Two books about diseases and public health

I’ve mentioned a few times that my research focus during my MA was disease (specifically rabies) and the Victorian novel. I’m still very interested in diseases in general, especially how we construct narratives of disease and how these narratives—often deeply ingrained—influence our ideas about public health. Old (research) habits die hard: whenever I see a new cultural history of disease come out, I buy it. And that’s how I came to have Eula Biss’s On Immunity and Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map sitting unread on my shelf. I packed both for a vacation last month. I know, I am great at picking beach reads.

onimmunityAs its title suggests, On Immunity is an examination of the idea of immunity. Biss was inspired to write the book after she had a baby and faced the question of whether or not to vaccinate him. Biss did vaccinate her son, as she had always thought she would, but she was surprised by the amount of fear she felt herself, and encountered in others, when she talked to other mothers about this choice. She started thinking about vaccination, and the idea of immunity, and how vaccines developed in the first place, and this strange cultural moment we live in where people are opting out of vaccines that have saved literally millions of lives in the past hundred years. (I’m wildly pro-vaccine, in case that wasn’t clear before.)

In On Immunity, Biss interrogates the metaphors and myths we use to describe immunity. Vaccination is an expression of fear, whether it is fear of something concrete and relatively preventable such as death by measles, or something far more intangible, such as the fear of death itself. But the anti-vaccination movement is also based on fear: fear of the government, fear of Big Pharma, fear of injecting the unknown into your body. If skin is a barrier between our bodies (our selves?) and the outside world, then vaccination penetrates that barrier—all in the name of granting you immunity.  It does seem contradictory, doesn’t it? After all, vaccines contain the very viruses they are supposed to be protecting us from. The earliest form of inoculation against smallpox involved rubbing scabs or fluid from a smallpox patient into one’s own skin.

Biss understands this fear of vaccines on an individual level, but she also points out that in the case of infectious disease, our bodies may not be solely our own. Herd immunity, which means the general immunity to a particular disease in a population of people, depends upon people getting vaccinated. As the recent resurgence of diseases like measles shows, it only takes a few nutty people to threaten herd immunity for everyone. And there are people who can’t be vaccinated for health reasons (ex. allergies) or who have compromised immune systems (ex. cancer patients). What is our responsibility to public health? Are we required to be vaccinated so that others won’t get sick? Health is assessed on an individual level at our yearly physicals, but our own physical health depends in many ways upon the health of our community, especially when it comes to infectious diseases.

Victorian London learned this the hard way during the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak. Cholera was the scourge of the 19th century, popping up every so often and routinely killing thousands of people per outbreak. (Cholera is still a problem today.) No one knew how it was spread until the Broad Street outbreak, but there were plenty of theories, chief among them the miasma theory. Simply put, back then, London stank. Lots of people crammed into tiny dwellings leads to lots of waste, and Victorian Londoners weren’t so great at managing their sewer system (or, um, having one). The air in London smelled pretty bad. Many respected officials and doctors believed that diseases, including cholera, were spread by this “bad air,” aka the miasma theory.

A cartoon from humour mag Punch depicting the Thames, the source of the stinky air. Source.

An 1858 cartoon from humour mag Punch depicting the Thames, the source of the stinky air. Source.

Along came John Snow, a doctor who was already notorious for pioneering the use of anaesthesia. When an outbreak of cholera occurred in his neighbourhood in Soho, he mapped the instances of disease and traced them all back to one water pump, where he found that the water supply had been contaminated by one household suffering from cholera. Feces from that household made its way into the water supply, and the disease spread through the water supply into the surrounding houses with devastating effects. Snow was one of the first epidemiologists, although he never got the credit he deserved and died without having his theory accepted by the medical establishment of the day.

ghostmapThe Ghost Map tells the story of this outbreak and Snow’s investigations. It is well-researched and fascinating, like a thriller where the villain is invisible and also causes a lot of diarrhea and suffering. I wish, though, that Johnson had spent more time investigating the cultural context of cholera and how Victorians thought about disease. The idea of the social body is an important one to add to this discussion, especially because it still has relevance today (see Biss’s questions about whether we owe it to our neighbours to get vaccinated). And how did Victorians approach infectious diseases like cholera, tuberculosis, and typhoid fever?  How did they write about disease in their newspapers, depict it in cartoons, confront it in their fiction? They had limited medical knowledge of pathogens and germs, but they were beginning to break through in other important areas (microscopes, the idea of inoculation). It seems to me that this conflict gave rise to many inaccurate but interesting depictions of diseases that suggest a society obsessed with health, illness, and infection. The Ghost Map could have benefited from some discussion of these questions.

In some ways, we’re still Victorians. Just like them, we’re obsessed with health. Also like them, and other humans throughout history, we still infuse our disease-related language with metaphor. As Biss points out, the way we talk about many diseases is steeped in the language of battle: so-and-so “lost her battle with cancer,” white blood cells are “armies” that keep our bodies safe from infection. In our struggle to understand our bodies, we rely on metaphor to give shape to our invisible inner workings. As Susan Sontag argues in Illness as Metaphor (a must-read for anyone interested in these issues), our dependence on metaphor leads to moral judgments about certain diseases. Sontag looks at consumption (tuberculosis) in the 19th century and cancer in the 20th and concludes that our disease metaphors lead to a kind of blame the victim mentality. For the Victorians, all kinds of diseases could blamed on emotional repression or moral failings. Countless novels feature women who are forced to bury their feelings and are soon wasting away from some nameless ailment. Men in the same novels who are “weak” and prone to drink inevitably end up dying of their own unnamed illness. And not a lot has changed in how we talk about illness. In 1978, when Sontag wrote Illness as Metaphor, one alternative cancer treatment involved psychotherapy to help find out what part of your personality brought cancer upon you.

