Short Takes: Book reviews, in brief

April 12, 2014 

“Sleep Donation” by Karen Russell



Sleep Donation

Karen Russell, Atavist Books, digital

Imagine a world without sleep. Or perhaps you don’t have to: Perhaps you are already in the throes of what, in her new novella, “Sleep Donation,” Karen Russell describes as “a universal American condition.”

“Who,” Russell asks, “was sleeping enough? Nobody! The ‘crisis’ seemed like more TV hyperbole designed to keep us glued to our screens, watching mattress commercials. America, in the childhood of our understanding of the insomnia crisis, called the first victims liars, hypochondriacs, wackos, crank addicts, insurance defrauders, anxious plagiarists of ‘real,’ biological disorders.”

The crisis to which Russell refers is an epidemic of insomnia, a kind of collective hyper-vigilance brought on by … what? The cause is never clear, although it may have something to do with our intense immersion in the present, our sense, in a society that is over-networked, information saturated, that to sleep is to miss out, resulting in a “kind of extreme sleep-anorexia.”

Los Angeles Times


The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era

Craig Nelson, Scribner, 448 pages

There are few more mysterious and dangerous men in modern history than German nuclear scientist Werner Heisenberg, the man who could have given Adolf Hitler a nuclear bomb. That’s the joke behind the Heisenberg nickname for the mysterious science teacher/maniac meth cooker in “Breaking Bad.”

The story that unfolds in Craig Nelson’s “The Age of Radiance” makes Walter White’s character seem laughably tame by comparison. The real-life Heisenberg held Adolf Hitler’s wartime fate in his hands. And the Heisenberg story provides just a fraction of the fascinating history behind humans’ quest to harness and exploit nuclear energy, which is the main thrust of Nelson’s book.

Dallas Morning News

Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Homeland Security

Todd Miller, City Lights, 358 pages

In his scathing and deeply reported examination of the U.S. Border Patrol, Todd Miller argues that the agency has gone rogue since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, trampling on the dignity and rights of the undocumented with military-style tactics.

“The U.S. Border Patrol is not just the ‘men in green,’ it is a much larger complex and industrial world that spans from robotics, engineers, salespeople and detention centers to the incoming generation of children in its Explorer programs,” Miller writes in “Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Homeland Security.”

Miller is not an armchair theorist. He has reported on border issues for a decade, including for The New York Times, Mother Jones and al-Jazeera English. He writes of the people he sees as the victims of the Border Patrol’s abrasiveness and also of the cruel deportation policy of the Obama administration that breaks up families. The chapter on that policy is called “Feeding the Monster.”

Los Angeles Times

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