28 September 2014

On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss

Summary from Goodreads:
Why do we fear vaccines? A provocative examination by Eula Biss, the author of Notes from No Man’s Land, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Upon becoming a new mother, Eula Biss addresses a chronic condition of fear—fear of the government, the medical establishment, and what is in your child’s air, food, mattress, medicine, and vaccines. She finds that you cannot immunize your child, or yourself, from the world.
In this bold, fascinating book, Biss investigates the metaphors and myths surrounding our conception of immunity and its implications for the individual and the social body. As she hears more and more fears about vaccines, Biss researches what they mean for her own child, her immediate community, America, and the world, both historically and in the present moment. She extends a conversation with other mothers to meditations on Voltaire’s Candide, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Susan Sontag’s AIDS and Its Metaphors, and beyond. On Immunity is a moving account of how we are all interconnected—our bodies and our fates.

When I saw that Eula Biss was coming out with a book of essays about vaccination - and I couldn't tell whether she was yea or nay on the topic - I tracked down the Graywolf Press people and asked for a review copy of On Immunity.  As someone who is both a bookseller and works in the field of epidemiology and has had to deal with the fallout when someone decides not to vaccinate and then catches and spreads a vaccine-preventable disease, well...let's just say I felt uniquely situated as a reader of this book.

On Immunity is an excellent book of short chapters exploring the nature of vaccination as both a concept and a practice.  Beginning with the Greek myth of Achilles, whose mother attempted to prevent his death by either burning away his mortality by sacred fire or dipping him in the River Styx (depending on the version you read) leaving behind his heel as his only vulnerability, Biss meditates on the reasoning behind anti-vaccination, the history of compulsory medicine, the nature of scientific research, language/semantics, skepticism, community versus the individual, the undying nature of stuff that gets on the Internet, and the anxiety that comes with being a parent.  She touches on feminism, classism, and racism in examining compulsory vaccination policies.  And, yes, there are vampires - particularly the Victorian construct of the vampire as metaphor for sex, disease, and contagion (aka, moral disintegration).

The structure of On Immunity is a bit different than Biss's previous collection, Notes from No Man's Land.  Notes consists of discrete essays on the topics of culture and race.  On Immunity, in contrast, only appears to have chapters that stand alone, except when you get right down to examining them they actually need the rest of the book to work.  Each chapter introduces a theme but calls back or looks forward to other sections of the book similar in ways that the individual body is part of a collective and can never be completely separate from community.

The reason I was so interested in this book - setting aside the fact that Biss is a wonderful essayist - is that she isn't a scientist.  Her perspective comes from a much different place than mine and, given that I respect her writing, I was willing to read her perspective even if I disgreed with it in the end.  I think the greatest compliment I can pay a book is to say it engaged me with the text.  I have notes scribbled all throughout my copy for things I need to look up, notes where I did check something in a biology/epidemiology text book, or straight up responses (I have a note "That's a BS statement" next to a quote from an anti-vaccine "expert" - and I use "expert" only in the politest sense).  Biss explores both sides of the compulsory vaccination debate as objectively as she can.  By the end of the book, she has made her decisions about vaccinating her child - since I haven't had a snit in this review you can probably guess what it was - and it was a delight to read the connections she drew between science and the humanities.

A recommended read for everyone.

Dear FTC: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.

25 September 2014

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

Summary from Goodreads:
What do you do in your teenage years when you realize what your parents taught you wasn't enough? You must go out and find books and poetry and pop songs and bad heroes—and build yourself.

It's 1990. Johanna Morrigan, fourteen, has shamed herself so badly on local TV that she decides that there's no point in being Johanna anymore and reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde—fast-talking, hard-drinking gothic hero and full-time Lady Sex Adventurer. She will save her poverty-stricken Bohemian family by becoming a writer—like Jo in Little Women, or the Bront√ęs—but without the dying-young bit.

