Saturday, February 27, 2010

Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town -- Nick Reding -------- 3.5 Stars

Recently I finished the eye-opening Methland by a young author named Nick Redding. This book was the most recent pick in the occasionally (but far more often lately) visited book club that I belong to. As you can probably gather from the title, it's a book about crystal meth and it's affect on America. What's pretty cool about this book was the way Redding tells the story of meth through the story of people.

Often books that deal with more 'academic' topics are told through dry, nondescript texts. One of the real joys of reading Methland was Redding's ability to really tell a story about people's lives which then provides the fodder to allow him to make whatever insights necessary to explain the problem of Meth in America. His story is about a dozen individuals living in Iowa and how their lives are affected daily by the prevalence of crystal meth in society. Their stories are rich, characters are well textured and the themes multi-tiered. Trust me that it's easy as a reader to relate/feel for the characters which makes it easy to follow and care for their stories.

Perhaps what is most interesting about the book, which his well described characters help make the reader readily understand, is how incredibly significant and unfortunate the current meth problem is in America. In a lucky stroke of coincidence for me, less than two months before starting this book, I began (and just finished) watching the AMC drama Breaking Bad. For those not in the know, Breaking Bad, is an incredibly well acted drama about a chemistry teachers exploits into the crystal meth production and selling world (simply awesome show -- go check it out or at least watch the new episodes starting in March). Although fictional, like Methland, the stories of Meth and it's affect on an average user is pretty overwhelming.

Redding often assesses and offers his opinion about the meth epidemic after telling one story or another. One of his major themes is the relationship between meth's positive usage consequence -- energy and strength to work hours and hours at one time and one underlying American 'value' we hold -- the ability to be disciplined and hard worker. Ironic that a drug that so many Americans find 'evil' allows people to fulfill the very societal values we find most pivotal.

This 'positive' consequence of meth (working for hours) also happens to be biggest explanation for WHO ends up using the drug. Often, the meth user will be someone from a poor or meager household who will do anything to try to get ahead. Redding writes about this relationship convincingly and often and concludes that much of the meth usage is on the rise because the changes in our economy and especially the effect of that change in rural areas.

Another fascinating theme was Redding's description of simply how easy it is to produce the drug, both on a small and large scale level. He repeatedly shows people who can literally make the drug while riding a bike all the way up to the high level dealers making some of the purest type of meth possible. What's bizarre about meth, however, is that all of the ingredients can be purchased legally. This, perhaps more than any other precondition, is the biggest reason for meth's popularity and exponential growth of usage in America in the past decade.

Redding delivers a number of other noteworthy points and even includes some well received (by me) suggestions about solutions to this bewildering problem. You can read the book to find out the specifics, but I'll give you a hint that the reasons for the problem involve corporate greed and the continued need to keep political power (i.e. big business/government).

Overall, I would strongly recommend this book for anyone who either has an interest in the meth epidemic and it's affect on average Americans or people who want to get a real feel for how meth changes and ruins lives. Most of the stories in this book are not uplifting and more than once you can't help but feel that it's an unsolvable problem. Nonetheless, to learn about how meth came to it's current prominence, while at the same time, looking for ways to correct this problem and save lives captivate the reader's experience.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Dan Brown -- The Lost Symbol -------- 4.5 Stars


As the third foot of snow in five days finishes falling, I am taking some time to review the highly anticipated The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown. Although I did not expect to read this in the near future (and thus it was not listed in the "Book I am Reading Right Now" section of the blog), I suddenly found time to get through this 500 page novel while sitting at home for the last week. For those people away from the D.C. area you probably are not aware of the problems here, but I have left my house once in the last six days, school has been closed seven of eight days in the past two weeks, and I have shoveled an average of 1 hour and 30 minutes four days this week. Nonetheless, sitting at home has given me plenty of time to get through this book. In fact, I needed only three days to finish this wonderfully written and suspenseful page turner.

I have talked with more than a few people about this book before reading it and I have received mixed reviews. Though, for the most part, the opinion is the same -- it was "exactly the same as the Da Vinici Code" and "substitute Italy for D.C. and you got the same book". Well, I'd have to agree with those people but also say -- who cares? I have no qualms with this book being incredibly similar to the DaVinici Code; in fact, I can not fault the author for following a formula that works exceptionally well. Perhaps some of the 'originality' is gone but it's still very, very entertaining and a great story. To me, there is nothing wrong with a great sequel.

The book is basically another story of Robert Langdon, master symbologist, having to follow seemingly unrelated clues to save someone special to him. What I particularly enjoyed with this novel was the American historical references (Masons anyone?) and the entire tale being told in and around the Washington, D.C. area. The Capitol, Library of Congress, and Washington Monument were essential setting pieces and played important parts in the overall plot.

Brown follows the same old script from his other novels -- crazy secrets, bizarre symbols, odd quandaries that can only be answered with great historical knowledge, and cliffhanger chapter endings a plenty. In fact, it would be a shame not to mention how underrated the cliffhanger chapter ending is. It's commonplace in many novels, but after personally reading so many non-fiction pieces latley (which often ends chapters with with a boring 'duh'), it's nice to finish a chapter and have the feeling that you can't put the novel down as you want SO MUCH to find out what happens next. In many ways, that is the best feature of this book. Dan Brown does such a superb and phenomenal job maintaining reader interest that it really is easy to finish this book in a mere matter of days. I've heard of people finishing the book in only two sittings. It's such an easy and enjoyable read and the flow of the novel is so reader friendly.

In the end, the novel receives such a high rating because of it's off the chart entertainment value. It may not be filled with symbolism, great character development, and a memorable story but it's a book you can't put down and can't help but get into and wonder more about the possibility of it's truthfulness. Like the Da Vinci Code, Brown claims that much of the book is is based on fact and reality and one wonders about the realness of many of the items in the novel. Even the end of the novel, which I was sure would not live up to the hype that was being raised exponentially as the book went one, was about a good and ending as could be anticipated.

Well enough rambling on -- go read this book if you have a chance. It won't take long and you'll have difficulty putting it down. You may finish it and claim it was "just like the Da Vinici Code" and old hat, but I promise you, you will be entertained.