Is it me, or is 2014 the year of the essay? I've raved in previous posts over The Empathy Exams and Bad Feminist; On Immunity is another essay that moved me, entertained me and made me think. Biss, who teaches at Northwestern, won a Guggenheim Fellowship and used it to support her work on her third book, a combination of mythology, morality, medicine and mortality that is like nothing you've ever read before.
Blending personal experience with social history and myth, Biss takes on the thorny topic of immunization—moving from the story of Achilles, whose dip in the water was perhaps the first documented attempt of a parent to innoculate their child against harm, to modern-day anti-vacciners in a meditation on the concept of immunization and what it means on a personal level as well as a societal one.
Though this is a short book, it's not something to be read quickly. Biss' thoughful writing contains levels of meaning and plenty to ponder on every page.
When my son asks me about his belly button, I describe the near-mythological umbilical cord that once connected us. I point to my belly button and tell him that all of us were once contained within another body on which our lives depended. Even a three-year-old, who is still wholly dependent on me but already accustomed to thinking of himself as independent, finds this perplexing. Speaking from a moment just before the Enlightenment, Queen Elizabeth expressed a paradox that eludes us to this day—our bodies may belong to us, but we ourselves belong to a greater body composed of many bodies. We are, bodily, both independent and dependent.
What are you reading this week?
I dare anyone who doubts the abillity of the personal essay to enlighten to remain in that mindset after reading even two pages of The Empathy Exams. In a dozen wide-ranging essays, Jamison, a Brooklyn-based writer who previously published the novel The Gin Closet, seems to leave no nook or cranny of the human experience unexplored. With fearless honesty, she reveals the ways pain—both physical and mental—affects us and the ways we respond to others around us. Take the title essay, which takes on the subject of empathy using the lens of Jamison's experience as a medical actor, as she displaying symptoms for doctors-in-training who must ask the right questions to unlock a diagnosis. During this process, she reflects on her own response to others in pain, and on the ways she expects those around her to react when she is in need of empathy.
I wonder which parts of my brain are lighting up when the med students as me: "How does that make you feel?" Or which parts of their brains are glowing when I say, "the pain in my abdomen is a ten." My condition isn't real. I know this. They know this. I'm simply going through the motions. They're simply going through the motions. But motions can be more than rote. They don't just express feeling; they can give birth to it.
Empathy isn't just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it's also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It's made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for one another because we know we should, or because it's asked for, but this doesn't make our caring hollow. The act of choosing simply means we've committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations: I will listen to his sadness, even when I'm deep in my own. To say going through the motions—this isn't reduction so much as acknowledgement of effort—the labor, the motions, the dance—of getting inside another person's state of heart or mind.
What are you reading this week?
Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby
by Sarah Churchwell
Penguin Press • $29.95 • ISBN 9781594204746
On sale January 23, 2014
Some people may be tired of reading about F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby and the 1920s . . . but I'm not one of them. My feet are firmly planted in the can't-get-enough camp when it comes to my favorite novel of all time. Which is why, this week, I'm reading Sarah Churchwell's new book, Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby.
In it, Churchwell focuses on one particular year in the life of Fitzgerald: 1922, the very year in which The Great Gatsby would be set (and, many say, the pivotal year that ushered in modernism). In 1922, Fitzgerald was just 26 and a rising literary star. He and Zelda settled right in the midst of a bustling New York City (and on Long Island), partying it up with the literati and everyone else snubbing their noses at Prohibition. As Churchwell points out, Fitzgerald was also doing a little first-hand research for a new book idea.
In her meticulous research, Churchwell combed through Fitzgerald's Princeton archives, through old newspaper articles, and other historical records, resulting in this fascinating account of a brilliant writer, a vibrant city and a tiny slice of American history and culture. While reading, you can almost imagine how the wheels must have turned in Fitzgerald's head.
In this excerpt, Churchwell describes the familiar landscape that Scott and Zelda (accompanied by none other than John Dos Passos) drove through while on a car trip from Manhattan to Long Island, where they were hunting for a house to rent:
About halfway between New York and Great Neck, just beneath Flushing Bay, stood the towering Corona Dumps, vast mountains of fuel ash that New York had been heaping on swampland beyond the city limits since 1895, in a landfill created by the construction of the Long Island Rail Road. By the time the ash dumps were leveled in the late 1930s (and eventually recycled to form the Long Island Expressway), the mounds of ash were nearly a hundred feet tall in places; the highest peak was locally given the ironic name Mount Corona. . . . By 1922, desolate, towering mountains of ashes and dust stretched four miles long and over a mile across, alongside the road that linked the glamor of Manhattan to the Gold Coast. In the distance could be seen the steel frames of new apartment buildings braced against the sky to the west. Refuse stretched in all directions, with goats wandering through and old women searching among the litter for some redeemable object.
What are you reading this week?
Heads in Beds by Jacob Tomsky
Doubleday • $25.95 • ISBN 9780385535632
On sale November 20, 2012
We interviewed Tomsky for the December issue of BookPage. You can read that Q&A here for a preview of what you'll learn in Heads in Beds. I love his answer to the question, "What are the most annoying words a guest can say to a front desk agent?"
