July 15th, 2003

rivka as ww

A fistful of books

Katharine Greider, The Big Fix: How the Pharmaceutical Industry Rips Off American Consumers: This screed is, unintentionally, almost a better defense of the drug industry than anyone besides Derek Lowe can manage. While there are clearly problems with Americans' access to prescription medications, the thin analysis in this book – the drug companies are greedy and evil – is overly simplistic and makes me want to argue even when by inclination I'm sympathetic.

For example, the book suggests that importing medications from Canada is a great idea that should be encouraged, but of course if parallel imports grow too big, the natural response will be to raise the prices in Canada, or even stop selling there. Canada can institute price controls, but that only puts the problem in Canada's lap instead of ours (and that's ignoring the debate over whether the drug industry needs that money for research). Meanwhile, the existence of parallel imports is vital for a few people using them, but at the same time bleeds off some pressure for reform at home. There is a big debate in the economic literature about whether parallel imports are efficient -- a lot of resources are wasted moving drugs around, and the importers capture a lot of the social surplus; an easy example is the cost of the bus fare to Canada, which has to be factored into the price of Canadian drugs-- but you wouldn't know it from this book. Interestingly, the best research I've seen suggests that the well-established system of parallel drug imports operating in the EU countries reaches a competitive equilibrium at a fairly low level – producers lower prices a teeny little bit, while parallel importers make a profit and incur significant transaction costs. The European consumer, if better off, is better off mostly because drugs are already cheaper in most EU countries than they are here.

Mary Roach, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers: Roach's light tone has attracted some attention in other reviews I've read; perhaps most memorably, Roach describes the sound of maggots on a corpse as sounding like a bowl of Rice Krispies with milk. Mmm, good. I found the book engaging and sympathetic, though not exactly robustly respectful, as Roach investigated the various ways in which human bodies can be used after death, from practice plastic surgery to forensic science to compost. There's a gelatin that can be used to simulate flesh when bullets are fired into it, but there's no substitute for the real thing in testing whether certain boots offer better protection against land mines than others. A quick, fascinating read that might make you think of what you'd like to do with your own body after death.

Michael Baden & Marion Roach, Dead Reckoning: The New Science of Catching Killers: grifyn recommended this a while back. While it's a good overview of forensic science, with a particularly nice chapter on blood spatters, it's not a necessary addition to your library if you already have a good book on crime scenes. (I hope I know my audience here.) I'd go for Stiff if you want to read a well-written book about death, though Stiff would not be as comprehensive for research for fiction.

Gail Bell, Poison: Bell was a pharmacist and then a science writer, and her grandfather was a murderer. Or so the family story goes, and Bell sets out to investigate the story of how he allegedly killed his two young sons in Australia in the early decades of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, Bell really lacks much evidence about these long-gone events, and the story unfolds in ungainly swathes, padded by Bell's musings on other poisons and poisoners. Although a section on the meaning of green piqued my Superman-obsessed brain, the prose was overall too purple for my tastes.

Rachal Safier with Wendy Roberts, There Goes the Bride: Making Up Your Mind, Calling It Off & Moving On: And now for something completely different. When we were cataloging this, it developed that the Library of Congress had four TV shows with episodes titled "There Goes the Bride," The Golden Girls, Seventh Heaven, Who's the Boss?, and Falcon Crest -- the first two two-parters. [ETA: Also, not at the LoC, Google reveals episodes of Webster, I Dream of Jeannie, Without a Trace, and the British Never the Twain with the same title.]

Obviously, the title makes for easy comprehension and a bit of matrimonial humor. The book is really basic; the only circumstances under which I can imagine it being useful is as a gag gift for a woman who's really okay with having broken her engagement, though maybe other people have a higher self-help tolerance than I do. I include it solely because I'm in there as an expert (okay, the expert) on the law governing engagement rings.

I love the piece that led Safier to me, my student Note; its publication was a great triumph for me, of the Chumbawumba "I get knocked down, but I get up again" sort. Fittingly, I first heard "Tubthumping" at around four in the morning on the way back from getting the Note submission copied for the zillionth time, in the face of the zillionth-minus-one rejection, and it was too perfect; I've adored the song ever since. The piece got accepted by my law journal on the last possible date, after I'd tried every single submission date for which I was eligible, and I just refused to give up, revising and revising. I was the only Note they took on the fourth try – most people got accepted in one or two – and it was awarded the faculty prize for best student note that year, so nyah. Of course, none of that means anything about the topic, which is the history of the law governing engagement rings. That law went from a fault-based norm in which the bad guy/girl had to surrender the ring to a no-fault regime in which the guy always gets it back. It has the best title I may ever have for anything: "Rules of Engagement." In fact, though it didn't make it into Safier's book, my Note actually convinced a state supreme court to change its law to a no-fault rule the other way, even though the court then spelled my name wrong. Grrr.