Likewise, our current obsession with trends like “clean eating” often leads us to assume that people who don’t eat chickens that were raised to believe in themselves and organic blueberries watered with angel tears are doomed. There is, of course, a lot of privilege involved in these assumptions we make about health and wellness. The point is, a disease is never just a disease.  It’s a battle we must fight. It’s a statement about our incomes, the food we eat, the amount of exercise we get, the kind of sex we have or the number of partners, the amount of alcohol we drink. It’s a sign of our most private defects, writ upon our bodies for the whole world to see.

And why do we think about disease this way? I don’t know, but I suspect it’s because we have a hard time accepting that our bodies are, ultimately, out of our control. We can eat all the happy chicken we want and avoid pesticides and wear a mask on the subway, but we’ll still get sick, especially if we live in large urban centres (and increasingly, many of us do). There are precious few things we can control about our bodies. All the more reason to get vaccinated.

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A Whole Shelf of Dating Books, or the Beginning of My Charlotte Lucas Year

I turned twenty-seven last week. I’m also single. Fans of Jane Austen will know that this puts me firmly in Charlotte Lucas territory. In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte is the best friend of Elizabeth Bennet, our protagonist. Charlotte is described as around twenty-seven, plain, but sensible and practical. Charlotte is really more notable for what she isn’t; as Joshua Rothman writes, she’s not young, not pretty, and not rich. Not married. And at the age of twenty-seven, she’s a spinster.

The cover of Bolick's Spinster is a masterpiece of modern marketing. Try to count all the subliminal messages being sent here.

The cover of Bolick’s Spinster is a masterpiece of marketing. Try to count all the subliminal messages being sent here.

P&P was published in 1813,  but people are still interested in that word, it seems. Many women are “reclaiming” it, turning it from something derisive into something else, but we’re not sure what, exactly, that something else is. In Spinster, published earlier this year, Kate Bolick wrote about her desire to build a life on her own terms, taking inspiration from five female American writers who had complicated relationships with men and marriage. Spinster is a thought-provoking, though frustratingly self-absorbed, look at the choice to remain single. Bolick’s conclusion seems to be that any woman can be a spinster if she decides to spend time thinking carefully about what she wants from her life, if she tries to find a way to build that life by following a less traditional path, if she simply decides that she’d rather not get married. And instead of being an object of scorn, Bolick’s spinster is admirable, even aspirational, in her radical desire to make choices that are unencumbered by men.*

(* A few notes here: Spinster discusses heterosexual relationships, mainly, from what I can remember. Naturally, same-sex relationships complicate the issue. And the idea that anyone makes choices in a vacuum, uninfluenced by past boyfriends or fathers or even just male friends, is definitely suspect. But this is how Bolick characterizes her spinsters.)

Edwin Long's The Spinster from Internet Archive/U of T Library. Source.

Edwin Long’s The Spinster from Internet Archive/U of T Library. Source.

Spinsters are pretty in right now. Lots of women (and men, too) are posting images of themselves with their cats to Instagram and silly Tweets about nightgowns and eating chocolate in bed (just a few examples from my own life…), using hashtags like #spinsterlife. The Toast, probably the Internet’s most popular blog for spinsters (which I say with admiration), has done a number of hilarious pieces about modern spinsters. Has spinsterhood become some kind of hipster lifestyle movement? Is it now about having cats and enjoying knitting and going on vacation alone? If so, I’m on board. We don’t need “spinster” as a legal categorization anymore (“single” or “unmarried” will do just fine, thanks), so let’s make it into a different thing, a fun, tongue-in-cheek kind of thing. Let’s all solve a murder and then go out for gin-based cocktails and head back to our perfectly decorated apartments-for-one like real badass spinsters.

In real life (and some fiction), spinsters were objects of derision or pity. They began as independent women who spun fabric. And then, probably because unmarried women are threatening to a society that depends upon heterosexual marriage for reproduction, something changed and they became lonely figures. They weren’t cool aspirational figures who could do whatever they wanted; they were often women without family or money who couldn’t work because Sexism and so had to make ends meet with limited resources. As Briallen Hopper points out, for a book called Spinster, Bolick’s memoir/cultural history doesn’t have much to say about those kinds of spinsters. (In fact, it’s really not much of a cultural history at all, preoccupied as it is with white, relatively privileged New York writers. I’d love to read a book about the evolving figure of the spinster, from spinning fabric to today, if there are any out there.) Most of the five women Bolick profiles were married at least once. Bolick writes about the relationships she herself had in between bouts of living alone, travelling, and prioritizing her work. Bolick isn’t living a life apart from men; she’s constructing her life and fitting men in here and there when she wants to.

An 1881 cartoon from the British humour mag Punch. Source.

