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?
Dating is hard. So are statistics. But Christian Rudder, the co-founder of the dating site OkCupid, presents the facts on both in entertaining, accessible style in Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One’s Looking. Rudder uses the data you thought was private—browsing history, how long you stare at your ex’s Facebook photos, your dating profile and messages—and paints a (sometimes horrifying) portrait of human behavior. Thankfully, it’s all reported anonymously, but that’s not to say you won’t recognize yourself in the statistics. Private browsing? Pshaw. The Internet holds all, and it doesn’t forget.
People tend to run wild on those match questions, marking all kind of stuff as "mandatory," in essence putting a checklist to the world: I’m looking for a dog-loving, agnostic, nonsmoking liberal who’s never had kids—and who’s good in bed, of course. But very humble questions like Do you like scary movies? And Have you ever traveled alone to another country? have amazing predictive power. If you’re ever stumped on what to ask someone on a first date, try those. In about three-quarters of the long-term couples OkCupid has ever brought together, both people have answered them the same way, either both “yes” or both “no.” People tend to overemphasize the big, splashy things: faith, politics, certainly looks, but they don’t matter nearly as much as everyone thinks. Sometimes, they don’t matter at all.
What have you been reading lately?
Best-selling British author Amanda Prowse, who often draws comparisons to the beloved Jodi Picoult, is making her U.S. debut this fall. After her self-published debut, Poppy Day, took off in 2011, Prowse was picked up by Head of Zeus and has become a household name across the pond.
What Have I Done? is the second novel in Prowse's No Greater Love series, and it hits American shelves for the first time next week. The story follows Kathryn Booker, the wife of the beloved headmaster of Mountbriers Academy, a posh private school. To the average onlooker, Kathryn lives a life of domestic bliss: She lives in a charming cottage with a perfectly manicured garden; she has a doting husband and two precocious children. But Kathryn knows it's all a lie, and every day she endures abuse from her astonishingly cruel husband, until one day, she decides to break free.
Kathryn Booker watched the life slip from him, convinced she saw the black spirit snake out of his body and disappear immediately through the floor, spiraling down and down. She sat back in her chair and breathed deeply. She had expected euphoria or at the very least relief. What she couldn't have predicted was the numbness that now enveloped her. Picturing her children sleeping next door, she closed her eyes and wished for them a deep and peaceful rest, knowing it would be the last they would enjoy for some time. As ever, consideration of what was best for her son and daughter was only a thought away.
The room felt quite empty beside the blood-soaked body lying centrally on the bed. The atmosphere was peaceful, the temperature just right.
Kathryn registered the smallest flicker of disappointment; she had expected to feel more . . .
"Emergency, which service do you require?"
"Oh, hello, yes, I'm not too sure which service I require."
"You are not sure?"
"I think I probably need the police or ambulance, maybe both. Sorry. As I said, I'm not too sure . . ."
"Can I ask you what it is in connection with, madam?"
"Oh, right, yes, of course. I have just murdered my husband."
What are you reading?
It's not uncommon for a mystery or thriller author to have a pretty cool backstory. I'm thinking former CIA agent Jason Matthews (author of Red Sparrow), former MI6 agent Matthew Dunn (whose upcoming thriller Dark Spies will be reviewed in the October issue of BookPage) and Stella Rimington, the first female chief of MI5—and that's just off the top of my head. So Patrick Hoffman's history as a former private investigator isn't all that exciting—that is, until I cracked his debut and discovered this guy's eye for detail.
Hoffman transforms San Francisco into a noir playground for all sorts of shady characters—the kind that can only come from the mind of a writer who really gets people, their secrets and the lengths to which they'll go when they have no good choices.
The White Van opens on Emily Rosario. One moment she's drinking whiskey with a Russian businessman, and the next she's drugged up, in and out of sleep, and being prepped to perform a bank robbery. Cop Leo Elias finds himself in pursuit of the stolen cash, but not with entirely honorable motives. Read on for an excerpt, a flash from Emily's unnerving drugged-up perspective:
It had been six days in the hotel now. Six days filled with sleep. When she wasn't sleeping, when she floated back up into the world, Emily was greeted by the Russian, the woman, or both.
"You need to start doing a little more work," said the woman at one point. "We're paying you!"
"What?" was all Emily could manage to say.
