Book News: July-August 2023

The Naked Don’t Fear the Water

by Matthieu Aikins

In Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Matthieu Aikins’ riveting and transporting non-fiction book, he narrates how he and Omar, his Afghan driver and translator, flee Afghanistan and escape to the West in 2016. Aikins was exhausted after seven years of wartime reporting in Kabul and planned to return to the U.S. Omar also wanted to leave Afghanistan, but since he didn’t have the required documentation proving he worked for Aikins as a combat interpreter for U.S. troops, his application for a Special Immigrant Visa for entering the U.S. was denied. He was in imminent danger of being murdered, especially since he worked for the Americans.

Aikins was determined to help Omar leave Afghanistan, and he also thought the experience of masquerading as an immigrant would be informative and provide a firsthand, unique story about the harrowing risks and resolve refugees face in order to immigrate to a country where they can achieve a stable life without the volatility of violence.

In planning their escape, danger existed everywhere and no one could be trusted. Practically everything depended on chance. The ever-intrepid Aikins, who possesses both a Canadian and a U.S. passport, was in danger of being kidnapped for ransom. He decides to pass himself off as an Afghan migrant. Fortunately, he states, since he is fluent in Dari, one of the more common languages, and has a dark complexion with dark hair, he was successful. At the beginning of their journey, Aikins is jailed, while Omar is beaten by border guards. Eventually, smugglers transport them to a migrant camp in Lesbos, a Greek island. Aikins’ chronicle continues, describing their challenging passage to the West. I couldn’t put down this extraordinary book and I hope all of you readers will feel the same! After reading it, I appreciated even more how fortunate I am to live in a country where I am not in constant fear of violence.

Picture in the Sand

by Peter Blauner

“On rare occasions I read a book that reminds me of why I fell in love with storytelling in the first place. This is such a book.” ~ Stephen King

A phenomenal epic, Picture in the Sand is narrated by Ali Hassan, Alex’s grandfather, via his impassioned letters to his grandson. In 2014, Egyptian- American Alex was accepted at an Ivy League college. His parents were absolutely thrilled. However, Alex became disillusioned with his life in the U.S. and changed his mind about attending college. He became involved with a Syrian terrorist group and joined their training camp, leaving a note for his family to never contact him again. The traumatic aftermath of 9/11, being called “Osama” and accused of being a terrorist by other people, caused him immense pain and anger, and he felt as if he didn’t belong in the U.S. In addition, his father, a respected person, was erroneously arrested by the FBI for being a possible terrorist.

Ali implores Alex to continue to communicate with him. In return, he will relate a secret part of his life he has never discussed with anyone, including the details of how he was blinded in one eye. Not only does Ali hope his letters will resonate with his grandson and change his perspective, he also hopes Alex will recognize himself in his grandfather’s past involvement in an insurgency and realize violence only begets more violence, and that he will return home.

Alex agrees and Ali proceeds to describe his early life and imprisonment during the 1950’s in Egypt when he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood attempted to assassinate Prime Minister Gamal Abdel Nasser because he would not institute “Sharia” law. Consequently, “a major crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood resulted, with hundreds of members imprisoned, tortured, an in several cases put to death.”

Ali’s account begins when he was a young man and an avid film buff. The renowned American film director, Cecil B. DeMille, arrives in Egypt to film the acclaimed The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston. Amazingly, Ali secures a job as the director’s assistant. I don’t want to divulge too much or provide “spoilers,” so you’ll just have to read this extraordinary novel yourself! If not for an article I read mentioning Stephen King’s comments regarding this book, I may never have considered reading this superb historical novel. Since many outstanding books are not included in the “bestseller” lists of major media, I infrequently review “bestsellers.” They have already received a great deal of attention and publicity.

“People with good intentions but limited understanding are more dangerous than people with total ill will.” ~ Martin Luther King

Since the following two notable books are complementary and such important reads, I chose to review both: Take My Hand by Dolan Perkins-Valdez and Carte Blanche: The Erosion of Medical Consent by Harriet Washington.