The “real” spinster is missing, or at least the spinster as we’re most familiar with her: the dour maiden aunt or neighbour with her pursed lips and reduced circumstances, hiding a secret life behind closed doors, the object of many speculations about why she never married—the Emily Dickinsons and Emily Griersons of this world (is Emily a spinster name or what?), the Miss Havishams, the Miss Bateses, all of the many unmarried women in Henry James and Edith Wharton and Charlotte Bronte, even Miss Marple. Austen herself, and most of the Brontes, and lots of other female writers. These are women who are uninteresting to men for reasons of looks, money, or personality (too outspoken, too awkward, not agreeable enough) or threatening to men because of their intelligence and desire for something other than marriage in a time when marriage was the only acceptable end to their stories. The Charlotte Lucases of fiction.

Charlotte, of course, becomes not-a-spinster pretty quickly; she marries Elizabeth’s cousin Mr. Collins, who had previously proposed to Elizabeth and been rejected. Mr. Collins is odious—all you need to do is search for images of “Mr. Collins Pride and Prejudice BBC” and you’ll see exactly why Elizabeth, or anyone, would have refused him. He’s a pompous, self-important social climber. He simpers in front of his social superiors and self-righteously informs his cousins of what books they should be reading. He’s horrible. So why does Charlotte marry him? Because he has a wealthy patron and a good income and he’s going to inherit the Bennet house some day. Charlotte’s twenty-seven and this might be the first and last marriage proposal she receives. As Mrs. Collins, she’ll have a house of her own, probably children, and security for the rest of her life. As Miss Lucas, unmarried eldest daughter of a small-town knight, she’ll be a burden to her parents.

Mr. Collins is stomach-turning. Source.

Mr. Collins isn’t exactly tall, dark, and handsome. Source.

Rothman argues that we should try harder to understand Charlotte’s choice to marry Mr. Collins, a choice that is generally read as depressing or sad, even in the context of Charlotte’s world, Regency-era England. Especially as modern readers, we’re sad that Charlotte feels that her only option in life is to marry a man she doesn’t love. She’s the 1813 version of that Princeton mom. As Rothman points out, though, this is a choice that Charlotte makes herself, in a world that tries its hardest to deny her a choice at every turn. She’s fully aware of Mr. Collins’s defects, and her own. She isn’t pretty enough or rich enough to attract a different kind of husband, and that’s her reality. So she makes the choice to marry him, to be a wife and not a spinster, to create a life of her own (she rearranges the rooms in his house to her liking and encourages him to spend his time in the garden). Not the kind of life that Bolick decides to create, but a life that she can live with nonetheless.

I started with Spinster, but I’ve found myself reading a lot of books about these topics: dating and relationships, being single, modern love. Maybe that’s the cultural moment we’re in now. People are delaying marriage, and online dating is taking off, so people are writing about these things. There’s Spinster and a number of smart reaction pieces to it. Aziz Ansari’s book on the sociology of modern dating, Modern Romance, came out this year, following a 2014 book called It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single by Sara Eckel (there’s that number again). All of these articles and books have made me think a little harder about how we date, and why.

modern romanceAnsari writes well about the problem of dating in the modern age. Modern Romance is immensely entertaining, and reassuring, too, if you’ve ever tried online dating and thought, “Well, this is terrible.” You’re not alone, because Ansari has tried it, too, and he has a lot of funny anecdotes to share. He retells dating horror stories people told him in focus groups. He visits retirement homes to figure out how people met fifty years ago. He travels to Tokyo and Buenos Aires to see how people date in other countries. Unlike Bolick, who writes to defend the spinster life, Ansari assumes that if you’re reading his book, you’re interested in dating and settling into a serious relationship (and Modern Romance is about men and women). So he has a few practical tips about giving it more than one date, and actually meeting up in person instead of living through your screens, and so on. But he also makes a number of accurate observations about the state of modern romance. Dating is hard. We’re all on our phones all the time, and another potential date is just a swipe away. We can’t focus on the person sitting across the table from us.

9780399162879_p0_v2_s260x420-thumb-350x477-122899Eckel, too, writes about how hard dating can be. In her late thirties, Eckel was single, not by choice, and found herself frustrated by all of the well-meaning advice she received from friends. So she wrote an essay and then a book to explain why it was all wrong. You’re too picky, you’re too confident: it may be well-meaning, but it’s all contradictory. It isn’t “too picky” to reject people who want different things than you do, it’s smart. How can being “too confident” scare suitors away when people are also telling singles they should be more confident to attract others? Eckel’s argument is that most single people (those who don’t want to be single) simply haven’t met the right person yet. It’s Not You is about how it’s fine to want to be in a relationship, and Spinster is all about how it’s fine to not be in one, but they have much in common. You have to create your own life, whether you’re in a relationship or not. And you should think about the choices you make: the bad relationships you leave; the people you choose not to date or the ones you waste time with, knowing that you don’t even like them; the marriage proposal you may have turned down; the person who treated you badly and you couldn’t see it. Why did you make those choices, and what do they say about what you really want?

I’ve been jokingly referring to this as my Charlotte Lucas Year. Celebrating my birthday with a friend, I drank a cocktail called an Old Maid, a delicious sort of alcoholic lemonade, and I thought about all the things I have at twenty-seven that many spinsters before me could not. It’s 2015, and so I can date whomever I choose. More importantly, I have a job that I find fulfilling and a small amount of disposable income to spend on spinster-y things like my cat and adult colouring books and a library card catalogue. And then, I can post photos of all of those things to Instagram with a sarcastic hashtag. In my own way, I’m participating in the spinster reclaiming, celebrating elements of “spinster culture” and self-deprecatingly talking about being an old maid at twenty-seven, knowing full well that I’m not. I don’t know what Charlotte Lucas Year actually means just yet—maybe it’s just funny, or maybe it means I’m going to spend this year trying to figure out my life and what I want from it (spoiler alert: not to marry Mr. Collins). I think, though, that single or coupled, as we get older, all of us are setting off into uncharted territory. Our lives don’t look much like the lives of our parents; we’re delaying marriage and babies, not buying houses, driving Zipcars and taking transit and living in cities instead of moving to suburbs. Like Charlotte, we all have to figure out what choice is right for us, regardless of what judgmental readers have to say about it 200 years later.

