Nonfiction: The ‘Insane’ Way Our Prison System Handles the Mentally Ill


INSANE
America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness
By Alisa Roth
320 pp. Basic Books. $28.

In 1946, Life magazine published an exposé that declared most American mental hospitals “a shame and a disgrace.” The report, by Albert Q. Maisel, featured scathing anecdotes of routine abuse, starvation diets, overcrowded bathrooms and cynical charades of treatment that mocked the very word. “Through public neglect and legislative penny-pinching, state after state has allowed its institutions for the care and cure of the mentally sick to degenerate into little more than concentration camps,” Maisel wrote.

Some 70 years later, the journalist Alisa Roth has written a chilling book that argues that American jails and prisons have become de facto warehouses for the mentally ill, and that conditions inside have hardly improved from the horrors Maisel uncovered.

More than half the prisoners incarcerated in America suffer from some kind of mental illness, Roth writes. She cites a federal study that says 75 percent of women locked up are mentally ill. Yet the American prison system is woefully unprepared to offer treatment or provide even basic mental health care to its wards. The poor conditions inside are in fact making the sick even sicker.

“We’re not psychiatrists,” Alejandro Fernandez, a Los Angeles corrections official, tells Roth in one of the book’s many interviews with front-line observers. “We, as deputies, we know how to arrest people. We know how to put people in jail. We don’t know how to take care of people with mental illness.”

Much has been written in recent years about the brutal racial disparity in American incarceration that has locked away generations of black men at a rate dramatically outpacing that of whites. Michelle Alexander makes the case as pointedly as anyone that mass incarceration is, as she calls it, “The New Jim Crow.”

In “Insane,” Roth is looking to frame the incarceration and treatment of the mentally ill as the next civil rights issue.

Roth traces the long history of how we ended up with millions of incarcerated patients all the way back to Benjamin Franklin and the founding of the Republic. America has never quite known what to do with the mentally ill, and Roth argues that the latest solution — lock them up! — is the worst option of all: morally wrong, medically wrong and economically wrong. “We continue to treat people with mental illness almost exactly as we did before electricity was invented, before women had the right to vote and before the abolition of slavery,” she writes. “Locking up vulnerable people in inhumane conditions is fundamentally immoral.”

Roth paints a devastating portrait of lives wrecked — or ended — in prisons, stories of sick people who never got the treatment they needed outside, and certainly didn’t receive it on the inside either. It’s hard to read “Insane” without concluding that the way the criminal justice system has dealt with mental illness is profoundly broken, and that its flaws have led to tremendous anguish.

There’s the mentally ill Virginia man, arrested for stealing $5 of junk food, who was treated by corrections officers “like a circus animal.” He died in jail, apparently of starvation.

There’s the Florida man diagnosed with schizophrenia who fouled his cell with his own feces; he was punished with a “special” shower turned up to 160 degrees that practically boiled him alive over two hours, killing him.

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As Roth writes movingly of the human toll of incarceration, there’s a central tension in the book between society’s desire to punish lawbreakers, and the responsibility to care for the sickest among us. She argues that most mentally ill prisoners would be better served outside the prison system, and that most prisons would be cheaper and easier to manage without such a sick population.

She convincingly diagnoses the glaring inadequacies of mental health treatment in prison — she cites a Pennsylvania penitentiary where treatment consisted of distributing coloring books — but she is not out for scapegoats. In fact, she writes sympathetically about prison officials being asked to do difficult, specialized work for which they’re woefully unequipped.

A dogged reporter who worked for years on the radio show “Marketplace,” Roth crisscrossed the country visiting jails and prisons. At times she lets her passion steer her arguments. She writes sympathetically of an Alabama prisoner “who was barely five feet tall and slight, and, apart from having shot his mother, his only significant history of violence was against himself.” That’s a pretty big “apart.”

Roth argues that many mentally ill prisoners are in jail for misdemeanors and minor violations like shoplifting or loitering, crimes that should have alerted mental health providers rather than pointed them toward prison.

She ends a visit to a Los Angeles jail with this stark description: “thousands of desperately sick people receiving minimal treatment for their mental health problems, being cared for by people with little training for that aspect of the job, and all this at great expense — simply because they have been charged with a crime.”

“Insane” is rife with sharp, brutal details that pull the reader beyond the realms of abstract policy debates. Roth describes the smell of jail: “The pungency depends in part on how often the occupant is willing to submit to a shower and how many old milk cartons he is saving in his cell (a common practice) and whether his particular demons compel him to smear the wall with feces.”

