My year in books

Here are some random thoughts about a few things I read this year.

acresBest book I read: I’m going to give this one to A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, which is a modern(ish) retelling of King Lear set on a farm in Iowa. It works way better than that sentence suggests. Smiley masterfully creates layer upon layer of small tragedies, giving the novel a truly Shakespearean sense of inevitability and fatalism. And hey, it won the Pulitzer Prize. In 1992.

Worst book I read: Hands down, this dishonour belongs to You Disappear by Christian Jungersen. At book club, I read aloud a list of things I hated about it. How much jam can one Danish family eat?!

montmarayMost fun reading experience: I loved reading Michelle Cooper’s Montmaray Journals books, a young adult series that begins in the 1930s and is set on a fictional island kingdom off the coast of Spain. The books follow the ragtag group of teenagers who live alone on the island, having inherited the kingdom from their various dead parents. When World War II breaks out, their lives change forever. The later books in the series go surprisingly dark and feature a fairly chilling portrayal of life in London during the war. For people looking to fill the I Capture the Castle void.

SITTENFELD_Eligible[3]Most disappointing reading experience: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld, book 4 in The Austen Project, a series of modern-day retellings of Jane Austen novels by different authors. Sittenfeld is an excellent writer, Pride and Prejudice is a great book, but Eligible fails to take off. It doesn’t come out until April 2016, so you have some time to gird your loins. All of the books in this series so far have been very disappointing. No one is taking any risks with the plots or characters so it is, literally, like reading watered-down Jane Austen, with iPhones and university degrees and much less sly, sparkling wit.

Book that still comes up in conversation: The Circle by Dave Eggers. It’s scarily relevant to These Modern Times. (Also my pick for worst sex scenes.)

Books from my list that I read but am not going to blog aboutAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (really liked this one; will be seeking out her other books); Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (see below); The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (the narration in this is as brilliant as everyone says); Philomena by Martin Sixsmith (boring; the movie was better).

judeobscureBook that took me the longest to read: Thomas Hardy’s 800-something-page ode to the tragedy of what happens when two fools can’t make up their minds to get married, Jude the Obscure. I began this in Cuba in March, took it to a Lake Huron beach in August, and was still reading it in November during my commute to work. I’m done now, but sometimes I feel like I’m still reading it. It’s really a book only fans of Thomas Hardy could love. And even then…

Book that reminded me strongly of a superior book I read a few years ago: Peter Nichols’s The Rocks has a cover so similar to the wonderful Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter that I can only salute the marketing and art departments who came up with it, because that cover is why I read this book. Beautiful Ruins was a critically acclaimed bestseller and The Rocks was clearly designed to fill the niche of “book set in the Mediterranean featuring doomed romances and secrets that are gradually revealed.” Beautiful Ruins is great; The Rocks is not as great, although the way the plot unfolded in reverse worked well.

See what I mean?

See what I mean?

Book that was clearly designed to appeal directly to me: First and Then by Emma Mills was marketed as Pride and Prejudice meets Friday Night Lights. Shut up and take my money.

Most random book I read this year: I found a copy of Jane Heller’s Name Dropping at my grandparents’ house (I was probably trying to avoid Jude the Obscure) and read it in a few hours. Not the kind of thing I’d normally pick up, but it was pretty entertaining!

Book I put on hold at the library early in 2015 that I am STILL waiting for as of December: I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better by Monica Heisey. It’s finally on its way to me…

Best movie based on a book: Far From the Madding Crowd, based on the book of the same name by that old joker Thomas Hardy. Runner-up: Room, which was extremely faithful to Emma Donoghue’s novel and just as devastating.

Movie based on a book that has kicked off a new reading obsession: I saw In the Heart of the Sea, which was mediocre at best but is based on an by-all-accounts excellent non-fiction book by Nathaniel Philbrick. I am now obsessed with 19th-century whaling. I’m planning to read Moby Dick in 2016 and have also bookmarked some other books on the topic. I wonder if Moby Dick will take less time than Jude the Obscure.

hemsworth

Chris Hemsworth looks like this in In the Heart of the Sea so maybe it’s still worth seeing? Image source.

You can see a complete list of what I read in 2015 on Goodreads.  And now, some numbers. In 2015, I read:

  • 77 books in total (as I write this mid-December, I’m hoping to squeeze in a few more before 2016);
  • 64 books by women, 12 books by men, and 1 book by multiple authors both male and female;
  • 52 novels, 18 non-fiction books of various genres, 5 mysteries, and 2 books of short stories;
  • 20 books that I classify as “young adult”;
  • 8 books primarily about diseases, medicine, and/or health, including a book about vaccines and immunity and one about cholera, a novel about a man with a traumatic brain injury (You Disappear by Christian Jungersen, do not read it), 2 young adult novels about tuberculosis (Queen of Hearts by Martha Brooks and Extraordinary Means by Robyn Schneider), and 2 books in which a mysterious illness breaks out at an all-girls’ school (Conversion by Katherine Howe and The Fever by Megan Abbott);
  • 5 books set at least partially during WWII;
  • 5 books by Agatha Christie;
  • 4 young adult novels about impoverished families who live in crumbling castles (3 of these were in the same series and 1 was a re-read);
  • 2 trilogies (Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years and Michelle Cooper’s Montmaray Journals);
  • 2 novels inspired by Jane Austen (Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld and Austenland by Shannon Hale);
  • 2 books about royal weddings (The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan and Royal Wedding by Meg Cabot);
  • 1 Victorian novel, Jude the Obscure;
  • … and, to the tune of “and a partridge in a pear tree,” nothing by Jonathan Franzen!

Happy New Year!

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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.

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.