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

When I first heard that HarperCollins was releasing what people were calling a “sequel” of sorts to Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, I was skeptical. Who wasn’t? On the one hand you have a reclusive, aging author who has avoided the public eye her entire life and doesn’t seem interested in publishing anything else. On the other hand, there’s a big publishing company with this unedited draft someone happened to find in the vault. Okay, sure. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say this is the most major publishing event of this century so far. This book is going to make HarperCollins a ton of money, which they know. It all sounded like a “quirky” Jason Reitman movie waiting to happen.

US_cover_of_Go_Set_a_Watchman But clearly, as someone who works in publishing, is interested in writing, and likes TKaM, I was going to have to read Go Set a Watchman. I put it off. I read all the reviews claiming that it destroys the legacy (we’ll get to this in a minute) of TKaM and portrays Beloved Father Figure Atticus Finch ™ as a racist. I read the advance first chapter, published online by various media outlets, and felt my heart sink when I found out that Scout’s brother Jem, so prominent in TKaM, was dead in this version of the story.

Then, I read the whole thing myself. Reader, I finished it in an afternoon. There are plenty of problems with Go Set a Watchman, even setting aside the questionable choice to publish it at all (which you can read about in more detail here). But I found myself enjoying it quite a bit, much more than I had expected.

Here’s the thing: Go Set a Watchman isn’t a standalone novel. It’s a first draft of TKaM, and that’s the only reason why it’s such an interesting read. If I were evaluating this novel on its own, I would say that the dialogue is frankly terrible (all speeches, no real conversations), the plot, such as it is, is poorly paced, and the climax doesn’t work. It is very, very clear that this particular draft was never edited and was instead reworked. A short flashback scene was expanded into what would become TKaM. I don’t think that Watchman needed to be published to such fanfare or marketed as a “sequel” or “continuation” to TKaM, because I feel that is quite misleading, but it’s fascinating to read. In Watchman, readers can trace exactly what editing is and what it does.

How does editing change a book? The point is that the average reader will never know. Editing is supposed to be a behind-the-scenes, invisible hand kind of activity. And yet here we are with a record of how one of the twentieth century’s most famous books became itself. Even non-publishing-nerds can agree that that’s kind of cool. You can see traces of TKaM in Watchman, of course. Even in her late twenties, Scout (now mainly referred to as Jean Louise) is all sharp edges and angles. When she visits Maycomb as an adult, she doesn’t fit in any more than she fit in when she was a child who refused to wear dresses. And the flashback scenes where Jean Louise reflects on her childhood adventures with Jem and Dill are the best parts of Watchman—funny, so realistically childlike, and poignant, especially because Jem is dead in this version of the story.

The New York Times has more information on Harper Lee’s original editor, Tay Hohoff. You can see how she would read this draft and see that it would work better as a novel told from a child’s point of view. When it became TKaM, the book got tighter and less preachy. The dialogue became real dialogue instead of two characters performing soliloquies at each other. As a historical document, Watchman is interesting reading. As a novel, well, it needs some work (which is just what it got). But there are flashes of Lee’s brilliance throughout, especially in her use of details (clothing, quirks) to establish character, and her ability to evoke mood and atmosphere in few words.

So is Atticus Finch racist? Not more racist, and certainly a lot less, than any other average seventysomething white man living in rural Alabama in the 1950s. Watchman‘s portrayal of Atticus can only be surprising to you if you a) never got past the stage of childhood where you idolize your parents, or some other parental figure, or b) know nothing about the civil rights movement and what American society was like in the 1950s. Newsflash: all white people are at least a little bit racist, even today.

Jean Louise finds out that Atticus was once a member of the KKK (only to keep an eye on their activities, someone claims) and that he’s now joined a sort of concerned citizens’ group that wants to preserve segregation and keep Black citizens of Maycomb “in their place.” This is a fairly realistic portrayal of the insidiousness of racism. Even someone like Atticus, a lawyer who appears to believe strictly in the law and justice above all else, is blind to the way his cultural upbringing has shaped his beliefs. Prejudice creeps in. Jean Louise, who has escaped to the marginally more enlightened New York City, is horrified to learn all this about her father, a man she idolized. They have a cringe-worthy confrontation that feels a little bit like a scene in a drama major’s thesis project. Jean Louise accuses her father of being racist and inconsistent. He accepts her insults because he knows she has to strangle her idealized version of him in order to finally grow up. There’s something interesting there, but it’s all a little undercooked.

Even so, Jean Louise’s realization that her father is just a man is moving, and his characterization as a lawyer who still thinks that Black people are “in their infancy” as a people is cringe-worthy, but not inaccurate to the period in which the novel was written. As a novel about race (certainly the last thing I am qualified to opine about, but here we go), where Watchman really fails is in its refusal to allow Black characters the opportunity to speak for themselves. TKaM got away with this, at least in part, because it’s told from a white child’s point of view. Scout is necessarily blind to the deeper forces at work in Maycomb. In fact, that’s the point of TKaM—she learns about the evils of racism through the trial of Tom Robinson.

