I read Pandemic author Sonia Shah’s book The Body Hunter a few years back and was not satisfied with the quality of her citations. While I totally stand by that (the endnotes in that book were a mess), and I was all set to think ill of Pandemic also, actually the endnotes in this one were way much better sorted out. I conclude that she had better copyeditors this time around.
This book’s about the spread of infectious diseases, and Sonia Shah herself admits that she’s not sure how to tell the story she wants to tell. Much of her research, and a good chunk of the book, is devoted to cholera: its paths of infection, some of its major outbreaks over the course of history, and the ways it continues to rear its head even though we already know how to cure it. But the book isn’t fundamentally about cholera, so another large chunk of it talks about vectors for infection, the emergence of new diseases, and a whole bunch of other things that don’t get explored in super-depth.
Pandemic is interesting and taught me some things I didn’t know, like that birds rarely pass diseases to humans unless there are also pigs nearby, in which case it goes birds –> pigs –> humans; but overall, it’s neither one thing nor the other. Not a comprehensive history of cholera, not a thorough exploration of how new diseases emerge and take root, and not an overview of pandemics and how we’ve handled them.
It did, however, make me feel paranoid about ever touching animals again. Or water. Or other people. Or about taking an antibiotic. OCD runs in my family and I sometimes feel that it is perilously close to the surface. But I sensibly went to my parents’ place and petted the hell out of my dog Jasmine, and I even let her lick my ears one lick, and that reminded me that pandemics are unlikely but Jazz will always love me. So there, diseases.
Happy Tuesday, friends! The Broke and the Bookish are, as ever, hosting a Top Ten Tuesday, and I love the question for this week:
Ten Books I Feel Differently About After Time Has Passed (less love, more love, complicated feelings, indifference, thought it was great in a genre until you became more well read in that genre etc.)
I couldn’t think of ten — my initial responses to most of the books I read continue to hold true on rereads — but here are six, anyway!
1. Emma, by Jane Austen – I think the problem here is that I saw Clueless, one of the world’s most perfect movies, long before I read Emma, and it left me unfit to enjoy the book. It wasn’t that I thought Emma was a dick (I love Emma actually, and I super-identify with her), it was just that I thought the book she was in was terminally boring. I finally read it during a slow day at my second-ever job1 and couldn’t figure out what my problem with it had ever been. It’s my favorite Jane Austen book now!
2. Rose in Bloom, by Louisa May Alcott – No, I know, I’m hitting all the absolute high points in contemporary fiction with this list. DEAL WITH IT. When I read Rose in Bloom as a kid, I thought it was super boring and I didn’t understand why Rose was ever into Charlie in the first place. Or Mac. What was her deal, I thought. Rereading it as an adult (this is true of An Old-Fashioned Girl too actually!), I’m surprised by the level of nuance Alcott gets into both of those relationships. Young Jenny missed it completely.
3. Angela and Diabola, Lynne Reid Banks – I loved this book when I was a kid. As an adult, I felt slightly smug that I was never that into the Indian in the Cupboard books in the first place, reserving my true love for Lynne Reid Banks’s lesser-known, unracist kids’ books, including this one and the apocalyptically terrifying The Fairy Rebel. What superb critical taste my younger self had, I thought.
I recently reread Angela and Diabola and it was a hella rude awakening. (The Fairy Rebel is still fine. That book rocks. Don’t read it right before bed though, or if you have wasps living near you.) The good twin has fair skin and golden hair, and the bad twin is darker-skinned with corkscrew curls. The corkscrew curls are mentioned a lot. It is — uncomfortable to read. Would not give to a child.2
4. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson – When I lived in England, I checked this out of our library (which had a paternoster lift, see below for gif depiction) and thought I was going to die of boredom.
As with Emma, I don’t know what was going on in my head the first time I tried to read this book. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the furthest thing from boring, and I’m so glad book bloggers convinced me give Shirley Jackson another try. Thanks, bloggers!
5. Possession, A. S. Byatt – People who don’t do a lot of rereading often ask me if I worry that rereading a book will make me like it less. Yes, I think about that sometimes; but if what me and the book had was true love, not just a fling, it should stand the test of time. Possession is a rare but notable failure of rereading. When I first read this book I loved it. Couldn’t put it down. Called it the Arcadia of novels. Was baffled that I never got on with any of A. S. Byatt’s other books. Then I reread it and was like:
OH WELL. I guess it wasn’t true love.
