked so much better was how much less personal the reporting felt. Probably because Koenig did not actually talk to Bergdahl — she was using tapes from filmmaker Mark Boal and his company, Page 1. I appreciated that little bit of distance because she spent less time obsessing about her feelings about her subject and more time just reporting the damned story. She still has that very personal reporting and editing style, in the This American Life vein, and that's totally cool. But I got a lot less of the "how does this story make me feel" vibe that occasionally annoyed me last time.

4) Maybe I should be glad that people aren't talking and writing obsessively about Serial this time ... because one of the other things that annoyed me in the first season was how it was geared and received as entertainment. I get it — I like true crime as much as most people. I read and watch my fair share. And I understand that when you make a story compelling, it gets attention. And that's good. But with subjects this serious — a murder and a murder conviction and the cascading consequences of one young man's reaction to terrible conditions in service of his country — treating it like an HBO drama just feels wrong. I was interested to see, just now, that Mark Boal's company Page 1 was set up "to explore the intersection between reporting and entertainment." At least according to Serial. That is a very interesting, and fraught, intersection indeed. I will be very interested to see what he does with the Bowe Bergdahl material.

Podcast of the Week: Serial

This week's recommendation is a new podcast ... but you might have heard of it. Serial is the first spinoff podcast from This American Life, the game-changing public radio show. The spinoff itself could be a game-changer since it's launched as a podcast, not as a show intended to air on the radio. It's getting rave reviews from The New Yorker, Slate, Gizmodo and more. It just released its third episode and it's already no. 1 on iTunes. Ira Glass was on The Tonight Show to promote it. The Tonight Show! Even though he did spend most of his time talking about that stupid Shakespeare tweet.

Serial is good old-fashioned investigative journalism in a new, informal podcast mode. Producer Sarah Koenig tells us how she heard about the story, so from the start we're along for the journey, not being presented with conclusions. Adnan Syed has been in prison for 14 years, convicted of murdering his former girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, during their senior year of high school. Some of Syed's friends don't think he did it and the evidence is purely circumstantial.

Koenig includes telephone conversations with Syed, conversations with people who knew both teenagers ... and her own changing attitudes toward the prisoner and his case. The attorney for his trial -- who has since died -- clearly missed some important evidence, including a potential exculpatory witness. But other parts of Syed's story just don't add up.

This series is a natural for people who like true crime and it's a true mystery -- the producers are still reporting it even as the series is starting to air. I'm a fan of Law & Order, True Detective and just about every BBC-produced police procedural. Inspired by the recent Key West Literary Seminar, I've recently increased my reading in contemporary crime fiction. But having covered a few trials and loving narrative nonfiction in general, I'm even happier when I come across well-written, well-reported true crime, which seems to be rarer than the fictional varieties.

Some recent examples, if you're interested: Lost Girls by Robert Kolker, People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry, True Story by Michael Finkel and Iphigenia in Forest Hills by Janet Malcolm. That last one is as much a meditation on journalism and justice as a book about a trial, in the classic Malcolmian manner.

The reason I'm recommending Serial, even though it's so new and I've only listened to the first two episodes, is that if you jump on now, you'll have a chance to follow it as it unfolds. They're posting one episode a week, with a total of 12 planned episodes for this story and more stories to come in the future. Who knows, this could be the first podcast that breaks out into a truly mainstream cultural conversation.

If you don't already listen to podcasts, the easiest way to do so is to subscribe on your smartphone's podcast app. If you don't have a smartphone or don't want to do that, you can subscribe on iTunes or Soundcloud. And if you don't want to do any of those things, you can always just go to the individual podcast's website -- in this case, it's here

Previous recommendations:

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.

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).