But as Lawrence Hill points out, except for Calpurnia (who has a very small role in Watchman), there are no “three-dimensional, fully rendered black character[s] in either book.” The brouhaha over whether or not Atticus is racist obscures the larger point: that we’re still idealizing a white saviour from a novel published in 1960. TKaM is a snapshot of race relations at a particular time in American history. It’s written from a white perspective. It’s not a guidebook. If its subject matter, about Black men being falsely accused of crimes and white society turning a blind eye, is still relevant today, that’s a sad commentary on our failure to change, not a sign of the book’s timelessness.

And Atticus isn’t a god. Whose fault is it that Atticus turned out to be a mere mortal? Not his, and certainly not Harper Lee’s.

Twentysomething by Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig

Atwentysomething_why_do_young_adults_seem_stuck_by_robin_marantz_henig_samantha_henig_1101600489 few months ago, I started to notice I had this strange feeling: like I was kind of stuck. After a few years of moving cities, getting and leaving jobs, and finishing degrees, I’ve now been in the same job and apartment for about two years. This is the longest I’ve stayed anywhere since I finished my BA, really since I became an adult, and it feels weird. Having settled into something of a career, or at least an industry I enjoy working in, I began to think about where I wanted to go. But I was having a hard time making decisions that I’d been mulling over for a long time (literal years, in some cases): Should I go back to school? Should I start a blog? (And later, why don’t I ever update my blog?) Do I need more hobbies? Why don’t I write more? Where do I want to live? What do I really want to do?

And because my general plan for most crises is to read my way out of them, I went on a hunt for books about “quarter-life crises.” Yup, I’m one of those. I listened to Meg Jay’s TED Talk on why 30 is not the new 20, and then I read her book The Defining Decade. It terrified me because it’s about the things you should be doing in your twenties—that is, if you want to reach a set of prescribed goals by the time you’re in your thirties (career, marriage, house, children). Not all of my goals align with what Jay tells us are the markers of a settled adult life, but nevertheless, I wished I had read the book five or six years before, when I was just finishing undergrad and had most of my twenties left ahead of me.

Twentysomething

And then I found a book called Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck? by the mother/daughter writing team of Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig. Marantz Henig is the author of a New York Times article called “What Is It About 20-Somethings?“, which was about why this (my) generation seems to be taking so long to grow up. Samantha Henig is her twentysomething daughter. Twentysomething is exploratory rather than prescriptive; they give some advice, but the focus of the book is on how and why things have changed for young adults from Marantz Henig’s youth to her daughter’s. The book is divided into sections (school, work, dating/sex/marriage, friendship, etc.), and one of the authors writes the bulk of each section, with the other contributing comments here and there. At the end of each section, they both make a decision about whether this is something unique to this particular generation (Generation Y or Millennials), or whether young adulthood has always been tough and things are really just the same as ever.

This is an interesting structure for a book like this, and I especially appreciated reading Samantha Henig’s thoughts on her mother’s depiction of our generation. Their overall conclusion is the realization that life is kind of a mess when you’re in your twenties, because you’re figuring things out, and that hasn’t changed much despite all of the things today’s twentysomethings are now struggling with (for example, high student loans, recession, competitive job market, the rise of online dating and casual sex). I don’t know whether I agree, but they made a good case.

But the thing is, this book did not make me feel better or give me any direction for my life. A pat conclusion (“Things are hard! It’ll be okay!”) is not particularly what I was looking for. I think I could have learned more about choices, mistakes, and regret from one Alice Munro story. On some level, it’s helpful to know that other people struggle with the same issues that I do, but I want to know what I can do about them. Are we just supposed to wait out an entire decade of our lives until things become more clear? When I hit 30, am I suddenly going to be full of clarity and self-acceptance? This is what my friends in their thirties keep crowing about, but I am suspicious.

I’m tired, too, of reading books that suggest you need to hit certain markers of adulthood to be considered an adult. People who never get married or have children or own a home aren’t some other, lesser category of adult. So in an age where people are less likely to get married, have children, and own homes, what are the new markers of adulthood? Do we still care? That would have been an interesting book.

So, it seems that reading did not solve this particular life crisis. It’s been a few months since I read this book, and I’m still dealing with the same questions. (Don’t worry, Mom and Dad, I’ve at least ruled out going back to school for a PhD!) A more helpful plan might be to try new things and figure out what really makes me the most excited and enthused about life. And, of course, read more Alice Munro.

On the other hand, Twentysomething and The Defining Decade made me realize that I should spend more time on skills I want to develop (writing) and less time worrying that I will never develop them. Which means this blog is back in action—and while my goal is still to read through my unread books, I’m going to be blogging about the other books I read, too. And I got rid of a bunch of the unread ones, so a list update will be forthcoming.

I am now taking recommendations for novels about people in their twenties who figured out their lives. Is that a thing?

 

Quick Project Update

Not only have I not finished any other books on my list, I’ve actually purchased more (yes, I have a problem) and therefore have more to add. I’ve been reading, but I’ve been reading library books.