6. Fire and Hemlock, by Diana Wynne Jones. Let me clarify something: My feelings for this book haven’t changed. I loved it when I first read it, I loved it every time I reread it, and I continue to love it with a fierce and abiding passion. What’s changed is that I realize now, in a way I didn’t as a teenager, how many legitimate truth bombs about morality and emotions and adulthood Diana Wynne Jones is dropping in this book. The example I always use is “being a hero means ignoring how silly you feel” — which, goddamn, that is the truest truth that maybe I have ever encountered in fiction. Standing up for what’s right does not actually have a stirring musical soundtrack. More like a soundtrack of chilly, uncomfortable, disapproving silence.
7. See also: The vast majority of Diana Wynne Jones books. I’ve disliked all but maybe four of her books, upon reading them for the first time. Not for nothing did they name Jenny’s Law after me: Diana Wynne Jones Is Better on a Reread.
What about you, friends? Are you a big rereader, or not so much? Do you generally stay true to your first impressions, or can you think of some books you’ve grown out of / into over the years?
TIME TRAVELING PIRATES. This book The Girl from Everywhere is all about time traveling pirates.
The Girl from Everywhere is about TIME TRAVELING PIRATES. Just so you know. At sixteen, Nix has sailed everywhere from the lands of the Arabian Nights to present-day New York to eighteenth-century Calcutta — if her crew can find a map of a place, she and her father can sail them there. But all her father truly wants is to find a map of Hawaii in the year that Nix was born, so that he can prevent her mother from dying in childbirth.
As long ago as Nix can remember, her father has been searching for a map of Hawaii that will let him save her mother. She herself has mixed feelings about it, since it will maybe result in her never having been born — a possibility that her father seems never to have considered. Nor does Nix want to bring it up to him. They don’t have that kind of relationship.
The Girl from Everywhere is Heidi Heilig’s first novel, and I’m excited for whatever she’s going to do next. She evokes the last days of independent Hawai’i in a way that’s utterly lovely and, as I said to GREAT MOCKERY on the podcast, made me want to go to Hawai’i for the first time. Nix’s difficult relationship with her father is the emotional heart of this book, and I love that Slate, whom Heilig has said is bipolar, is neither vilified for his illness nor excused for the ways in which he fails as a parent.
For those of you who always ask when I review YA: Yes, there’s a romance, a small one, very respectful and sweet. Some opium, and lots of maps.
A seriously great black feminist roundtable in response to bell hooks’s response to Beyonce’s new music video; and a reminder why it’s awesome to live now and have all these amazing, smart, thoughtful voices available for us to listen to.
Happy Hump Day to you all, beloved listeners! It’s time for another seasonal book preview (the most wonderful four times of the year) (except for Christmas, Christmas is still the actual most wonderful time). Whiskey Jenny and I also answer some listener mail, update you on what we’re reading, and review the fluffy, fun Dear Emma, by Katie Heaney. You can listen to the podcast in the embedded player below or download the file directly here to take with you on the go.
What We’re Reading
City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg The Summer before the War, Helen Simonson (see also: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand) The Only Rule Is It Has to Work, Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller (excerpt) (excerpt) (excerpt) The Girl from Everywhere, Heidi Heilig
Bullet to the Head, Matz, Colin Wilson Total Chaos, Jean-Claude Izzo Have Mercy on Us All, Fred Vargas
The Only Rule Is It Has to Work, Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, Helen Oyeyemi The Passenger, Lisa Lutz Ear to the Ground, David Ulin and Paul Kolsby The Raven King, Maggie Stiefvater The Association of Small Bombs, Karan Mahajan Marriage Material, Sathnam Sanghera Hex, Thomas Olde Heuvelt
The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach
Shrill, Lindy West (May, Hachette) June, Miranda Beverley-Whittemore (May, Crown) Places No One Knows, Brenna Yovanoff (May, Delacorte) Everybody’s Fool, Richard Russo (May, Knopf) The Sudden Appearance of Hope, Claire North (May, Red Hook) Barkskins, Annie Proulx (June, Scribner) Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching, Mychal Denzel Smith (June, Nation Books) City of Mirrors, Justin Cronin (May, Ballantine) The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward (August, Scribner)
Dear Emma, Katie Heaney
Nobody asked for this, but here are some advice columns I enjoy. Note that these links do not imply my cosign on any of the people’s specific advice. I just enjoy reading these columns a lot.