By sixteen, she's smoking cigarettes, getting drunk, and working for a music paper. She's writing pornographic letters to rock stars, having all the kinds of sex with all the kinds of men, and eviscerating bands in reviews of 600 words or less.

But what happens when Johanna realizes she's built Dolly with a fatal flaw? Is a box full of records, a wall full of posters, and a head full of paperbacks enough to build a girl after all?

Imagine The Bell Jar—written by Rizzo from Grease. How to Build a Girl is a funny, poignant, and heartbreakingly evocative story of self-discovery and invention, as only Caitlin Moran could tell it.

In deciding to read How to Build a Girl for review, I gave myself a fatal flaw: I read the novel immediately after reading Moran's memoir How to Be a Woman.  I couldn't resist: the memoir was $1.99 on Nook and I love Caitlin Moran on Twitter.  She's such a funny, badass, cool lady.

Unfortunately for her fictional alter-ego, Johanna on the page does not measure up to Caitlin on the page.  How to Be a Woman feels soul-bearing, eviscerating at times in its honesty.  How to Build a Girl has so much perfectly autobiographical detail that it felt like I was reading draft #2 of her memoir rather than a new novel.  Moran has a great writing style and she gives Johanna a fabulous voice but when read so close together real-life wins out over fiction.  She does throw in a great bit on cynicism near the end of the novel, though.

I'd say go for How to Build a Girl if you haven't read Moran's memoir very recently - I loved it. But if you have read How to Be a Woman recently then I'd give it a few months or so before trying out her novel.

(Related: I honestly didn't realise there were hippies in England. I thought that was a US thing and were called something else in the UK)

Dear FTC: I purchased a copy of How to Be a Woman on my nook and was given access to a digital review copy of How to Build a Girl from the publisher via Edelweiss.

10 September 2014

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Summary from Goodreads:
An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization's collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.

One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur's chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.

Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten's arm is a line from Star Trek: "Because survival is insufficient." But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.

Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.

This is the elevator pitch that sold me on Station Eleven: A travelling troupe of musicians and Shakespearean actors in a post-superflu pandemic North America try to stay alive.  Think David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas but less structured or spread out in time.

I'm in.  I liked Cloud Atlas, I like multiple narratives/perspectives, and I was down for a post-apocalyptic world caused by an influenza super-bug because I'm an epidemiologist and I'm weird like that.

There are three things that stand out for me in this novel.  First, Mandel ever so deftly weaves together the stories told by each narrator into a web centered on one character, Arthur Leander.  The allusion to Cloud Atlas makes so much sense, the way that characters are either Arthur's wife, or ex-wife, or lover, or fellow actor, or child, or EMS provider or extended contacts of those characters.  There doesn't seem to be a formal structure, like the nesting Mitchell used in Cloud Atlas, but it does resemble the chaotic jumble of a puzzle, each piece informing the reader how it fits into the broader narrative of the book.  Second, I completely loved the way in which Mandel realized the gradual breakdown of society as more and more people fall ill and die.  How are supplies transported around the world or even between cities? How is electricity supplied? If the apocalypse comes in the form of disease, who are the first to die and who are the last?  How do survivors form communities?  She created this world so brilliantly - it's anchored in reality and set just enough in the future to be unsettling.  Finally, the idea of the Station Eleven comic books was brilliant.  I agree with karen on Goodreads: if someone doesn't join up with Mandel to actually illustrate the books and make them a real thing there is a missing opportunity.

I have read some criticism that the inclusion of a religious cult/fanatical cult leader was cartoonish or unnecessary.  I have to disagree.  Given the information that we are supplied with through the narrative, the emergence of such a character is not out of the realm of possibility in an end-of-the-world situation.  Look at the Doomsday cults that crop up even now.  I found it very easy to reverse the situation and believe in the creation of a cult for the duration of the novel.

Station Eleven is on track to be one of my favorite books of 2014.  Bravo, Emily St. John Mandel.

Dear FTC: I received access to a digital review copy from the publisher via Edelweiss.