I’m still in the middle of A Tale of Two Cities, and as much as I have been a cheerleader for Dickens in the past, I am finding it quite boring. Just being honest! And no one is more willing than me to suffer through Dickens’s paragraphs about poor orphans and saintly girls with golden locks in order to get to his flashes of brilliance: spontaneous combustion, houses that fall down around their occupants, Wemmick’s castle. The opening sentence of Two Cities, reproduced for your reading pleasure below, is, of course, wonderful, but the rest is slow going.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

But what a sentence! Right? Doesn’t that describe every era since the dawn of time? Isn’t that what we all think about our own times—that everything is terrible and confusing but also wonderful and new? There is no other writer quite like Dickens. And so I’ll keep going with A Tale of Two Cities (and, eventually, the other two Dickens books on my shelf… oh dear).

One thing I’ve been thinking about is how people encountered this novel originally. It was published in 1859 in weekly installments in the periodical All the Year Round, run by (of course) Dickens himself, who was a true control freak. In a sense, the fact that I keep putting it down and picking it up again a week or two later is really how it was intended to be read. (OK, I’m reaching a bit here, but it’s kind of true.) In some of Dickens’s other novels that were published serially, you can really see the mechanics at work—chapters end with cliffhangers, but in the next chapter, the narrative begins in a different place or with different characters, to keep you reading for the outcome of that earlier cliffhanger. Sort of like what George R.R. Martin does in Game of Thrones and its sequels, really. Or like watching a weekly drama series on TV, a comparison that other, smarter people have already made. People today who gather around the office water cooler to talk about last night’s shocking episode of Mad Men or Homeland could just as easily be Victorians chatting to their neighbours about that week’s surprising installment of Little Dorrit. 

Dickens was a very market-savvy writer and knew exactly how to sell his own work, something that a lot of writers still aren’t very good at. (Fun fact: apparently A Tale of Two Cities is the bestselling novel of all time. I’m not sure if this is true—what about Harry Potter?—but it certainly could be true.) However, I’m having trouble tracing the marks of serialization in A Tale of Two Cities. So although I’m (sort of) encountering the novel the way that Victorian readers first did, I’m missing the sense of urgency and the typical structure, with lots of plot climaxes, that you’d find in a novel that was originally serialized. I wonder if it’s just my own disinterest in the subject matter and characters so far,* or whether Dickens had grown tired of relying on that same old serialization technique at this point in his career. I’m going to start paying closer attention to chapter openers and closers, to see if I can work this out.

* The novel is set in Paris and London during the build-up to the French Revolution. It’s one of two works of historical fiction by Dickens, all of his other novels being set in the period in which they were written or thereabouts. Two Cities also features fewer characters and plotlines than a typical Dickens novel. I love the sprawling narratives and dozens of characters you’ll find in something like Bleak House, so I’m finding it more difficult to get into a book focusing pretty closely on two families and their closest associates. Dickens is also often criticized for being something of a caricaturist, rather than developing characters who feel like real people. There’s some truth to this, but especially so in Two Cities so far, I think. Lucie is very innocent and very beautiful, and her father is very wronged and very damaged, and the Defarges are very inscrutable and very sinister. Everyone is very something-or-other. So far, Sydney Carton is my favourite—mainly because he’s sarcastic but has hidden depths. He feels the most like a real person to me.

Anyway, I’m still reading from my list! Just very slowly.

Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

You guys, I really wanted this post to just be a list of quotes from this book, because there are so many good lines. How does Lorrie Moore do it?

birds1   birds2   birds3

Some covers. I own the one on the left.

I guess I’ll try to be insightful instead, although I find that I have a hard time articulating what it is I love so much about Moore’s writing. The best way I can describe it is to say that more often than most, her sentences give me that sharp, gut-punch feeling of instant recognition. You know, that moment of wonder when a book seems to be actually, and secretly, about your life, and everyone forgot to tell you. That feeling is what I read for.

All that aside, I did have a hard time getting into this book. Birds of America (1998) is a collection of short stories, a medium that Moore has perfected but also one that I have trouble with. I like very long, plot-driven novels, a preference which I suppose explains my MA in Victorian fiction but makes me not very hip. I always want more at the end of a short story—it seems like I’ve just gotten settled into the thing and then it’s over and I never see the characters again. I kind of hate that.

But Moore is such a good writer that I’m willing to suffer that disappointment. I’ve read two of her novels, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (perfect) and A Gate at the Stairs (not perfect but very good), as well as her newest collection of stories, Bark (dark and wonderful). She’s one of the only writers I can name who seems equally at home writing short stories and novels. (Who else? Margaret Atwood… ? I don’t read a lot of short stories.) But for some reason, the first story in this collection, about an actress who takes a break from Hollywood to move back to Chicago and takes up with a man who doesn’t watch movies, didn’t grab me.

Instead, I’d call this collection a slow build. The last two stories, “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk” and “Terrific Mother,” were my favourites. The former is about a mother who discovers that her baby has cancer. Moore’s depiction of a paediatric oncology ward is incredible: realistic (I assume) and detailed with just enough absurdity and sarcasm to cut the bleakness. Equal parts darkly funny and devastatingly sad, the story follows the mother, father, and baby (never given names, although the other characters are) through their time in the ward. “Terrific Mother” is about a woman who is accidentally responsible for the death of a neighbour’s child. After spending a few months locked in her apartment, she marries and travels to Italy with her new husband, where she experiences something transformative in an unlikely place. As Michiko Kakutani points out in her review of this book, these plots seem like they could have come from a Lifetime movie—and yet Moore’s precise writing, sharp humour, and keen sense of the absurd transcend sentimentality.