Jack Viertel’s The Secret Life of the American Musical (hat-tip to the fabulous Kim for the recommendation!) isn’t a history of the American musical — a thing about which I would not care at all1 — but rather a dissection of what goes into making it.
Viertel breaks down an array of musicals, from Gypsy to Hamilton, into their component parts to explore what makes their engines run. Some of this I was already familiar with, like the not-a-rule-but-sort-of-a-rule that the protagonist has to sing an “I Want” song early on, to get the audience on board with whatever the stakes are going to be for this particular show. Another recurring pattern I’d never thought about is the inclusion of a villain anthem somewhere in the first act, to keep us interested in what the antagonist is up to and how his/her desires are ultimately going to clash with those of our hero.
Interesting, right? Of course, none of these rules are really rules. They’re commonalities across a wide range of musicals, and the reason they’re so common is that they convey story beats and keep audience interest engaged as the writers try to tell a two-and-a-half-hour story and keep the audience from peacing out at intermission and not lose the energy in the room — it’s a balancing act, and the “rules” Viertel outlines are some common ways that writers of musicals have found to keep all the balls in the air.
One thing that Viertel highlights is the way many musicals will feature a quiet moment between a few characters, maybe a brief line of music or a few lines of dialogue, that encapsulate exactly what the show’s about (often in a question-and-answer format). I got starry-eyed reading this section because, of course, his examples are some of the best moments of some of my favorite musicals. Like little Winston asking coldly, “What band?” and Harold Hill replying, “I always think there’s a band, kid.” Or Doc, in West Side Story, demanding of the Jets, “When do you kids stop? You make this world lousy,” and Action answering, “We didn’t make it, Doc.”
Be prepared, though, if you are a musicals nerd (and if you’re not, I’m — not sure why you’d be interested in this book? But what do I know.), to end up with all kinds of songs stuck in your head. You know what’s a catchy fuckin song? “Adelaide’s Lament.”
There. It’s stuck in your head now too.
If I could just flag one thing that made me sigh, it would be this description of Hamilton:
“My Shot” happens in a context that we barely recognize as American musical theater–the actors are dressed in costumes that might have been preserved from a production of 17762, but from the neck up they look like a motley gang of street-corner revolutionaries in the Bronx in 2015.
You mean, not white? Is whiteness what makes something recognizable as American musical theater? Piss off.
Apart from that one extremely sigh-worthy moment, The Secret Life of the American Musical was a fascinating book. Much recommended!
Not that I am bitter. (I’m not.) But since I wasn’t able to make it this year1, please pop by in the comments and tell me one lovely thing that is happening at BEA. Or if like me you couldn’t go this year, tell me only lovely thing that has happened to you this week.
Also, this is your final notice that today is Friday the 13th. Take all reasonable precautions.
or any year, thus far? I mainly care about meeting bloggers, and I can do that fine without actually being inside of a convention center ↩
Did I ever tell you about my fondness for aftermath? Stories about aftermaths are all I long for, all I worship and adore. In fact when I finish writing this post I might just go read the bit about the Scouring of the Shire. Repercussions is about aftermath, and it’s about a thing I don’t get nearly enough of in contemporary adult fiction, which is good people who are trying their best.
Henry Wegland is a Lithuanian Jew whose family came to South Africa years ago in the assumption that they would find a better way of life. Henry has become a minor activist for the ANC, meeting with the party regularly and occasionally assisting in acts of political violence. After one such failed attempt, he’s forced to leave the country. Many years later, his grandson Saul returns to South Africa and learns about his grandfather’s life there, and all that he left behind.
Repercussions is about fighting apartheid, with parallels to the Resistance in Europe during World War II, but more than that, it’s about the lasting effects of such a fight on the families of the fighters. What is the right thing, when you have a wife and small son? To stand with those who fight against racial tyranny, or to promise safety and stability for your family? And if you choose one, is there a way ever to go back? For a book that seems to be about a specific moment in history, Repercussions is wonderfully universal in its depiction of family relationships and what we owe to those we love.