She describes a corrections officer who nonchalantly shows her a small hooked blade that hangs from his belt loop. He tells her it’s a special tool for “cutting down” — rescuing people who have tried to hang themselves.

While Roth writes accessibly, her book can at times read like a study of Prison Best Practices as she compares the efficacy of various Rikers Island clinics with guidelines from the American Psychiatric Association. She mitigates this with collections of thumbnail profiles, most of them shattering, about mentally ill people made worse by the prison system.

After so much despair, Roth ends with several promising examples from around the country where the intersection of mental illness and criminal justice has not proved devastating.

Most interesting perhaps is the case of Steve Leifman, a Florida judge who runs a jail diversion program with a simple premise: When a person with a mental illness is arrested for a nonviolent misdemeanor, he or she can be steered toward treatment rather than criminal court. The vast majority opt for treatment, where they are connected with housing and other services. Recidivism is low, patients get the support they need, and the prison system saves significant funds. Leifman says that over the last decade he has managed to steer some 4,000 people out of the criminal justice system.

That may sound like a small number compared with the scale of the national incarceration problem, and it is. But by the end of “Insane,” you are so aware of the suffering that just one mentally ill prisoner could endure that it’s a relief to look for hope where you can find it.

Books of The Times: In ‘The Restless Wave,’ John McCain Says America Is Still Exceptional


“My captors had, on the whole, treated prisoners more humanely than the American soldiers at Abu Ghraib treated prisoners,” he writes. (He recently called on the Senate to reject the nomination of Gina Haspel as director of the C.I.A.; Haspel oversaw a secret prison in Thailand where detainees were tortured.)

“The Restless Wave” contains a few other eruptions of unmitigated candor. McCain concedes that the Iraq War, which had his unequivocal support from the very beginning, “can’t be judged as anything other than a mistake.”

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McCain with his daughter Meghan McCain, in Arizona earlier this year.CreditMeghan McCain, via Associated Press

But his faith in his country’s beneficence remains undimmed. Exceptionalism, for him, apparently has less to do with the harsh reality of what happens when the United States wields its power abroad than the presumed goodness of its intentions. The country’s behavior, he says, should match its ideals; and when it doesn’t, the exceptionalism still holds — it’s simply a matter of getting the behavior to fall into line.

On the subject of Sarah Palin, the gun-toting populist he picked as his presidential running mate in 2008, he expresses little regret, saying he “liked her right away.” He praises her as “uncannily self-possessed,” a quick study who performed “slightly better” than Joe Biden in their vice presidential debate. (Perhaps realizing how that might be too generous, he adds: “At worst, the contest was a draw.”) The line from Palin to Trump is one he doesn’t touch, let alone contemplate.

If there’s a villain in this book it’s “our implacable foe” Vladimir Putin, an “audacious despot” who gets a steady flagellation over the course of two chapters. McCain admits to receiving the dossier compiled by the former British spy Christopher Steele, outlining Trump’s possible ties to Russia, and passing it on to James Comey, then the director of the F.B.I. Anyone who doesn’t like what McCain did “can go to hell,” though he underscores that he’s agnostic about the dossier’s contents.

Just like McCain is agnostic about Trump in general. In his cautious assessment, “it is hard to know what to expect from President Trump.” Seeing McCain strain to be optimistic is almost uncomfortable to read, as he strenuously points to “glimmers of hope” that Trump might yet take on the “moral obligation” of being the “leader of the free world.”

What McCain means by this obligation is more American involvement on the world stage, more American intervention. He’s an unabashed proponent of regime change, and a good portion of “The Restless Wave” is given over to recounting how besieged peoples from other lands have been grateful for American support.

Tech Tip: Playing by the E-Book Rules


TECH TIP

The law treats electronic books and their printed counterparts differently when it comes to what you can do with them.

Q. Is it possible to donate e-books to a library’s digital collection?

A. Check with your local library, as policies may vary from institution to institution and some may have their own electronic-book donation solutions. In general, though, donating your finished e-books to libraries does not work in the same way that donating printed books and other materials does.

According to the American Library Association website, “E-books cannot be donated because their use is governed by contract rather than the copyright law.” Under the “first sale doctrine” of United States copyright law, if you legally acquire a book, you have the right to sell or share that specific copy of it however you wish — which means you can keep the book for yourself, give it as a gift, sell it at a stoop sale or donate it to your local library. And when a library buys or acquires a book for its collection, it can lend the book out to library-card holders.