"Look," said the woman, pointing at the table. Emily loked and saw a Styrofoam container filled with food. "You're making a fucking mess," said the woman.
"That's not mine," said Emily.
"Come," said the woman. Emily stepped toward the table. The woman, her face made ugly with anger, stuck her fingers into the brown gravy, held them up for Emily to see, and then smeared the gravy across the table. "Clean it," she said, holding a bathroom towel out for her.
Emily stepped forward and cleaned the gravy with the towel. The woman lifted the container and dumped the remaining food onto the table. "Clean it," she said.
Emily began wiping at it with the towel, but the woman, her eyebrows raised, interrupted her by pointing at a trash can. Emily, feeling a strange disassociation with her own body, brought the trash can to the table, put the Sytrofoam container into it, and then, with the towel, pushed in the mess of gravy and food off the table and into the trash. She then wiped up the remaining mess.
"See, good, not too hard, right?" said the woman. "A little work never killed anyone."
They fed her candy as a reward. They gave her Starbursts. The three of them, Emily and the woman and the Russian, would sit at the table and eat candy, piling wrappers in the center. They made her drink soup and eat slices of bread. The sore under Emily's mouth had healed. She was being taken care of. She slept.
The woman would stand over Emily's bed and—in a voice that was meant to sound comforting—sing Sinatra songs. She would sing It had to be you, her accent pronounced and her voice flat. It had to be you.
What are you reading?
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?
Pablo Picasso is widely regarded as one of the most brilliant artists of the 20th century. He is also remembered as a notorious, and often cruel, lover of women. Anne Girard's Madame Picasso explores the relationship between Picasso and his beloved muse, Eva Gouel (also known as Marcelle Humbert, a name she adopted in an attempt to sound more Parisian).
After defying her provincial parents' wishes and moving to Paris, Eva Gouel is delighted when she lands a job as a seamstress at the Moulin Rouge. A naive but genuine lover of art, she is also thrilled—and baffled—when the controversial and alluring artist Pablo Picasso takes an interest in her. As her affair with Picasso evolves and she is ushered into the decadent world of elite Belle Époque Paris, Eva struggles with insecurities and self-doubt. Little is known of Gouel, the women many consider to be Picasso's truest love, but Girard revives their tumultuous relationship, as well as its tragic demise, with skill.
Eva had fallen asleep on the windowsill, but the giggles and whispers out in the corridor woke her suddenly. When she opened her eyes, she could see that the sky had cleared. It was such a lovely cerulean blue day.
"It's him, I tell you! I've seen him before! Look down below there, in the lane!"
"He's so handsome, and famous! What the devil would he want with Marcelle?"
The voices carried through the paper-thin walls between the small rooms. Eva glanced down then and saw Picasso standing outside the door of the dormitory, wearing a proper dark suit, hat and read silk necktie. He was holding a bouquet of flowers: daises, daffodils, lilies of the valley and white roses, tied with a bright yellow ribbon. The ribbon was the color of her mother's silk kimono. She was too stunned, at first, to think. Even after everything, it seemed slightly unbelievable that he might be here for her.
Eva skittered onto her feet and glanced at the mirror on the wall beside her bed. She pinched both cheeks, which were already flushed from the sudden shock of seeing him. Then she slipped on her shoes, and pulled open the door with such force that it sprang back and crashed against the wall. The giggles and whispers stopped as Eva tumbled out into the hall and past the catty girls gathered there.
What are you reading?
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?
Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis
Soho, $25, ISBN 9781616954529
on sale September 9, 2014
Coming of age in Greenwich Village in the 1970s isn't easy for teenaged Rainey Royal. Her mother has left her and her father alone in their tumbledown brownstone, and he's too busy trying to build a jazz career to notice his best friend and housemate, Gordy, making moves on Rainey. In these 14 linked short stories, O. Henry Award winner Dylan Landis chronicles Rainey's journey from teen to woman, focusing on the strange power of teen girls—and its limits.
"You come in my room while I'm sleeping?" From the way he looks at her, she knows they both know that she knows. She waits for him to laugh at her. "Don't you dare laugh," she says.
He doesn't laugh. "You have no right," she says. She pulls back her hand and slaps him on the face, to see if it will relieve her of the horrible knowing feeling. It does, a little, though her hand must be burning at least as much as his cheek. His skin turns bright red. She wonders if he is really albino or just incredibly pale. He makes no move to slap her back.