Here's an excerpt from the book—and an example of how not to act in the lobby:
There are a thousand ways to complain, a thousand ways to have your problems instantly solved. As far as the most effective tactic, would I suggest screaming at an employee? Obviously, I would not.
Here is what I would suggest: Before approaching any employee, try to pinpoint exactly what the problem is (You were promised one rate and charged another / A bellman was rude to your wife / Someone must've thought you were finished with the pizza box you left on the floor of the bathroom and threw away the last cold slice), and then, if possible, what solution would make you feel satisfied (Having the rate adjusted to reflect the original booking / Being assured that the issue will be investigated and the bellman will be spoken to / A pizza slice on the floor? It's gone. Let it GO). Though most complaints should be delivered to the front desk directly, in person or on the phone, keep in mind that most issues you present will not have been caused by the front desk at all. So briefly outline your problem, offer a solution if you have one, and then ask whom you should speak with to have the problem solved. "Should I speak to a manager about this?" "Should I speak to housekeeping about this?" Those are wonderful and beautiful questions to ask. Most of the time the front desk will be able to solve the problem immediately or at least act as proxy and communicate your unrest to the appropriate department or manager. Want to make sure the agent doesn't nod, say "certainly," and not do a damn thing? Get his or her name. Nothing tightens up an employee's throat like being directly identified. You don't have to threaten him or her either, just a nice casual "Thanks for your help. I'll stop by later to make sure everything has been taken care of. Tommy, right?" Whatever you asked me to do I am DOING it.
Lastly, let's try to keep fiery anger out of the lobby. Almost 100 percent of the time the person you are punching on had nothing whatsoever to do with your situation. It's a hotel; nothing's personal. Here is a nice rule of thumb we can all try to remember: a person of culture should make every effort to hide his frustration from those who've had nothing to do with its origin. Boom.
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie
Random House • $35 • ISBN 9780679456728
To be published November 8, 2011
The fact that I've been anticipating this book for months is no secret to Book Case readers. Having finished it over Labor Day weekend in preparation for interviewing Massie for our November issue, I'm happy to report that this was a book worth waiting for. Eight years in the making, backed up by Massie's decades of research on the Russian family, Catherine the Great is an expertly crafted page-turner of a life story.
One of the things that makes Massie's biographies so wonderful to read is the way he is able to empathize with his subjects, and try to understand their motivations, without lionizing them. While it's clear he likes and respects Catherine and her accomplishments, he doesn't try to hide her flaws.
Since I know that what many people are curious about when it comes to Catherine the Great is her love life, here's a passage where Massie examines her relationships with a succession of younger "favorites" over the last 20 or so years of her life.
What was Catherine seeking in these ornamental young men? She has suggested that it was love. "I couldn't live for a day without love," she had written in her Memoirs. Love has many forms, however, and she did not mean sexual love alone, but also companionship, warmth, support, intelligence, and, if possible, humor. . . . Desire for love and sex played little part in attracting her lovers to her; they were motivated by ambition, desire for prestige, wealth and, in some cases, power. Catherine knew this. She asked them for things other than simple sexual congress. She wanted an indication of pleasure in her company, a desire to understand her point of view, a willingness to be instructed by her intelligence and experience, an appreciation of her sense of humor, and an ability to make her laugh. The physical side of her relationships offered only brief distraction. When Catherine dismissed lovers, it was not because they lacked virility but because they bored her. One need not be an empress to find it impossible to talk in the morning to a person with whom one has spent the night.
What are you reading this week?
Sex on the Moon by Ben Mezrich
Doubleday • $26.95 • ISBN 9780385533928
on sale July 12, 2011
Sex on the Moon is about Thad Roberts, a bold, geeky NASA intern who falls in love—then steals moon rocks to prove it. (According to the book's subtitle, this is "the most audacious heist in history.") BookPage contributor Jay MacDonald interviewed Mezrich for our July issue, and the piece is worth a read for the behind-the-scene glimpse at what goes into writing such a complex, true-life story (a challenge when NASA names you persona non grata).
This book doesn't go on sale until next week, but read this excerpt for a taste of Mezrich's artful storytelling:
It was a moment every true scientist knew well—although it wasn't something quantifiable, it wasn't something you could predict or reverse-engineer or data-map or even really describe—but it was a moment that anyone who had spent time sequestered in a lab or behind a computer screen or at a blackboard, chalk billowing down in angry stormlike clouds, could identify, if not define.
Thad has his own word for it: serenity. The moment when the act of science organically shifted into the art of science; when even the most mundane, choreographed procedures achieved such a rhythm that they became invisible chords of a single violin lost in the complexity of a perfect symphony. Minutes shifting into a state of timelessness, where the world seemed frozen but Thad was somehow moving forward: content, fulfilled free.