When you get an e-book from an online bookstore and agree to the store’s “terms of use” document, you are buying a nonnegotiable license for the work — and operating under contract law instead of copyright law. For an example of this distinction, check out Amazon’s Kindle Store Terms of Use or Barnes & Noble’s Nook Store Terms of Service documents.

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An online bookstore’s user agreement — and the e-books themselves — often contains warnings about unauthorized distribution that prohibit donating the files to libraries.CreditThe New York Times

Although some e-book providers allow you to digitally loan e-books to friends for a brief period, the license agreement typically requires that you use the book in a personal, noncommercial way (even after you die). A copyrighted e-book typically includes restrictions that prevent duplication or unauthorized users from opening the file — which make electronic donations to libraries problematic.

Profile: In ‘The Pisces,’ a Woman and a Merman Fall in Love. Aquatic Erotica Ensues.


When asked about her Twitter account, she told me that she wanted to make it clear that she does not consider it a persona or a work of performance art. “I feel like a persona is a mask you put on, whereas So Sad Today is really this part of myself that I felt in my waking life,” she said. “People are like, are you always sad? And I’m like, well, there is a part of me that’s always sad, disturbed and anxious, and I need a channel for it. It doesn’t mean that’s my totality.”

After publishing the book of essays and a poetry collection titled “Last Sext” in 2016, Ms. Broder wandered around Los Angeles feeling somewhat adrift as to her next project. In New York, she had always written poems and essays on her iPhone as she commuted on the subway, but she found this method difficult in Los Angeles’s car culture. So, she began to dictate a story to Siri in the car. “I don’t ever sit down at a desk and write a first draft,” she said. “I like to write in places where you’re not supposed to be writing because then there’s less pressure. So when I write now, I talk to Siri, and then my first round of edits is literally just trying to figure out what I said. Siri hears a lot of wrong stuff. Like, the other day she heard ‘That’s So Raven,’ and I didn’t say that. There are a lot of happy accidents.”

When Ms. Broder began to dictate “The Pisces,” she was reading Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa’s “The Professor and the Siren.” “It’s about a man recounting the story of his love affair with a mermaid, and I didn’t realize how dark it was,” she said, noting that she was drawn into the tragic stories of humans who had drowned themselves for merpeople. “So many men have walked off the back of ships with rocks in their pockets. But why is it always a man and a mermaid? What if it was a woman, and what if it was set in Venice Beach, where I live?” She began to speak out three paragraphs per day, and within nine months, she had finished the book.

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Credit
Joyce Kim for The New York Times

What makes “The Pisces” an experimental, exciting work is that Ms. Broder manages to knead together the genres of magical realism — Theo, the merman, is always presumed to be real; no apparitions here — and literary erotica, all with a bemused, wry detachment. Lucy and Theo make love, many times, and there is a great deal of detail in the novel about merman genitalia. The book would feel like smut if it weren’t so highbrow in its references (when trying on slinky underwear, Lucy muses that it “made me feel like I was part of some kind of ritual, a lineage, like Sappho’s all-female cult of Aphrodite.”). The sex scenes, which take place after Lucy convinces Theo to return to her apartment in a child’s sand wagon, are highly detailed. “We kissed each other with open mouths, sucking at each other like we were eating mussels,” Ms. Broder writes.

She said that the explicit carnality of the prose was an essential part of the project. “I can’t write sex unless I’m turning myself on,” she said. “I wasn’t going to not show the fish sex. You gotta have it. There may be merman fundamentalists who say I got it wrong, and I don’t blame them. I’m an interloper. I was always more into Pegasus, when it came to mythology.”

Alexis Washam, Ms. Broder’s editor at Hogarth, said: “When I first spoke to her, we had a lot of detailed conversations about the below-the-belt anatomy. We had to figure out where the merman’s loincloth went. Her fearlessness is exciting to me. She’s so naturally funny.”

When I asked Ms. Broder about “The Shape of Water,” she told me that she hadn’t yet seen it. “It’s simply that I’m not great about going to the movies,” she said, “The last movie that I saw in the theater was probably ‘Boo! A Madea Halloween.’” Still, she said, she is glad to be a part of the current vogue for aquatic love stories, both in print and onscreen. She is currently adapting “The Pisces” into a screenplay for Lionsgate Pictures.

