In the meantime, I've been listening to some nonfiction audiobooks. All three are about, in some way, infiltrating private groups of passionate people. My thoughts:
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright
There's something inherently interesting about liminal belief systems, those groups in the fuzzy border between cultural status as a "cult" and as an established "religion." It's part of the reason for all my fascination with Mormonism. After all, even the mountains of our religious landscape today must have begun more modestly, and who's to say that some weird contemporary niche group won't take hold and resonate more broadly going forward? Most religious practices and histories can sounds strange to outsiders.
All that said, Scientology is bonkers.
I went into this without much knowledge about the organization outside of that South Park sketch, but basically expecting to leave with some sympathy for it. That's what usually happens when you get to know something better. Not so here, not even with Wright's even-handed approach. There's just no way out of the fact that Scientology as an organization is abusive, myopic, aggressive, and greedy, that L. Ron Hubbard was a conman and David Miscavage is borderline psychopath.
Very great book, though!
The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin
The rarefied and secretive culture of Supreme Court, not to mention its proximity to and influence on our lives, makes for a good book subject. And Jeffrey Toobin is a perfect non-fiction writer: clear, entertaining, brief. I've gone to his New Yorker summaries every time the Supreme Court has done anything newsworthy over the last couple years.
This book is a history of the Court in very recent history, going back only 30 years or so. It chronicles the changes in the court, mostly making a case that its become increasingly partisan, and even more particularly increasingly conservative. He was, himself, more partisan than I had expected, and it took me a while to get used to it. But once you settle into his perspective, the book is incredibly readable.
The profiles of the individual judges alone are worth the effort.
I'm not sure how much of a better understanding I have of the political machinations behind the Court's appointments, but I have a better sense of the chronology. And I have a favorite Justice!
The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean
What a beautiful little book, almost ruined by a terrible audio book narrator.The author follows one particular Orchid enthusiast in south Florida who is on trial for stealing plant material from protected swampland, and uses his story as a anchor onto which she ties chapters about the history of orchid cultivation and crime, the biology of the plants, the story of the region's ingenious peoples, etc etc. It's a story about passion and obsession, and the narrator commits the only cardinal sin in literature: she is arch and judgmental and condescends towards her subjects.
It's a real shame, because the words don't seem to really be written this way. They're great words! I remember in particular, Susan Orlean described the air around the swamp as thick and drapey like wet velvet curtains. What a baller metaphor! It's not a joke or a complaint, just a good sensory description. But the narrator hams up her delivery like a community theater actor describing having eaten a bug. "The air was THICK and DRAPEY like WET VELVET. BLEECH!" She didn't really say "bleech," but still.