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?
How many writers manage to publish a novel and an essay collection over the course of one summer? Roxane Gay's debut, An Untamed State, was published in May, but before she became a novelist she was known for her penetrating essays and cultural criticism. Bad Feminist contains both of these, alongside deeply personal writing—including a depiction of her assault at the age of 12—and more lighthearted pieces about Scrabble tournaments and reality TV.
The collection takes its title from the final two essays, which explore how prescriptive the definition of "feminist" can sometimes be, and how Gay at times feels she comes up short.
Alas, poor feminism. So much responsibility keeps getting piled on the shoulders of a movement whose primary purpose is to achieve equality, in all realms, between men and women. I keep reading these articles and getting angry and tired because they suggest there's no way for women to ever get it right. These articles make it seem like, as Butler suggests, there is in fact, a right way to be a woman and a wrong way to be a woman. The standard for the right way to be a woman and/or a feminist appears to be ever changing and unachievable.
Gay's insightful exploration of this topic makes readers worry less about their occasional shortcomings and more comfortable with being human.
What are you reading this week?
Exhilarated by her newfound passion for archeology, Catherine Lemay is left feeling deflated when she's assigned to a dig in the sprawling sagebrush of 1950s Montana. Here, she must ascertain if there is anything significant worth saving in the deep pit of a canyon before plans for a major dam can progress. If she finds nothing of importance, the canyon, considered sacred to the local Crow Native Americans, will be drowned. Accustomed to thrilling, richly rewarding digs in England, Catherine is less than enthused by the endless, seemingly empty landscape before her.
A sliver of gray stone pierced the rubber tread like a spike. She stood there and watched the tire empty and for the first time since the day she watched the English coast recede behind her, felt as though she might break down and cry. She fought the tears until the wave passed.
Exiles and emigrés haunt the pages of Vanessa Manko's evocative debut novel, which spans decades and continents. The story begins in 1913 Connecticut, where Russian emigré Austin has come to escape the pogroms and turmoil of his native land. After several years of hard work, he can afford to leave his cheap men's lodging house for a real boarding house, where he finds not only a room that only belongs to him, but an American woman he loves. But when the Bolshevik Revolution really takes hold in Russia, Austin finds himself under suspicion and expelled from his new home along with Julia, whom he marries at Ellis Island just before they are sent to Russia. Will he ever find his way back to the country he longs to call home?
The newspapers were calling it the Soviet Ark. The New York Times, January 1920, ran photos. A massive ship, anchored at Ellis Island on a bitter day. They stood on the peir amid the wind and ice. The sky opaque, flurries like chipped ice. The only sounds the murmur of men's conversations, seagulls crying, the moan of the boat on the day's hard air. The anchor cranking like a scream; the massive chain lifted out of the ocean, iron red with rust, calcified with sea salt, seaweed. Just moments before, he'd sat on the long benches of the waiting room, the very room he'd sat in only years prior eager to get beyond the bottled-glass windows whose light he knew was day in America—a country behind glass, the new country's light. . . . Somewhere, a man named Hoover had his name on an index card: Voronkov. Affirmed anarchist. Bail set at $10,000. Deported.
What are you reading this week?
The City by Dean Koontz
Bantam, $28, ISBN 9780345545930
On sale July 1, 2014
Dean Koontz has long been known for providing thrills and chills to readers, but his new novel The City is something of an exception. Set in the 1960s and 1970s, it tells the story of Jonah Kirk, growing up as part of a close family in a nameless city and dreaming of becoming a "piano man." Jonah becomes a remarkable boy mostly thanks to his remarkable mother, who gave up her own dreams of attending Oberlin to have and raise him without much help from Jonah's ne'er do well father. Their close relationship is a highlight of the book, as shown in this excerpt, which takes place shortly after Jonah's mother has thrown his father out for good.
After school that day, I walked to the community center to practice piano. When I got home, all she said was, "Your father's no longer living here. He went upstairs to help Miss Delvane with her rodeo act, and I wasn't having any of that."
Too young to sift the true meaning of her words, I found the idea of a mechanical horse more fascinating than ever and hoped I might one day see it. My mother's Reader's Digest condensation of my father's leaving didn't satisfy my curiousity. I had many questions but I refrained from asking them. . . . Right then I told Mom the secret I couldn't have revealed when Tilton lived with is, that I had been taking piano lessons from Mrs. O'Toole for more than two months. She hugged me and got teary and apologized, and I didn't understand what she was apologizing for. She said it didn't matter if I understood, all that mattered was that she would never again allow anyone or anything to get between me and a piano and any other dream I might have.
What are you reading this week?
Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg's debut novel is as dreamlike and as filled with potential horrors as one of his movies: Photographers Naomi and Nathan are lovers and competitors, but Cronenberg establishes early on that their two plotlines will not meet for a long time. Naomi has become obsessed with a "juicy French philosophical sex-killing murder-suicide cannibal thing"—a Marxist philosopher is found dead and mutilated in her French apartment, and her husband is nowhere to be found. Nathan is in Budapest, consumed with a "controversial Hungarian breast-cancer radioactive seed implant treatment thing," and after sleeping with one of unlicensed surgeon Dr. Zoltán Molnár's patients, he contracts a rare STD that sends him to Toronto in search of the man who first discovered the disease.
Consumed has a blurb from Viggo Mortensen (though they're clearly pretty good friends) and mentions a Gauloise in the second paragraph (of course). It's also hard to ignore the publicity materials throwing around names like Kafka and Borges, and words like "definitive heir," though film critics have been saying as much for years.
With all this in mind—as well as remembering my dislike for Cronenberg's most recent film, the limo thriller Cosmopolis, based on the 2003 novel by Don DeLillo—I approach Consumed with equal parts delight and healthy skepticism.
Read on for an introduction to Dr. Zoltán Molnár, a character that seems ideal for Cronenberg's style of exploratory, psychological storytelling and body horror:
And now, in a very smooth segue—which Nathan thought of as particularly Hungarian—Dr. Molnár said, "Have you met our patient, Nathan? She's from Slovenia. Une belle Slave." Molnár peeked over the cloth barrier and spoke to the disconnected head with disarmingly conversational brio. "Dunja? Have you met Nathan? You signed a release form for him, and now he's here with us in the operating theater. Why don't you say hello?"
At first Nathan thought that the good doctor was teasing him; Molnár had emphasized the element of playfulness in his unique brand of surgery, and chatting with an unconscious patient would certainly qualify as Molnáresque. But to Nathan's surprise Dunja's eyes began to stutter open, she began working her tongue and lips as though she were thirsty, she took a quick little breath that was almost like a yawn.
"Ah, there she is," said Molnár. "My precious one. Hello, darling." Nathan took a step backward in his slippery paper booties in order not to impede the strange, intimate flow between patient and doctor. Could she and her surgeon be having an affair? Could this really be written off as Hungarian bedside manner? Molnár touched his latex-bound fingertips to his masked mouth, then pressed the filtered kiss to Dunja's lips. She giggled, then slipped away dreamily, then came back. "Talk to Nathan," said Molnár, withdrawing with a bow. He had things to do.
Dunja struggled to focus on Nathan, a process so electromechanical that it seemed photographic. And then she said, "Oh, yes, take pictures of me like this. It's cruel, but I want you to do that. Zoltán is very naughty. A naughty doctor. He came to interview me, and we spent quite a bit of time together in my hometown, which is"—another druggy giggle—"somewhere in Slovenia. I can't remember it."
"Ljubljana," Molnár called out from the foot of the table, where he was sorting through instruments with his colleagues.
"Thank you, naughty doctor. You know, it's your fault I can't remember anything. You love to drug me."
Nathan began to photograph Dunja's face. She turned toward the camera like a sunflower.
Will you pick up Consumed when it's available this September? What are you reading today?
My Wish List by Grégoire Delacourt
Penguin • $15 • ISBN 9780143124658
On sale March 25
Whether you actually play or not, you have probably imagined, just once, how your life could change if you won the lottery. It's also common to wonder, at midlife, how the life you have built measures up to the life you dreamed about when you were just starting out. French novelist Grégoire Delacourt takes this premise for his new novel, My Wish List, which was a #1 bestseller in France. His heroine, Jocelyne, owns a fabric shop and is happy with her 21-year marriage and her two children. But she can't help but think about how her life falls short of the life she imagined when she was in school.
Then Jocelyne wins 18 million euros in the lottery, and has the ability to make any dream come true. Faced with the reality of changing her life, she starts to wonder: Does she really want to?
Being rich means seeing all that's ugly and having the arrogance to think you can change things. All you have to do is pay for it.
But I'm not as rich as all that. I just happen to have a cheque for eighteen million five hundred and forty-seven thousand, three hundred and one euros and twenty-eight centimes, folded eight times and hidden inside a shoe. All I have is the temptation. A possible new life. A new house. A new TV set. Lots of new things.
But nothing really different.
Later, I rejoin my husband in the hotel restaurant. He has ordered a bottle of wine. We drink to each other. Let's hope nothing changes and we go on as we are, he says. Nothing really different.
What are you reading this week?
House of Glass by Sophie Littlefield
MIRA • $14.95 • ISBN 9780778314783
Published on February 25, 2014
Jen Glass lives with her husband and two children in a beautiful home in a suburb of Minneapolis. From the outside, the family couldn't look better. But on the inside, things are falling apart: Jen and her husband, Ted, are barely speaking; their teen daughter is sullen and distant and their young son has developmental delays. Just when Jen thinks things can't get any worse, they do. One night, two men break into the Glass home, but the routine robbery becomes something much worse when the family is held hostage in their own basement. Jen and Ted must overcome their differences in order to make sure their family survives the days to come.