“The sea is totally a mystery,” she said. “The top of the ocean can be total chaos, but underneath, in the depths, there can be silence. Everything on the surface of the world is so chaotic right now, so there’s a desire to access a place that’s more uncharted.” In recounting one woman’s star-crossed relationship with a folkloric beau, Ms. Broder has crafted a modern-day mythology for women on the verge — if everything on the surface stops making sense, all you need to do is dive deeper.

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Michelle McNamara Died Pursuing the Golden State Killer. Her Husband, Patton Oswalt, Has Questions for Him.


Now that a suspect in the killings has been identified, Mr. Oswalt said he felt a strange mix of elation and impending sadness that Ms. McNamara wasn’t alive to witness it.

“There’s exhilaration, and I don’t feel it now, but I can sense that tomorrow or the next day there’s going to be a huge drop in serotonin and happiness when I realize she really isn’t here,” Mr. Oswalt said in an interview. “There were insights and angles that she could keep bringing to this case.”

“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” which was published in February, helped reignite public interest in the decades-old cold case. It has sold around 150,000 copies and was optioned by HBO, which is adapting it into a documentary series.

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Patton Oswalt and Ms. McNamara in 2012.

Credit
Matt Sayles/Associated Press

At a news conference held by law enforcement agencies to announce the arrest, an official said that the book “kept interest and tips coming in” and kept the case in the public eye, but noted that information from the book hadn’t led directly to Mr. DeAngelo’s arrest.

When Ms. McNamara died, the book was half finished. Mr. Oswalt was determined to see the project through. He hired Billy Jensen, an investigative journalist, and Paul Haynes, who worked with Ms. McNamara on the book as a researcher, to piece together the story, using her handwritten notes and the roughly 3,500 files on her computer.

The resulting book is a chilling and vivid narrative of a serial killer’s crimes, and a revealing account of Ms. McNamara’s obsession with the case and the psychological toll it took on her. It ends with a letter from Ms. McNamara to the killer, in which she predicts his eventual capture: “This is how it ends for you.”

“We have so many unsolved murders in America, and she was able to shed light on a few of them,” Mr. Jensen said.

Mr. Haynes said that after he heard a suspect had been arrested, he felt “excited, but also sad that Michelle’s not here.” Mr. DeAngelo’s name never appears in the book, and he wasn’t on their radar as a suspect, Mr. Haynes said.

“I finally had the name and the face that we’ve been seeking for seven years, the name and the face that Michelle died trying to uncover,” he said.

In a bizarre coincidence, Mr. Haynes, Mr. Jensen and Mr. Oswalt were all together at the book event in Chicago on Tuesday, and members of Ms. McNamara’s family were in the audience. A documentary film crew was shooting footage for the HBO series as the speakers speculated on how long it would take for a suspect to be caught, not realizing it had already happened.

At 4 a.m., Mr. Oswalt woke to a buzzing phone. Messages were pouring in with the news that there had probably been an arrest in the case.

Mr. Oswalt said that he hoped to visit Mr. DeAngelo and confront him with questions that Ms. McNamara planned to pose.

“It feels like the last task for Michelle, to bring him her questions at the end of her book — just to go, ‘My wife had some questions for you,’” he said.

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Michelle McNamara Died Pursuing a Killer. Now, the Police Say They Have Him.


Now that a suspect in the killings has been identified, Mr. Oswalt said he felt a strange mix of elation and impending sadness that Ms. McNamara wasn’t alive to witness it.

“There’s exhilaration, and I don’t feel it now, but I can sense that tomorrow or the next day there’s going to be a huge drop in serotonin and happiness when I realize she really isn’t here,” Mr. Oswalt said in an interview. “There were insights and angles that she could keep bringing to this case.”

“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” which was published in February, helped reignite public interest in the decades-old cold case. It has sold around 150,000 copies and was optioned by HBO, which is adapting it into a documentary series.

Photo

Patton Oswalt and Ms. McNamara in 2012.

Credit
Matt Sayles/Associated Press

At a news conference held by law enforcement agencies to announce the arrest, an official said that the book “kept interest and tips coming in” and kept the case in the public eye, but noted that information from the book hadn’t led directly to Mr. DeAngelo’s arrest.

When Ms. McNamara died, the book was half finished. Mr. Oswalt was determined to see the project through. He hired Billy Jensen, an investigative journalist, and Paul Haynes, who worked with Ms. McNamara on the book as a researcher, to piece together the story, using her handwritten notes and the roughly 3,500 files on her computer.

The resulting book is a chilling and vivid narrative of a serial killer’s crimes, and a revealing account of Ms. McNamara’s obsession with the case and the psychological toll it took on her. It ends with a letter from Ms. McNamara to the killer, in which she predicts his eventual capture: “This is how it ends for you.”