One of Moore’s many talents is for oddities, those strange or unexpected details that make characters seem more real and also more memorable. Take, for example, the story “Charades,” about a family Christmas gathering. During a game of charades, a brother and sister have a fight about whether or not anyone else has heard of the song “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” It’s such a ridiculously specific argument that it feels exactly like how a brother and sister would interact. After all, the moments we share with those closest to us often seem inexplicable to outsiders. Moore’s ability to create such moments, and in a way that is universal, is rare and wonderful.

Like the birds of the title, we are all rare birds, aren’t we? (Aside: I assume the title was inspired by Audubon’s The Birds of America). Or so we like to believe. Moore knows this, and admires this about each of her characters, even as she skewers their self-importance, their insistence on their own individuality.

I bought this book after my first semester of graduate school, in the University of Victoria campus bookstore. I was mistakenly convinced that I was about to spend my entire Christmas vacation reading for fun, so I took this book back to Toronto with me. Instead, I’m pretty sure I watched a lot of Christmas movies and ate chocolate. Then I took it back to Victoria—then I lugged it home again when I left B.C. and it moved with me, still unread, into a new apartment last summer. It’s funny, the things you’re willing to take with you when you travel long distances. What do your possessions say about you? What kind of rare bird do you think you are?

And now, for fun, some of the best lines in the book:

“He bought her a large garnet ring, a cough drop set in brass.” (from “Community Life”)

“In general, people were not road maps. People were not hieroglyphs or books. They were not stories. A person was a collection of accidents. A person was an infinite pile of rocks with things growing underneath.” (from “What You Want to Do Fine”)

[a character reflecting on a movie she’s just seen, about a woman who falls in love with an alien disguised as a man] “To Ruth, it seemed so sad and true, just like life: someone assumed the form of the great love of your life, only to reveal himself later as an alien who had to get on a spaceship and go back to his planet.” (from “Real Estate”)

“When Olena was a little girl, she had called them lie-berries—a fibbing fruit, a story store—and now she had a job in one.” (from “Community Life”)

“She remembered it had made any given day seem bearable, that impulse toward a joke. It had been a determined sort of humour, an intensity mirroring the intensity of the city, and it seemed to embrace and alleviate the hard sadness of people having used one another and marred the earth the way they had.” (from “Agnes of Iowa”)

I’ve got three books by Dickens on my list so I’d better get started on him. Next up: A Tale of Two Cities.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

I finished a book! Only 48 to go. Unfortunately, this was the easiest read on the list. It’s all 800-page Victorian novels from here on out.

sharpobjects     sharp-objects1    Sharp-Objects2

A survey of the available covers. I love the middle one with its creepy house and bloody tree. 

Gillian Flynn is pretty hot right now. She’s a bestselling author. Not only that, she’s written three novels and has sold the film rights to each. Pretty good odds! Gone Girl, which took bookstores by storm when it came out in 2012, stars Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike–perfect casting–and is in post-production now. Dark Places, a straight-up disturbing, nightmare-inducing read, stars Charlize Theron and comes out this fall. And Sharp Objects, Flynn’s first novel, has been optioned, but no other details are forthcoming just yet. My favourite of these three is Dark Places because it is so twisted and awful that it will “mess you up” (to quote my coworker).

It’s easy to see why Flynn’s novels are making the transition to film: they’re atmospheric and suspenseful, with legitimately twisty endings. Okay, I did guess the big twist in Gone Girl, but I’ve read a lot of Agatha Christie over the years. I have enjoyed each of Flynn’s novels, if enjoyed means “lost all peace of mind after reading,” and Sharp Objects, although probably my least favourite of the three, was also a fun, quick read. If you are inclined to just read books and then stop thinking about them, you’ll enjoy Gillian Flynn and your resulting nightmares.

But! If, like me and other recovering English majors the world over, you feel the need to analyze every detail of everything you read, you’ll also enjoy Gillian Flynn. All three of her novels are a masterclass in exploring and exposing the dark undercurrents of contemporary femininity, with mixed results.

First, a synopsis of Sharp Objects. Reporter Camille Preaker, who’s recovering from a stint in the psych ward, is sent back to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, to cover a horrifying story: the murder of a nine-year-old girl. Police suspect a serial killer is on the loose, since this new murder fits the profile of another murder from a year before. Being home again with her mother Adora, stepfather Alan, and half-sister Amma brings up all of Camille’s insecurities and deepest fears. The memory of her dead sister Marian is everywhere, her high school buddies have turned fake and mean, and Camille worries that her mother’s neuroses are having an unhealthy affect on Amma. The longer she’s in Wind Gap, the closer Camille comes to finding the killer–and the closer she comes to losing her own grip on reality.

The twist ending here is not super shocking (bonus points if anyone can guess who done it just from my synopsis!), but it’s effective. Flynn excels at building the dark, dank atmosphere of Wind Gap, a hick town filled with hybrid midwestern/southern stereotypes. It’s a town of old Victorian mansions, slaughterhouses, and secrets. The odour of the local pig factory hangs over the town’s less attractive neighbourhoods. One of the murdered girls is found stuffed in a narrow alley between two businesses on Main Street–as if the town’s dirty secrets are literally bursting out of the cracks in its facade. (Aside: My only other pop cultural frame of reference for Missouri is Meet Me in St. Louis, which is a lovely film featuring Judy Garland at her most winsome and loveable, and those characters also live in a big old Victorian house, so I had some fun imagining Judy Garland as Camille.)