Take My Hand

by Dolan Perkins-Valdez

This incredible, beautifully-written and well-researched historical novel examines gross issues of medical, racial, and class inequities. It is based on a 1973 lawsuit, Relf v. Weinberger, involving Minnie Lee and Mary Alice Relf, 12 and 14-year-old sisters who were sterilized without consent in Montgomery, Alabama. The story occurs just after the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 and a year after the U.S. government’s report regarding the nightmarish “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” was publicized.

Twenty-three-year-old Civil Townsend is the daughter of the town physician, and as such lives an upper-class lifestyle. After she graduates from nursing school, she obtains a nursing position at the local family planning clinic. She looks forward to helping the patients and has good intentions to improve their lives. She discovers two young Black girls, aged eleven and thirteen, are being given birth control pills, although they are not even sexually active. Concerned, Civil investigates.

The illuminating narrative alternates between the 1970’s and later in 2016, when Civil, now a physician, reflects on her past experiences while working as a nurse at the clinic in her youth.

A profound novel, it sheds light on this devastating time period. Hopefully, history will not repeat itself if more people become aware of these past injustices and tragedies. It’s a momentous book, and I urge readers to read it. I plan to read more by this immensely talented author.

Carte Blanche: The Erosion of Medical Consent

by Harriet A. Washington

“In 1927 the US Supreme Court ruled that compulsory sterilization of people deemed unfit was constitutional. People in asylums all over this country were sterilized.”

The esteemed Harriet Washington’s riveting and enlightening book, Carte Blanche: The Erosion of Medical Consent, delves into the unconscionable and exploitive scientific research upon uninformed, primarily impoverished people in the U.S. She states “consent has been whittled away not by successful ethical argument or by persuasion but because the U.S. medical research system maintains subjects in a voiceless and uninformed state.” Carte Blanche analyzes how people are vulnerable and are subjected to medical research without their knowledge of what is happening to them. Informed consent is disregarded in the name of profit, emergencies, and medical “research” utilizing potentially lethal drugs, protocols, and medical devices, among other things. She provides proof of deceptive, illegal practices in medical research, which especially impact Black Americans.

As a result of the horrific human experimentation used on both prisoners and concentration camp victims during World War II, the Nuremberg Code was created to ban research without voluntary, informed consent. Informed consent was incorporated into U.S. law in 1947, in order that research would never be imposed on Americans, especially Blacks and other people of color, without their knowledge or consent. However, researchers developed ways to circumvent the law, to continue with non-consensual experimental abuse. “Whether subjected to laissez-faire experimentation on the plantation, early clinics, or other institutions, Black Americans were sold to doctors expressly for nineteenth-century research and physician-training purposes.”

The shocking and inconceivable Tuskegee syphilis study, which occurred from 1932 to 1972, withheld treatment for six hundred Black men diagnosed with syphilis, and instead maintained them in an infected state so they could be “tracked, studied, and ultimately autopsied.” In 2010, in another unethical and horrific study, researchers “intentionally induced hypothermia in unwitting black men who suffered gunshot wounds.

Even today, the military, prisoners, and trauma patients are still exploited and forced to participate in scientific experiments.

I was only vaguely aware of some of the evil events and disturbing actions conducted by the medical/scientific community the author sheds light on. Sadly, it makes one distrust and question their present actions and ethics. Carte Blanche is an important eye-opening exposé everyone needs to read.

In another of her monumental books which I didn’t review here, Medical Apartheid, the distinguished author exposes an immense violation of civil and human rights. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN Oakland Award, and the American Library Association Black Caucus Nonfiction Award. She has also been a research fellow in medical ethics at Harvard Medical School, a senior research scholar at the National Center for Bioethics at Tuskegee University, and the recipient of a John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford University.

Adult book reviews are by Susanne Dominguez.