“We have so many unsolved murders in America, and she was able to shed light on a few of them,” Mr. Jensen said.

Mr. Haynes said that after he heard a suspect had been arrested, he felt “excited, but also sad that Michelle’s not here.” Mr. DeAngelo’s name never appears in the book, and he wasn’t on their radar as a suspect, Mr. Haynes said.

“I finally had the name and the face that we’ve been seeking for seven years, the name and the face that Michelle died trying to uncover,” he said.

In a bizarre coincidence, Mr. Haynes, Mr. Jensen and Mr. Oswalt were all together at the book event in Chicago on Tuesday, and members of Ms. McNamara’s family were in the audience. A documentary film crew was shooting footage for the HBO series as the speakers speculated on how long it would take for a suspect to be caught, not realizing it had already happened.

At 4 a.m., Mr. Oswalt woke to a buzzing phone. Messages were pouring in with the news that there had probably been an arrest in the case.

Mr. Oswalt said that he hoped to visit Mr. DeAngelo and confront him with questions that Ms. McNamara planned to pose.

“It feels like the last task for Michelle, to bring him her questions at the end of her book — just to go, ‘My wife had some questions for you,’” he said.

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Profile: ‘In Italy, There Was the Pope and Then There Was Enzo Ferrari’


Ferrari is often remembered solely as cold and calculating, with his trademark trench coat and dark sunglasses. But Mr. Dal Monte wants readers to see the genius that Ferrari possessed. Yes, he was stubborn, but he was driven and determined to be successful. He used his charm and intelligence to get others to invest in him, said Mr. Dal Monte, who saw these qualities in Ferrari’s personal correspondence and his relationship with his sons, Alfredo “Dino,” who died in 1956 at the age of 24 from muscular dystrophy, and Piero, who was born out of wedlock to Ferrari’s longtime mistress, Lina Lardi. (Ferrari’s wife, Laura, suffered severe depression her entire life, and though he had affairs with other women they remained married until she died in 1978. Ferrari never remarried and died in 1988.)

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Enzo Ferrari started out as a racecar driver.

Credit
David Bull Publishing

“In Italy, there was the Pope and then there was Enzo,” Mr. Dal Monte said as we drove north on New York Route 22, which hugs the state’s border with Connecticut and offers amazing views of the Kensico Reservoir. The GTB’s V12 engine screams with sophisticated mellifluous authority as revs climb, but Mr. Dal Monte is used to speaking over mechanical commotion.

“When I was in middle school I became fascinated with Enzo.” He remembers as a teenager in the late 1970s, taking an hourlong train ride from his hometown in Cremona to Modena early one morning with his brother, just to catch a glimpse of Ferrari having his morning shave at a barbershop. Ferrari stared out at them staring in at him, and smiled.

“Even then he was the Grand Old Man, not just of motor racing, but also of the country. You could hear him call in on some of the early TV automotive racing shows and discuss to the point of shouting with the talk show host in order to defend his cars and his drivers — more the cars than the drivers, actually.”

Mr. Dal Monte has always loved sports cars, but his fascination with Ferrari goes beyond that. “It was his lifelong struggle to succeed, to become someone, to beat the odds, to go down in history that intrigued me” he said.

What the book doesn’t capture is the circuitous route Mr. Dal Monte took going from Cremona to wrangling reporters in America, the world’s largest market for Ferrari, or how he came to write this comprehensive book.

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Enzo Ferrari in his signature trench coat and sunglasses talking to journalists during a press conference in 1966.

Credit
David Bull Publishing

Mr. Dal Monte said it all goes back to his second great love (after cars and Ferrari) all things American. When he was a senior in high school, he spent a year as an exchange student in Kentucky and later attended the University of Kentucky, majoring in United States history while writing for the student newspaper, “The Kentucky Kernel.”

Though his first impulse was to become a journalist after graduating from college, when he returned to Italy, he was offered a plum job as a top executive in Peugeot’s Italian press office. Mr. Dal Monte said that his fluency in English and his knowledge of American culture helped him professionally at an early age and eventually got him the job at Ferrari.

Mr. Dal Monte had met Antonio Ghini, Ferrari’s spokesman in Italy, while visiting the company’s archives to research his first book about Formula One racing, which came out in Italy in 1999. In spring 2001, Mr. Dal Monte remembers Mr. Ghini asked him, “‘How would you like to go back home? How would you like to go back for Ferrari?’ And what do you think my reply was? ‘When can I start?’”

