Arts & Culture » Book Review

Beach Reading for the Bellicose

Three new nonfiction titles rake the diamond, legal, and drug industries over the coals.

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Diamonds: timeless symbols of the mystery of romantic love or crassly brilliant marketing construct? In his new book, The Heartless Stone, journalist Tom Zoellner tries his damnedest to give credence to the former but he can't escape his inevitable conclusion. Diamonds--random bits of carbon rendered virtually indestructible by the awesome heat and pressure of the earth's mantle--may well be forever. But as precious objects they're nothing, baubles borne to market on the back of monopoly capitalism and some really effective advertising.

Zoellner became obsessed with diamonds after his fiancee returned her one-plus-carat ring three months before their wedding date. Brokenhearted and suffering from a bad case of "what does it all mean?" he turned to the rock itself for answers. His quest to get to the bottom of the gem's allure takes him around the globe from Angola to the arctic circle to Murfreesboro, Arkansas, site of America's only known diamond pipe, and his adventures provide a solid foundation for a riveting indictment of the entire industry. Which in this case boils down to one company.

The business practices of the London-based De Beers cartel are meticulously dissected: the artificial supply controls that maintain an illusion of scarcity; the marketing blitz through which it conquered the indifferent market of Japan; the crushing blows it deals to any upstart competitor. There's a lot of engaging trivia here--so-called "champagne" diamonds are a crafty rebranding of the relatively worthless dingy brown diamonds of Australia's Barramundi Gap, one of a handful of successful efforts on the part of diamond producers to evade the De Beers stranglehold. But the book's great strength comes in its discussion of blood diamonds, the gems smuggled daily out of African republics awash in poverty and violence.

In 2001 the industry adopted a set of regulations, dubbed the Kimberley Process, designed to ensure that all new gems on the market are "clean"--i.e., not mined in the middle of civil war. But in one efficient, ruthless chapter Zoellner reduces the process to an elaborate charade in which customs records are doctored, flight plans are fudged, stones are stolen, swallowed, or shoved up the ass, and blind eyes are turned all around. The end result: "The diamond that goes on to sparkle on the left hand of a bride on a country club dance floor in Minnesota may once have been pulled from the lower intestine of a slain Congolese miner like a pearl out of an oyster." Though in his concluding pages Zoellner tries again to elevate the diamond to quasi-mystical status--"the one shining irreducible moment in clear carbon that is supposed to make us forget our failings and mortality"--it's the image of that miner and thousands like him that endures. --Martha Bayne


This first-person account of David Feige's work as a public defender in the Bronx is sickeningly well-done for the first book from a guy who claims he never planned to become a writer. Realized with lip-smacking gallows humor, gut-twisting passion, and all the narrative swing of a top novel, this nonfiction trip through the meat grinder of criminal court feels as slaphappy as a vaudeville skit.

Feige, who defended the NYC indigent for nearly 15 years, takes the reader through a reconstructed double shift during which he juggles a dizzying number of cases. Though the narrative is organized around a single archetypal day, thanks to a snappy web of flashbacks, flash-forwards, and camera pans away from the narrator, he delivers a rich portrait of many more cogs (and wrenches) in the machine. The flow is so perfect, the ironies so rich, that at first I suspected Feige was making it up. But he tells tales on so many psycho judges that if he isn't put away for libel one can probably assume his facts are as taut as his prose.

Feige's explicit agenda is to underline the abstract idea of judicial fallibility with concrete examples. Lots of innocent people are arrested and go to jail, and as Feige illustrates, it's not always for obvious reasons like faulty witness memory. The system is so packed and constipated that judges and DAs try to keep as many cases away from a full jury trial as possible; even the innocent are sometimes advised to throw up their hands and plea-bargain, "confessing" to crimes they didn't commit rather than cool their heels in the courthouse another day. (Readers of Steve Bogira's Courtroom 302 may find this familiar terrain.)

Feige's deeper point is more subtle but simple: criminals have life stories too, and the circumstances that push people to desperate acts can be as tragic as the crimes themselves. Skill aside, this book is an object lesson in perseverance and empathy from somebody who could have lived "safe and sound in a life full of good choices" but gave his best years to the unsafe and screwed. --Ann Sterzinger


In his 2000 novel The Constant Gardener, John le Carre spun a furious tale of greed and intrigue from the corruption and indifference that attends drug testing in third world countries. Now investigative journalist Sonia Shah (Crude: The Story of Oil) shines the harsh, bright light of nonfiction on those same practices in her new book, The Body Hunters. Writes le Carre in his foreword: "This book is an act of courage on the part of its author and its publisher."

Shah notes right off the bat, "There's nothing terrible about the truth that medical research imposes burdens," and she and her family, she notes, have benefited from modern drugs. But the processes that bring these drugs to market can be sordid.

Drug testing as required by the FDA is rigid, time-consuming, and expensive--but for good reason. The industry drags with it a long history of abuses involving unwilling, unknowing, or powerless subjects (poor black sharecroppers were misled in the Tuskegee syphilis study, and even the sainted Jonas Salk conducted his early polio vaccine experiments on mentally retarded children). Testing needs to be done, but where to find a pool of human guinea pigs? Someplace where, says Shah, "the sick are abundant, and costs are low." Places like South Africa, India, Thailand.

To that end have arisen "contact research organizations," a highly competitive $70 billion industry that promises to deliver to big pharma pools of subjects for testing. But outside of the highly regulated U.S., the process is almost totally free of oversight and vulnerable populations can be easily exploited. Thousands of desperate HIV-positive pregnant women, for example, enrolled in trials in Thailand and the Ivory Coast, hoping they'd get the antiretrovirals that might save their babies from infection. Hundreds received placebos instead, but defenders of the study, including AIDS researchers and bioethicists, argued that this was ethically permissible because the subjects lived in a country where the "highest standard of care" was unavailable anyway.

India, in particular, appears to lack safeguards and legal protections for research subjects: one trial of a leprosy vaccine failed to inform its participants that some would receive placebos. In Kerala, reports Shah, a Johns Hopkins researcher was caught testing on patients an experimental cancer drug that hadn't even proven safe in animals; elsewhere clinicians administered an experimental drug to more than 400 women, telling them it would boost fertility. According to the FDA the drug was an anticancer agent toxic to embryos.

Shah doesn't look for easy answers, conceding that for now drug experimentation on humans may be a necessary evil. But, she says, "medicines are not just commodities, they are social goods." So long as their development requires such experimentation, "we need to find ways to do it right, and to do it fairly."

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