Updated: Aug 29
EDITOR’S NOTE: Need a last-minute gift for your favorite alcohol and drugs historian? Or something to do on your winter break? Have no fear! Points editors have tons of suggestions for books, movies, TV shows, music and digital distractions. Read on for a breakdown of some of the best alcohol-and-drugs-related media we’ve consumed this year.
Brendan I. Koerner, The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in a Golden Age of Hijacking (Random House, 2014 paperback)
Why was there an epidemic of plane hijackings in the “High 1960s” (1968-1973)? In a search for the answer, Koerner’s journalism takes you on ride, weaving together social epidemiology, a trove of government documents, and the dual biographies of a pair of hijackers, lovers, folk heroes, and accidental radicals, Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow. Familiar Sixties set-pieces are also featured—Vietnam, lots of drugs, Black Panthers—but Koerner moves at a steady clip and somehow manages to avoid descending into cliché.
David Simon, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood (Broadway Books, 1998)
If you are a fan of The Wire this is mandatory reading. Better yet, if you have not already binge-watched all five seasons, read the show’s forerunner and inspiration first. Let co-authors David Simon and Edward Burns transport you to the corner of West Fayette and Monroe where open air drug markets structure the rhythms of life for active players and passive onlookers in Baltimore. Simon, a former beat report and creator of The Wire and retired BPD Edward Burns know the nuances and sad futility of the daily drug war grind. Read, learn, and tell others.
The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (originally released in 2013) is novel set in Colombia during the rise of the modern drug cartel. In the vein of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s style of magical realism, it provides a lush and lyrical take on the effects of drug trafficking in South America. Not to be missed, especially for the hippos.
I recommend Juliet Escoria’s linked short-story collection Black Cloud to anyone looking for a nontraditional recovery narrative. Her brutally honest voice and sparse, blunt sentences–think Raymond Carver does Jesus’ Son–leave no room for manufactured emotion or tidy endings.
Hellion (Kat Candler, IFC Films, 2014)
Fans of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood should check out Hellion, an indie coming-of-age film by Austin, TX filmmaker Kat Candler. While Boyhood’s protagonist survived a cycle of alcoholic stepfathers relatively unscathed, Hellion offers a sensitive yet tragic portrayal of parental loss, alcoholism, and economic insecurity in southeast Texas. Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul and the devastating glitter of Port Arthur’s oil refineries are the stars. You won’t be able to look away. Available for streaming on Amazon and Google.
80 Blocks From Tiffany’s (Gary Weis, Above Average Productions, 1979)
This 1979 documentary should be the video supplement to Jamel Shabazz’s photojournalism project, A Time Before Crack. The name of the documentary refers to the distance between famous jeweler Tiffany’s on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and the South Bronx. Depicting the daily life of two youth gangs–the Savage Nomads and the Savage Skulls–the documentary surveys the landscape of a burned over borough. Despite the overwhelming poverty, arson, and abandonment, a sense of community within respective gangs, small neighborhoods, and even on occasion with police shines through. Certainly all is not well in this portrait of the South Bronx. Many officers do embody the “cop on top” ethos of the period, but also clearly have some productive community ties. Given the current state of police/resident relations, one has to ask: is this the cost of Crack Era reform?
In the course of completing my MA and beginning a PhD program this year, I haven’t had much time for entertainment. But sometimes I can combine business and pleasure with television shows like Breaking Bad, which I finished this summer even though it wrapped back in 2013. Sons of Anarchy, another drama of family life tied up in illicit economies, aired its surprisingly satisfying series finale earlier this month following two relatively disappointing seasons in its long, otherwise entertaining arch.
Enlightened (Mike White, HBO)
In a Golden Age of Television that has mostly chronicled the moral descent of masculine antiheroes, Enlightened features an antiheroine’s (Laura Dern) seriocomic struggle for spiritual growth. This two-season series is, at turns, a satire of self-help culture and a moving meditation on whether profound character change is truly possible. Luke Wilson gives a stellar performance as Dern’s drug-addicted ex, and his stint in a destination rehab facility is a standout episode. The show originally ran on HBO but began streaming on Amazon earlier this year.