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Enzo Ferrari, left, in 1966, talking to Giovanni Canestrini, who was known as the dean of automotive journalists in Italy.

Credit
David Bull Publishing

His duties grew to include overseeing the American relaunch of the Maserati brand, owned by this time, like Ferrari, by Fiat. But more the historian and journalist at heart than a marketing man, Mr. Dal Monte liked writing. His position with Maserati, which brought him back to Italy, gave him access to a wide range of primary materials. “One of the greatest assets in my research was the Alfa Romeo archives in Arese, near Milan.” There he found Enzo Ferrari’s personnel file from when Ferrari managed the company’s race team. These files documented Ferrari’s importance to Alfa Romeo, the great Italian racing power.

Mr. Dal Monte’s sense of history, however, was not solely grounded in dusty file folders and old racing scorecards. In addition to archival research, he moved to Modena, where Ferrari remains based, a working city that to this day also serves as a living shrine to the man and his automobiles. There he met and befriended many figures from Ferrari’s life over the course of the eight years it took him to write this book.

Still, “American politics is my real passion, and American history,” Mr. Dal Monte confessed. In Italy, his book is titled “Ferrari Rex,” a reference to Edmund Morris’s three-part well-regarded biography of Teddy Roosevelt, “Theodore Rex.” “My aim was high, to do for Ferrari what Morris did for Roosevelt.”

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Nonfiction: A Professional Troublemaker’s Guide for Young Activists


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Cecile Richards at a House Government Oversight committee hearing.

Credit
Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

MAKE TROUBLE
Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead
By Cecile Richards with Lauren Peterson
304 pp. Touchstone. $27.

Cecile Richards — the outgoing president of Planned Parenthood — may look calm and unflappable with her trademark blue suits and neat cap of golden hair, but she’s a troublemaker from way back. As a sixth grader in Dallas she refused to say the Lord’s Prayer in class. As a junior high schooler in Austin, she wore a black armband to express solidarity with the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, infuriating the principal. The rest is history. “Make Trouble” takes us through Richards’s life in activism and politics: Before Planned Parenthood, she had a full and varied career that included union organizing, starting the progressive organization America Votes and working for Nancy Pelosi. But there’s lots more, including loving depictions of family and friends, from the legendary Texas journalist Molly Ivins to her mother, Ann Richards, the “frustrated housewife” who became the beloved first (and so far only) woman governor of Texas.

Richards paints some vivid pictures of life in politics, too. For example, despite misgivings, she reached out to Ivanka Trump after hearing that she might want to help Planned Parenthood. They met at a Trump golf club in New Jersey, where Ivanka and her husband, Jared, offered her a deal: If Planned Parenthood stopped performing abortions, funding for birth control might go up. “Jared and Ivanka were there for one reason: to deliver a political win. In their eyes, if they could stop Planned Parenthood from providing abortions, it would confirm their reputation as savvy dealmakers. It was surreal, essentially being asked to barter away women’s rights for more money.”

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Books by public figures, especially when written with help from others — Lauren Peterson is a speechwriter — are often pretty deadly, but “Make Trouble” manages to be genial, engaging and humorous. (“It was almost like dealing with kidnappers,” is how Richards describes the months of waking to find yet another doctored video claiming to prove that Planned Parenthood sold fetal tissue.) She’s good at sharing credit and giving praise — especially to her husband, the longtime labor organizer Kirk Adams, who was always game to move to a new city, take on a new adventure and pitch in with raising their three children. Her portrait of Nancy Pelosi as a nice person, a thoughtful boss and a brilliant strategist largely responsible for the passage of the Affordable Care Act (without the Stupak amendment that would have banned insurance coverage for abortion) is a pleasant corrective to the increasingly common view of her as an incompetent witch.

As its title implies, this is not just a memoir but a call to action. Richards wants you to know that you too can make social change. She also wants you to know that a life of social activism is fun. She offers career advice (“never turn down a new opportunity”) and even travel tips (“try to know where the best ice cream is in any given airport terminal”). Considering how often progressives are portrayed as joyless scolds, this is a message that needs to get out more. There’s a lot of satisfaction in activism, even if you don’t win every battle.