Jen put her hand on the brass knob. Later, she would remember this detail, the warmth of the old brass to her touch, the way she had to tug to clear the slight jam.
Standing in the hallway was her beautiful daughter, her face exquisitely frozen, her lips parted and her long-lashed eyes wide with terror.
On her left, a man Jen had never seen before held Teddy in his arms, her little boy flailing ineffectively against his grip.
On her right, a man who looked unnervingly like Orlando Bloom pressed a gun to Livvy's head.
What are you reading this week?
The Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh
Crown • $25 • ISBN 9780307461605
On sale March 4, 2014
In her second novel, Therese Walsh explores the tumultuous, yet fiercely loyal bond between two young sisters, Jazz and Olivia Moon. After their mother dies of an apparent suicide, Olivia, whose synesthesia causes her to see sounds and taste sights, is determined to chase their mother's dream of seeing a fabled ghost light in the bogs of West Virginia. A resentful Jazz is cajoled into helping Olivia reach her destination, but there's plenty of trouble along the way. When their borrowed vintage bus breaks down, Olivia tries to shake Jazz loose and acts on her first impulse—she hops a train and forges a fragile alliance with some fellow travelers.
Readers who love a good road trip story will want to check this one out, and Walsh taps into a family's grieving process with sincerity. Here's the opening of the first chapter, told from Jazz's perspective:
My sister began staring at the sun after our mother died, because she swore it smelled like her. For me, it would always be the scent of oven gas, since that’s how Mama went—fumes pouring out, her breathing them in. Like Sylvia Plath, my father said, because Mama was a tortured writer, too.
Olivia’s actions were just as purposeful. Burned her retinas out over a period of months, made it so she couldn’t drive or even read. Well, she could’ve, if she’d used the glasses the doctor gave her—those big things that look like telescopes on her face—but she wouldn’t. So no reading. No driving. Instead, she lived with her head always tilted to the side, with an oil smudge in the center of everything she might want to see.
My sister’s reality had always been bizarre, though, with her ability to taste words and see sounds and smell a person on the sun. So when she decided to toss our dead mother’s ashes into a suitcase and go off to the setting of our dead mother’s story to find a ghost light, I wasn’t all that surprised. She’d never been the poster child for sense.
Will you check out The Moon Sisters? What are you reading this week?
The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon
Doubleday • $25.95 • ISBN 9780385538497 • on sale February 11, 2014
Could there be a more apropos time to read Jennifer McMahon's chilling new novel, The Winter People, than while a "polar vortex" funnels arctic air across much of the country? One thing's for sure—this is a super-creepy book. Like, sleep-with-the-lights-on, close-the-closet-door scary, with plenty of hair-raising moments that will linger in your thoughts long after reading them.
Haunting in more ways than one, The Winter People is primarily set in West Hall, a remote small town in Vermont. The story alternates between the diary of Sara Harrison Shea, who was brutally murdered back in 1908 shortly after the heartbreaking death of her young daughter, and a present-day mystery revolving around the disappearance of Alice—who happens to live in the old Shea farmhouse. Alice's daughters, Ruthie and Fawn, go in search of their mother and end up making some horrifying discoveries about the past and themselves. Add in some unexpected twists, and you've got a genuine page-turner.
Here's the opening entry from Sara's diary, to lure you in:
January 29, 1908
The first time I saw a sleeper, I was nine years old. It was the spring before Papa sent Auntie away—before we lost my brother, Jacob. My sister, Constance, had married the fall before and moved to Graniteville.
I was up exploring in the woods, near the Devil's Hand, where Papa had forbidden us to play. The trees were leafing out, making a lush green canopy overhead. The sun had warmed the soil, giving the damp woods a rich, loamy smell. Here and there beneath the beech, sugar maple, and birch trees were spring flowers: trilliums, trout lilies, and my favorite, jack-in-the-pulpit, a funny little flower with a secret: if you lifted the striped hood, you'll find the preacher underneath. Auntie had shown me this, and taught me that you could dig up the tubers and cook them like turnips. I had just found one and was pulling back the hood, looking for the tiny figure underneath, when I heard footsteps, slow and steady, moving my way. Heavy feet dragging through the dry leaves, stumbling on roots. I wanted to run, but froze with panic, having squatted down low behind a rock just as a figure moved into the clearing.
I recognized her at once—Hester Jameson.
She'd died two weeks before from typhoid fever. I had attended her funeral with Papa and Jacob, seen her laid to rest in the cemetery behind the church up by Cranberry Meadow. Everyone from school was there, all in Sunday best.
Look for our review of The Winter People—our Top Pick in fiction for February!—in next month's issue of BookPage.
What do you think, readers? Will you be adding this to your TBR list? What are you reading this week?