2 nonfiction books explore AIDS in Africa and micro-economics in Utah

The Man Who Quit Money by Mark Sundeen (2012, Riverhead Books). $15; 272 pp.

About 15 cents — that’s all you ever find between the sofa cushions. Maybe a quarter. It’s never a huge amount, but for some reason, it makes you inordinately happy. It’s the same when you find a fiver stashed in last winter’s jacket, or a couple Washingtons in an old forgotten purse or wallet. It’s as if you just won the micro-lottery. You feel strangely rich.

Now imagine never finding money. Imagine never wanting it at all. In The Man Who Quit Money, Mark Sundeen recounts the story of his friend who’s penniless on purpose.

In the days before he had a mortgage and a successful career, when most of his possessions fit in the bed of a pickup, Sundeen lived a carefree life as an itinerant river guide, sleeping in his truck and eking out a living in Moab, Utah. He wasn’t alone in that unbothered existence. Many people, discouraged by government actions or corporate greed, left the grid to live in Moab.

One of them was Daniel Suelo.

Born into an ultra-conservative fundamentalist family, Suelo was a sensitive child who took his faith extremely seriously. Still, during college, he re-examined his beliefs and began to hypothesize about certain aspects of God.

After a stint with the Peace Corps, he started questioning the validity of organized religion. He’d noticed the wide chasm between The Haves and The Have-Nots and how money seemed to change everything. It seemed un-Christian and wrong. Further muddling his deeply introspective thoughts on religion, Suelo realized he was gay.

Finding a community where eccentricity was barely noticed and tolerance expected was a godsend for Suelo. In 2000, after a stay in the Canada wilderness, he left his last $30 in a phone booth and moved to Moab.

Suelo still lives there with few possessions in whatever shelter he can find. He dines from a Dumpster, volunteers and enjoys an active social life. All with zero money.

Could I do that? That’s the question you’ll ask yourself over and over as you’re reading The Man Who Quit Money. It’s a tantalizing thought, this chuck-it-all life, and Sundeen lets his readers ponder it.

But this isn’t just a run-of-the-mill biography. Sundeen lends his readers a good sense of who Suelo really is while still preserving his enigmatic aspects. He lets us scoff a little, then he pulls us back into wholeheartedly agreeing with Suelo … almost to the point of taking up life in a cave, too.

Almost. Sundeen is stingy with romanticism and freely relates hardships while he also examines the morals behind money and why most of us chase it.

If you’ve ever seriously considered your cash and wondered if you could really live without it, here’s your chance to reflect. For you, The Man Who Quit Money is a book to take to the sofa.

— Terri Schlichenmeyer

books-2Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It by Craig Timberg and David Halperin (2012, Penguin Press). $30; 421 pp.

At the core of Tinderbox are three assertions. First, the strain of HIV that causes AIDS emerged from forested southeastern Cameroon, when an African porter cut himself and became infected while slaughtering an infected chimpanzee for his dinner. Second, HIV took human root in the sprawling city of what is now Kinshasa when porters came from the highlands, traders plied the rivers and prostitutes traded favors with men far from home. These are interesting but not especially controversial.

The third is that the West is responsible for the leap from chimp SIV to human HIV because Europeans — seeking Africa’s riches — enslaved its people and herded them into cities, and then tried to impose European solutions on African problems. They claim that the Western establishment (through such agencies as UNAIDS, USAID and PEPFAR) has taken the wrong approach to solving the African AIDS crisis.

The author both have experience with sub-Saharan Africa: Craig Timberg is former Johannesburg bureau chief (now deputy national security editor) for The Washington Post, and Daniel Halperin is an epidemiologist and medical anthropologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Together, they claim their thesis “overturns the conventional wisdom on the origins of this deadly epidemic and the best ways to fight it today.”

The solution the authors propose involves working with locals to discourage multiple partners and encouraging mass circumcision to stop the epidemic in its tracks. Instead, agencies have mounted unlikely abstinence campaigns, flooded the continent with condoms, done mass HIV testing and brought in anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) to keep the infections at bay.

Countless narratives and copious reflections support their narrative. All of them would be instructive to a reader coming upon the topic for the first time. But for those of us who saw some friends die, now see others living with AIDS, and already know the epidemic rages in parts of Africa, this book is a source of bemusement.

— Phyllis Guest

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 30, 2012.