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Fiction: When the Aftermath of a Shooting Is as Devastating as the Crime


Juska, the author of several other novels, including “The Blessings” (2014), neatly lays the groundwork for a character who would be liable to miss flagrant warning signs. When Maggie’s husband of 17 years left her for another woman, he accused Maggie of having been blind to his misery. Her teenage daughter, Anna, has a history of anxiety and disordered eating, and in the book’s sections told from Anna’s point of view, we learn that Maggie is only dimly aware of her daughter’s continued struggles. Yet as the story moves through its many layers, Maggie’s initial response to Nathan becomes problematic in a different way. As she tells her students, “Remember, fact and truth are two different things.” Nathan’s essay is disturbing — especially in hindsight — but where do you draw the line? Nearly all personal writing betrays an element of sadness, shyness or emptiness. And when living behind screens becomes the norm, aren’t even the most successful and well adjusted among us a little bit awkward and isolated?

In keeping with a novel about a writing instructor, Juska’s prose is clean and straightforward. She strikes a cozy tone that is the literary opposite of toxic masculinity. In the opening pages, we learn that Maggie lives in a home with “high beamed ceilings, the soft pile of logs by the wood stove, the sun-bleached pillows piled in the window seat.” We are also introduced to the loose-shingled red barn that “looks romantic from a distance,” and serves as the repository for Maggie’s students’ old essays. The pace can drag, and no novel needs so many descriptions of the color and cast of the sky. But in our age of political rancor and tweet storms befitting our state of emergency, there is something radical about a take on the gun problem that concerns itself more with raising questions than ire.

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Darkness suffuses “How to Be Safe,” Tom McAllister’s heady and unsettling exploration of America’s gun violence epidemic. A mass shooting hits the Rust Belt town of Seldom Falls, Pa., once a leading producer of elevator parts and now a pocket of the nation where opportunity has dried up and “guns were gifts you got for 13-year-old boys.” The book’s primary narrator is Anna Crawford, who was recently suspended from her job as a teacher at the school for her negative attitude and unstable behavior. When news of the shooting breaks, she is briefly considered a suspect, and neighbors and friends are all too willing to buy into the idea of Anna as villain. “Reports cited anonymous sources talking about everything I’d ever done wrong — shoplifting, taking too many smoke breaks at work, knocking over a neighbor’s mailbox after an argument. An ex shared nude photos of me, because, he said, anyone who could kill kids had lost her right to privacy.” Anna is quickly cleared of the crime, but people still avoid her. Even her online therapist blocks her.

While those surrounding Anna go through the motions of healing, she does not grant herself forgiveness. She is steadfast in her sadness, perhaps the one thing she has claim to. Staggering about town, often half-drunk by midafternoon, she serves as a docent to tragedy and all that follows: the media swarms, the rallies, the memorials, the political infighting, the blip of a presidential visit, the hashtags. In a sadly Delphic feat, McAllister imagines a Friday morning student reflection program called “Never Again.”

Yet this is far more than a ripped-from-the-headlines story. McAllister, the author of the melancholic novel “The Young Widower’s Handbook” (2017), delivers here a portrait of a nation vibrating with failure and humiliation. Anna’s history with abusive men long predates the shooting, which partly explains her willingness to serve as sponge for a fresh cycle of misogynistic vitriol. She contends with jeers and emailed threats, only to empathize with her abusers. One of the book’s greatest successes is its exploration of the overlapping forces and impulses behind our nation’s sexual-harassment and firearms crises. Anna visits a confession booth that has popped up on her town’s main street. “I said I was lazy and unfocused and I understood why I was unlovable, but I still wished it weren’t so. Then I said sometimes at night I think maybe I’m actually the one who did the shooting.”

McAllister is a writer of poetic inclinations, and his prose occasionally trips over itself with Werner Herzog-esque beats meant to impart resonance to a story that doesn’t need it. In a section where Anna’s ex-boyfriend Robbie makes her bacon and eggs, we learn: “Eggs are chickens that haven’t been born yet. You eat them and then inside you they are born and your body is filled with birds.” On the whole, though, the writing sears — and reminds us of literature’s power to fill a void that no amount of inhaling the vapors of Twitter will satisfy. “What I envisioned was this: No memorial at all. No stone. No American flags every three feet. No ribbons. No priests and no Bible. No symbolic floral arrangements to represent vitality or youth or rebirth. No poet reading a poem about rising from the ashes. No obelisks, for God’s sake. Just dig a huge hole and fill it with guns.”