The project itself was far from spectacular. Slicing away at a piece of volcanic rock using a tiny diamond-tipped saw while keeping track of every microscopic wisp of volcanic dust—accurately documenting the final weight of the sample that was left behind. The work was painstaking, but the volcanic rock was just a stand-in, like the mocked-up cockpit of the space shuttle. It was supposed to represent something infinitely more valuable. A chunk of the moon, hand-delivered more than thirty years ago by men whose names were enshrined in history books. For Thad, it didn't matter that the procedure was little more than a dress rehearsal. The process itself had overtaken him, and in that moment he was truly lost in the art of the science.
An Exclusive Love, by Johanna Adorján
Norton, January 31, 2011
Apparently my grandmother knew the first time they met that this was the man she was going to marry. Or at least, that's how she often told the story. In the family we also know what happened between them next. It's one of those stories retold so often that after a while you know it couldn't have been different, it was just like that. A family legend. The two of them made a date to go for a walk. And after that they liked each other so much that they made a date to go for another walk. And then another. Each of them thought the other was crazy about walking. They were both entirely mistaken. When that point was cleared up after a while, it's said that they were enormously relieved.
What are you reading today?
My Reading Life by Pat Conroy
Nan A. Talese • $25 • November 2, 2010
On Christmas Eve, I was thrilled to open this gift from my best friend--a personalized edition of Pat Conroy's My Reading Life! My friend lives in Charleston, SC, and anyone who loves Conroy knows that he lives in South Carolina, too. My friend braved the line at Blue Bicycle Books to buy me this wonderful keepsake. The inscription reads:
To Eliza, For the love of words, books will stay. Merry Christmas. What a great friend you have. Pat Conroy, 2010.
You can read more about Conroy's love letter to books in our December print edition, for which BookPage contributor Alden Mudge interviewed Conroy about the pleasures of reading and collecting books. On the joy of having books in his home, Conroy said, "I love them. I like to handle them. I can look up from my desk and see walls and walls and walls of books. It’s an extraordinary beauty for me.”
Here's a preview of this book, which I've enjoyed cozily reading at home over the holidays:
I take it as an article of faith that the novels I've loved will live inside me forever. Let me call on the spirit of Anna Karenina as she steps out onto the train tracks of Moscow in the last minute of her glorious and implacable life. Let me beckon Madame Bovary to issue me a cursory note of warning whenever I get suicidal or despairing as I live out a life too sad by half. If I close my eyes I can conjure up a hwole country of the dead who will live for all time because writers turned them into living flesh and blood. There is Jay Gatsby floating face downward in his swimming pool or Tom Robinson's bullet-riddled body cut down in his Alabama prison yard in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things
by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee
Houghton Mifflin, April 20, 2010
Debra's obsessions with preservation and perfection have become her identity. She is "the keeper of magazines." If she were to stop colecting or to get rid of them, her sense of self would be lost. When I asked her about this, she said, "To stop would make all those years a waste of my life. It would make my existence invalid." At the same time she realized the cost. "This has ruined me, " she said. "I'm smart and creative, and I could have been happy. But I'm not anything. I have done nothing. I'm collecting life without living it."
Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity by Sam Miller
St. Martin's, July 20, 2010
And I'm so glad I did. Delhi is an engrossing book, by turns romantic and down-to-earth. It takes the form of a travelogue: Miller sets out to walk through Delhi in a spiral, slowly moving out from the city's center at Connaught Place, and recording his impressions and encounters along the way. Miller is an appealing travel guide; a white Englishman married to an Indian woman from Mumbai, he's lived in India long enough to take the country's eccentricities in stride, but he's still enough of an outsider that he makes the reader feel they are discovering the city along with him. Delhi is a fascinating city with a long history and a rapidly approaching future, and Miller's many asides, footnotes and "intermissions" are as enlightening (and entertaining) as the journey itself.
Hidden away behind the construction site . . . is Agarsen's Baoli, central Delhi's oldest building. Six thousand years old, and built by the uncle of the Hindu god, Lord Krishna, according to its watchman. A mere seven hundred years old, according to historians. Agarsen was probably a thirteenth-century chieftain and a baoli is a rectangular step-well. Through a padlocked gate opened by a taciturn, bidi-smoking watchman, I climb up onto a large plinth from where one hundred stone steps lead down to the bottom of the well.
Although this is only my second visit, it is a view I have seen many times before, thanks to a Delhi photographer called Raghu Rai, with a Cartier-Bresson-like instinct for the decisive moment. In a photograph taken in 1976, a young boy is caught at the moment of launching himself from a wall into the waters of the baoli, a dive of at least twelve feet. Above loom some of the newly constructed high-rises of Tolstoy Marg and Barakhamba Road, but beneath is the ancient step-well. I ask the watchman if he has seen the photograph, and he stuns me by saying that he, Bagh Singh, grizzled and grey-haired, was that diving boy. He sends a young girl off to get a copy of the picture he has cut from a magazine and gets me to photograph him holding it. In the thirty years in which Bagh Singh has aged so rapidly, the water level at Agarsen's Baoli has fallen by twenty feet. A shortage of water is one of the biggest problems facing Delhi today.