A community of the defiant
Susannah Meadows ’95 is an accomplished journalist and a mother. Her new book, The Other Side of Impossible: Ordinary People Who Faced Daunting Medical Challenges and Refused to Give Up (Random House), stems from a personal experience when her three-year-old son was in so much pain he was unable to get out of bed—but then, somehow, got better.
When my son, Shepherd, unexpectedly recovered from juvenile idiopathic arthritis, my husband and I couldn’t be sure of what exactly it was that had helped him. We had tried a range of interventions—medication and complementary therapies. But based on the timing of key events, we thought there was a good chance that it was the experimental interventions that had lent Shepherd a hand, and, therefore, a chance that someone else could be helped doing what we had done. I was uncomfortable writing about myself but felt I didn’t have a choice not to share what I knew.
It was while I was reporting that story for The New York Times Magazine, reaching out to doctors and researchers to see whether there was any science that could explain how diet changes or fish oil or probiotics could have had an impact on Shepherd’s autoimmune condition, that I started hearing about what other people facing incurable diseases had done. A National Institutes of Health researcher I interviewed told me about her sister-in-law, a farmer in Washington state who’d attempted everything to try to help alleviate her daughter’s intractable epilepsy. When I talked to her, she asked me whether I’d heard of this woman in Iowa who had multiple sclerosis and had gone from using a wheelchair to riding her bike again. A San Francisco pediatrician who explained hyperpermeable gut linings to me happened to mention a patient of his, a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, whose symptoms improved dramatically after taking certain foods out of his diet.
I realized that there was a whole community of the defiant—people who were determined to solve the unsolvable. I reverted from being a shy mom with an obligation to my journalist self. I recognized that there was a much bigger story. One that I had to tell.
Given the era of deregulation we’re heading toward, the timing of Edward J. Balleisen’s new book, Fraud: An American History From Barnum To Madoff (Princeton Press), could hardly be better. In the book, Balleisen, Duke’s vice provost for interdisciplinary studies and associate professor of history and public policy, explores how America always has struggled to strike a balance between enabling entrepreneurship and deterring foul play.
In the second edition of Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound (UNC Press), coeditor John Biewen, the audio program director at the Center for Documentary Studies, expands the collection of essays from preeminent audio storytellers. The six new pieces feature “This American Life” (TAL) contributor Alix Spiegel, as well as an interview with TAL alumnae and the creators and executive producers of “Serial,” Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder.
In A Mind to Stay: White Plantation, Black Homeland (Harvard University Press), Sydney Nathans, professor emeritus of history, shares the story of the African Americans who in 1870—when millions of their compatriots were fleeing the South—purchased the Alabama plantation where they had been enslaved and transformed it into a refuge for their heirs.
What's Your Nightstand Reading, Daniel Riley?
For his day job as a senior editor at GQ, Daniel Riley ’08 spends his time interviewing people like Stephen Curry, George Saunders, and Jon Stewart—essentially, learning about the luminaries of today. His hobby, though, is imagining yesterday: His debut novel, Fly Me, reconstructs Los Angeles in the ’70s—the culture of music and skating and beaches—and the moods of a flight attendant living among the skyjacking epidemic. Here, he details the books and authors that influenced, both descriptively and stylistically, his sketch of that era.
Speedboat – Renata Adler (1976)
I’d never encountered anything like this before. It’s a fictionalized account of a young woman living alone in New York in the early ‘70s—all the sharp edges that threaten even the most mundane lifestyle. The velocity of this book served as a sort of pace car for much of the writing of Fly Me. Once I had the book’s music in my head, there were many months when I didn’t want to listen to anything else.
The Hunters – James Salter (1956)
This book predates the world of Fly Me and is filled with pilots in wartime [Korea] rather than in the halcyon days of the Jet Age, but Salter’s writing about flight—he is considered by some to be the best pilot-writer ever—is timeless, as light and evocative in the 1950s as in the ‘70s or the current decade. Salter wrote at least three other books that influenced mine, but this one’s the only one characters in the novel read aloud to one another.
The Flamethrowers – Rachel Kushner (2013)
More speed, more ‘70s—and a narrative hung on this singularly sculpted heroine who’s testing motorcycle land records at one edge of the book and getting whipped up in the grit and grime of the New York art scene at the other. There’s so much to aspire to here: the woman the book’s built around, the sights and sounds populating the scenery, and the luminous prose doing the telling.
The Skies Belong to Us – Brendan I. Koerner (2013)
Fly Me takes place during the height of the American skyjacking epidemic—when planes were being hijacked as often as once a week—and Koerner’s is the book to read if that incidence rate just blew your mind. Koerner twins a narrative of the “golden age” of skyjackings with the specific narrative of two lovers who commandeered a plane from California to Algeria and nearly got away with it.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), The White Album (1979) – Joan Didion
Joan Didion is the godmother of Fly Me. The book begins with an epigraph from her “Notes From a Native Daughter” and is infused with the stuff of her world, her writing, and her way of seeing California. No topic energizes me more than California exceptionalism, and throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, no topic was more fixed in Didion’s crosshairs. Every sentiment in Fly Me is in explicit or implicit conversation with the Didion Thing.