But I have a problem with how Flynn characterizes women, and I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. Admittedly, in Gone Girl she eviscerates the phenomenon of the Cool Girl in one glorious chapter, and I admire her hugely for that. You know that girl, the one who never gets mad when her boyfriend comes home late, who doesn’t mind if he makes fun of her friends, who likes sports and beer and eats tons of junk food but still looks beautiful and boyishly slim at all times? She hangs out with the boys. Maybe she doesn’t have any female friends because she just can’t deal with their drama. She never nags her boyfriend about picking up socks or proposing. Yeah, that’s the Cool Girl. This woman does not exist, says Gone Girl‘s Amy. And Gone Girl is certainly an amazing send-up of all of those Cool Girl tropes that fascinate us so.

Written before Gone Girl, though, Sharp Objects relies a little bit on that Cool Girl. Camille isn’t easygoing enough to be “cool,” but she is effortlessly beautiful (so many characters tell her this, and I rolled my eyes anew every time), and doesn’t seem to care. She has casual sex with both a murder suspect and the main detective on the case. She drinks various men under the table. She tells the story of what was pretty clearly a gang-rape as just another wild night out on the town. And lest you think this is just because she was so damaged by the experience that she has learned to see it that way, the man to whom she’s telling the story gets very upset and even raises the r-word, and she brushes off his concern. That’s just how teens encounter sex here in Wind Gap, she says (more or less). I think we’re supposed to admire these traits in her–while recognizing that she is deeply traumatized from her childhood, of course. There’s a running thread about her past as a cutter that feels a little obvious. But why do we admire her? Because she’s the only remotely Cool Girl for miles. Every other woman in Wind Gap is a mess of pink and girlish stereotypes.

Camille’s mother Adora is definitely a candidate for Worst Mother of the Year. She’s so overly feminized, with her brightly coloured dresses and girlish voice and motherly concern for her daughters’ health, that she’s really just a nightmare portrayal of the perfect wife and mother. Ideal femininity taken to its terrifying extreme, like a Stepford wife. Camille’s 13-year-old sister Amma is described alternately as a sex kitten and as a beautiful, innocent young girl who’s being corrupted by her mother (and this is why Flynn can be so disturbing: she crosses and recrosses that line between titillating and inappropriate over and over). Camille’s former high school friends are all stay at home moms who glorify motherhood and shoot dirty looks at Camille because they assume she’s a feminist. Flynn draws a pretty stark connection between “traditionally feminine” and “mean or straight-up evil.”

But are there any normal women in this world? No, there are not. There is the quasi-Cool Girl, perpetually drunk on bourbon and up for a good time, and there are the Mothers, sinister and guarded, judgmental and mean. Cool Girls, of course, don’t have time for traditional femininity–dresses, makeup, having children, even being married. They don’t want any of that, they’re too cool. It’s sort of a Madonna/Whore complex, but the Whore is the heroine and the Madonna really doesn’t love her kid as much as she claims to.

There’s also a fascinating subplot where Flynn pathologizes traditional femininity, much like some of the best Victorian novelists. Adora is a hypochondriac whose obsessive mothering and nursing of her daughters masks her own sick need for attention. In many Victorian novels, women fall ill with nebulous, unnamed illnesses because their lives are so narrow and repressed. Illness is the only form of self-expression open to them. At the same time, though, being ill–pale and delicate–really just reinforces the very femininity that makes these characters so powerless. In Sharp Objects, it’s similar–illness is how Adora asserts control over her family, how she finds her purpose, sick and twisted though it may be. I really loved that thread in the novel and I wish Flynn had fleshed it out a little more instead of making Adora such a cartoon villain. (Aside #2: In grad school, I researched and wrote a lot about femininity and illness in the Victorian novel, so that is my Number One Literary Obsession and it’ll probably come up again and again on this blog.)

Flynn once wrote that she herself “was not a nice little girl,” and Sharp Objects is very preoccupied with this idea. The two little girls who are murdered are not “nice little girls,” either. One shoves a pen into another’s eye, and the other likes to bite when she doesn’t get her way. Camille likes this about both victims because it means she can relate to them. As if a murder victim who was a “nice little girl” would be less worthy of her investigative skills, less interesting, too conventional.

Flynn has been accused before of relying on misogynist tropes in her writing, and she’s defended herself. I definitely don’t think that all portraits of women need to be flattering in order to be feminist–I don’t think that’s what feminism is about, nor is it what I want to read about, nor is it even what I’m saying here. But feminism also isn’t about the freedom to make women into villains or hate on other women for liking pink things. For one thing, there are plenty of female villains out there already, and not just, as Flynn says, soapy vixens who are “merely bitchy.” Let’s see–we’ve got Mrs. Bates, Baby Jane, Kathy Bates’s character in Misery, even a character like Nellie Oleson (she was the worst!), the narrator (Judi Dench’s character) in Notes on a Scandal, the list goes on.

But also, and I think we all know this, it’s okay to like things that are traditionally feminine, and it doesn’t mean that you’re boring, or less worthy of some investigative reporter’s attention after you’ve been brutally murdered, or whatever. And creating complex female characters is not just about acknowledging that women have a dark side. It’s more about the fact that women can have as many sides as they want.