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Books of The Times: Rachel Kushner’s ‘The Mars Room’ Offers Big Ideas in Close Quarters


“The Mars Room” is the follow-up to Kushner’s “The Flamethrowers” (2013), one of this decade’s indelible novels. That novel has a sense of escape, of IMAX Western vistas. Its protagonist, Reno, is a young woman who races a Valera motorcycle on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

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Rachel Kushner

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Chloe Aftel

“The Mars Room,” on the other hand, is all about constriction. Like Alfred Hitchcock in many of his best films, Kushner works here in close quarters. This novel shifts from the strip club to a more claustrophobic venue: a women’s prison in California’s Central Valley where Romy is sent — she gets two consecutive life sentences — after killing a sicko who stalked her.

This novel has many angles, many tempers. We witness Romy’s anarchic, drug-addled, near-orphaned childhood in San Francisco. Kushner offers a great, subversive portrait of that city. This section reads a bit like a left coast retelling of Jim Carroll’s classic about teenage life on Manhattan’s mean streets, “The Basketball Diaries.”

Romy’s San Francisco “was not about rainbow flags or Beat poetry or steep crooked streets but fog and Irish bars and liquor stores all the way to the Great Highway, where a sea of broken glass glittered along the endless parking strip of Ocean Beach.”

Like Reno, Romy knows cars. Before she is sent away she only slightly improbably drives a 1963 Chevrolet Impala, as magnificent a thing as God ever deposited onto four wheels.

Before long, heartbreak is piled upon heartbreak. When she’s imprisoned, Romy is a single mother with a young son named Jackson. Her mother cares for the boy until she dies in a car crash. After that, Romy has no idea what happens to him, nor do we. She’s lost her parental rights; Jackson vanishes into foster care.

Other characters are folded into the mix. Chief among them is Gordon, a stalled young academic who teaches in Romy’s prison. He brings her books; he begins to have feelings for her. Also there’s Doc, an imprisoned cop who went rogue. The scenes of his nasty past life are so pulsing you start to think that Kushner has a hard-boiled, Charles Willeford-type thriller in her.

Kushner’s portrait of life inside the women’s prison is grainy and persuasive. It’s all here: the lice treatments, the smuggling of contraband in rectums and vaginas, the knifings, the cliques, the boredom, the heinous food. About a grim hunk of Thanksgiving Day meat, one inmate comments, “People say it’s emu.”

Kushner smuggles her share of humor into these scenes. Like Denis Johnson in “Jesus’ Son,” a book this novel references, she is on the lookout for bent moments of comic grace.

In one scene, the inmates decide to throw a party and begin to surreptitiously save their meds in order to crush them into a punch. Romy gives this tipple a name: “a short island iced tea.” Another of this novel’s memorable characters, a butch lesbian named Conan, goes on a woozy riff about how cows are righteous because they dress in nothing but leather.

If these prison scenes have a flaw, it’s that Kushner has clearly done so much research that it weighs her down a bit. It’s as if she feels compelled to report everything she’s learned.

“The Mars Room” is a major novel, a sustained performance, one that broods on several exigent ideas. The sense of constriction I mentioned above plays out in many ways. Nearly every character has had radically limited options from birth.

Romy had academic promise as a kid but threw away her chance to go to college. After high school she waits tables in an IHOP. When she goes to Walmart to buy shoes for the job, she can’t help but deliver a profound, class-based riff on the type of shoes sold there, made for dead-end jobs and just a step above the footwear issued in institutions like prison. They’re nearly training shoes, she thinks, for incarceration.

There have always been echoes of laconic but resonant writers like Robert Stone and Don DeLillo in Kushner’s prose. In “The Mars Room,” she dwells as well on Dostoyevskian notions of evil. There are so many types; so few are recognized.

“There were stark acts of it: beating a person to death,” Gordon, the academic, thinks. “And there were more abstract forms, depriving people of jobs, safe housing, adequate schools.” In “Naked Lunch,” William S. Burroughs put this idea in slightly different words: “The face of ‘evil’ is always the face of total need.”

There’s an extended and winning juxtaposition, in “The Mars Room,” of the writing of two men who sought escape from society’s constraints: Henry David Thoreau and Theodore J. Kaczynski, the Unabomber.

Kushner quotes Kaczynski at some length, and the idea is floated that these men are not so different as it might seem. Kushner makes one want to learn about Kaczynski all over again.

“The Mars Room” moves cautiously and slowly. It prowls rather than races. It is like a muscle car oozing down the side roads of your mind. There are times when you might wish it had more velocity, more torque, yet there are reasons it corners cautiously.

Like someone wary after a bad accident, Romy says, “I did not see any doom in the road.”

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