"You sent me signals," says Gordy. "You've sent me signals your entire life."
Signals? She sends signals to everyone, all the time, even if the signals are submerged, like telexes in cables on the ocean floor. It's what she does. It doesn't seem to be something a person can learn; Leah is hopeless at it.
Gordy raises his elbows to block her raised hand. "You never said no." He backs up toward his bedroom door.
Two flights down, the doorbell rasps. "You weren't listening," says Rainey, and shoulders past him and downstairs.
What are you reading this week?
There's something ominous circling the three characters in David Shafer's debut novel, but quite frankly, I haven't been giving it much attention. I've been far too caught up in Shafer's unrelenting humor—which is wicked and dark, just how I like it—and his spotless characterization. That being said, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot also fulfills all the requirements of an outstanding technothriller, with pulsing strains of paranoia and those all-seeing technological powers-that-be.
The story centers around 30-somethings Leila, Leo and Mark. Leo and Mark were friends at Harvard, but Leo is now a bit of a loser, while Mark is a phony self-help guide who works for the Committee, a data collection agency that seeks to privatize all information. Leila is a disillusioned nonprofit worker on the other side of the world. The only thing keeping the Committee from its goal is a secret underground Internet called Dear Diary. With jabs at every political angle, a love story and plenty of cool tech, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a pageturner of the highest order.
Read on for an excerpt from Leo's first scene:
There was no one even near Leo when he flew from his bike. His mind cast about for a culprit, for someone to blame other than himself. The bike just ceased its forward motion and he did not. How surprising, how nifty physics was. And as he trebucheted toward a four-inch curb, aware at once that his meeting with it would be physically calamitous, he remembered that he was wearing no helmet, and his surprised turned to fear. A month ago, at a party to which his friend Louis had brought him, Leo had heard (well, overheard) the host claiming that he wasn't afraid of death. That particular claim seemed to Leo to be demonstrably false. So, costumed as Jesus (for this was a Halloween party), Leo had decided to explore the man's reasoning. Not afraid of death, huh? My, that must make you a real psychopath. But he had seen almost immediately that he should not have told the man that he was like a Holocaust denier. "I said like a Holocaust denier. Like," he protested lamely when Louis escorted him out of the party and told him to enjoy the bracing walk home dressed as Jesus.
No, thought Leo, as he landed his right hand, fingertips first, on the cold nubbly of the curb, I am definitely more than a body, but I believe I am less than a soul.
Then, with a fluid agility that hadn't been his in years, Leo tucked his head and vertical body behind the leading edge of his rounded arm. Some latent muscle memory from five months of jujitsu at the McBurney YMA on West Sixty-Third Street from when he was ten? Leo seemed to recall that this YMCA had in fact served the adventurous class of men described in the song. Now, he felt a point beneath his stomach become the axis of his spinning mass, and he knew to use that dragony breath to take the hit when, after about 120 degrees, his trunk met the sidewalk, hard. Next was his hip and ass, which rolled over not just the concrete but also a busted padlock on the scene by chance. Then came his knees and feet, with a thwack. That was followed by his trailing left arm, which lay down gently, and his gloved palm, which landed and sprang back, the way a conguero lands a hand on the taut hide of his drum.
Leo stood up. He was fine. Just fine. Right as rain.
Leo stood up again, this time more carefully. Okay, maybe fine was an overstatement. But ambulatory and intact. A bit exhilarated, actually.
His bike lay twisted in the street behind him, its front tire still clamped in the groove of the new light-rail system tracks they were laying all over town. Only now did he notice the yellow-and-black warming signs that would have made him aware of the hazard his bike had to cross. The graphics depicted pretty much what had just happened: a bicycle with its front wheel caught in the maw of the track, the blockish pictogram rider hurtling over the handlebars. An honest piece of graphic art; a tiny, two-line picture poem, thought Leo, and he started to upbraid himself for his carelessness and lack of attention.
But wait. On one corner—the direction from which he'd come—the warning sign was there, but it was swathed in black plastic, taped up tight.
The thought came like a revelation: This was no accident. They obscured that sign because they want me eliminated.
Some part of him said, No, don't be ridiculous. But then why was only one sign shrouded?
What are you reading today?