The Knick (Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, Cinemax)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh–a man already known for his critique of the Drug War (Traffic)–the first season of Cinemax’s drama starring Clive Owen chronicles a gifted, cocaine-addicted doctor in turn-of-the-century New York. The Knick offers staggering portraits of New York as public services struggled to keep up with new problems of urbanization and industrialization. For history of medicine/drugs dorks like me, this has it all: addiction, public health panics, racial/ethnic tensions, police corruption, and the professionalization of western medicine.
The absolute best TV in 2014 for me was HBO’s True Detective, primarily due to its portrayal of staggering poverty and environmental destruction in Louisiana. A close second for me was Showtime’s Rectify, which I can only describe as a Southern Gothic tone poem. A Young Doctor’s Notebook was an enjoyable and bizarre portrayal of morphine addiction.
I loved everything about Showtime’s The Affair before I’d even seen it: a female show runner on pay cable, a new part for The Wire co-star Dominic West, a theme song by Fiona Apple. And then (mild spoiler alert) the show outed one of our protagonists as a drug dealer. If you haven’t watched The Affair yet, now you have another reason to get to it.
There is still time to discover new music in 2014. I recently stumbled across this Reddit forum soliciting contributions for a “hip-hop based lesson plan about addiction”: http://www.reddit.com/r/hiphopheads/comments/2nyjks/im_a_teacher_who_is_creating_a_hiphop_based/. Points readers with a taste for rap might enjoy the content therein.
Kendrick Lamar, Section. 80 (Top Dawg, 2011)
This 2011 debut of now celebrated artist Kendrick Lamar restores my faith that hip-hop still has a sociopolitical conscience of value. Riffing on the place (Section 8 public housing) and time (Crack Era Compton) of his upbringing, Lamar offers a tight narrative tracing the lives of two fictional stand-ins for all too many true life tales: Tammy and Keisha. Tracks like “Keisha’s Song” or “Ronald Reagan Era” will stick with you, and they should. In teaching a course on the Crack Era, an undergraduate approached me and demanded I give this a listen. Much thanks Zach.
DC band Jack on Fire released the rather brilliant song “Andy Harris Needs to Smoke Some Weed” in response to the Maryland representative’s meddling in the District’s marijuana legalization law. I love everything about this song, from it’s sweet-and-low mellow vibe to its hilarious lyrics.
I’ve been charmed lately by the podcast series Serial, hosted by This American Life’s Sarah Koenig. The first season, which broadcast its final installment on December 18, investigates the 1999 murder of high school senior Hae Min Lee and the flimsy case that implicated her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed. The state’s key witness was a young man named Jay, who often smoked weed with Adnan.
Way back in the spring, I was working on a project for my creative nonfiction workshop and needed the library’s awesome design guys to make me a heroin packet (don’t ask; just watch). Being upstanding citizens, my collaborators didn’t exactly know what I meant when I said “heroin packet.” So, I sent them to the (second) coolest blog ever to view some examples. Dequincey Jynxie catalogs the stamped bags that many drug dealers use to distinguish their product from competitors’ wares. Her blog, which includes descriptions not only of the packets’ artwork but of their contents, serves as both a harm reduction tool and a historical archive.
With all the recent developments and debate on marijuana legislation Twitter has been particularly useful for keeping pace in 2014. The quick summaries produced by Vox and the stories from @germanrlopez have offered quick options for doing so. As for who to follow, there are plenty of handles out there with tens of thousands of followers, but for a variety of views from those with a few less than that try: @_cingraham, @johningold, @BeauKilmer, and @MarkARKleiman as well as @KevinSabet, @learnaboutsam, and @mjpolchange. It’d be remiss not to also mention some of the fine folks here at Points: @clairedclark, @ebdufton, @spillanejf among them. Happy following, and happy holidays!
Points is taking a holiday break. We’ll be back in January with new contributors and fresh content. Until then–
Claire Clark (Managing Editor)