Anthony Schneider is doing a tricky thing here with multiple narratives: the Henry of the past, trying to find the right thing morally for his family and his country; the Henry of present-day New York, negotiating a contentious, though loving, relationship with his adult son Glenn; and Henry’s grandson, Saul, traveling to South Africa to meet people whose lives once touched his grandfather’s and have now become so far distant. Saul’s storyline feels a little disconnected, but Schneider wonderfully evokes his adolescent uncertainty in a country he barely knows that is nonetheless his home.
Y’all, I have been reading some excellent African fiction this year, and absolutely no histories of African countries. Is it always or? Is it never and? I am falling behind! At this rate, I will never know everything!
Look, here’s the thing. Let me tell you what the thing is. If you say “sci-fi retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo,” I am going to read that book even if I have to go to several different libraries to get it, which is how Influx, by Daniel Suarez, became one of the oldest books on my TBR spreadsheet, which is how I came to be reading it in the car on a recent road trip.
(That’s not the thing.)
Influx is about a man called Jon Grady who is such a Maverick that he invents a thing called a gravity mirror. A Shady Organization called the Bureau of Technology Control (BTC) orders him to join them in concealing this scientific innovation from the rest of the world, because the World Can’t Handle the Truth. When Grady refuses (he’s a Maverick, remember), they ship him off to an isolated torture-prison called Hibernity, whence he must find a way to escape and bring True Science back to the world.
Sounds fun, right? (That’s not the thing either. That part is all fine.)
Along the way, he encounters the following woman, who was genetically designed by the BTC to be young and beautiful forever (as well as good at fighting, and fatally attractive to all men everywhere because chemicals):
Grady did a double take on the woman. She was incredibly beautiful, fair complected, with short jet-black hair and lapis lazuli blue eyes. She wore a tailored pantsuit and crisp white blouse–normal business attire. But in fact, she was so attractive it was difficult for Grady to take his eyes off her, despite his absurd predicament.
Since she’s the only female character we’ve encountered so far, this is already annoying. But it still isn’t the thing. Here’s an internal monologue from the preposterously attractive Alexa, right after she chucks the chin of a fat little baby she meets in the BTC halls.
It hurt. It really did. They’d made her the way she was, and in many ways she was grateful. But sterility was the price. Almost fifty years old, and she looked not a day over twenty-five. But she’d never menstruated. Never felt what it was like to be a woman. That look in the young mother’s eyes… She could feel the urge to be a mother. Even if she lived to be four hundred years old, she’d never know the joys and sorrows of motherhood. . . . The woman was chunky. Genetically inferior. But at that moment Alexa wanted to be her.
I don’t need my dumb adventure stories to also have magnificent character development. If they do, then huzzah, it kicks the whole endeavor up a notch in my estimation, and I’ll probably recommend the book to more people and with more enthusiasm. But if that’s not the author’s area of strength, that’s fine. I will be here for your revenge-motivated flattish characters doing a heist to save the world’s science using their varied skill sets. I love heists! I love team-ups!
But here, at last, is the aforementioned thing: it is maddening that we end up with three characters whose lives have been, in different ways, affected and damaged by this Evil Science Corporation, and one of them is a lady, so of course the author has to rush in and tell us a) how heart-stoppingly gorgeous she is; and b) her aspirations on childbirth. Great. Thanks, Suarez. Those things seem super relevant to her quest of blowing shit up and releasing hitherto-concealed science information to the masses.
At the end, when this is all over and the information has been released to the masses and the prisoners on Prison Island have been freed, we get a mindblowingly aggravating epilogue wherein Grady and Alexa have been married for seven years and have a six-year-old daughter. She is his prize, you see, for successfully bringing down the Evil Science Corporation. And her aspirations of motherhood have been fulfilled. Doesn’t matter how. Science probably!
When characterization is lacking (this is the thing), authors tend to default back to tropes, and the tropes about women are always ladytropes. It’s about our physical appearance. It’s about our ability to bear children. And we are, ultimately, there to be awarded as prizes to male characters who succeed at things. After we’ve been told that Alexa has never experienced or been interested in romance, Grady kisses her (without, by the way, permission) out of nowhere just prior to their final assault on the BTC; and in the epilogue, boom, they’re married. Is this a thing we were supposed to be wanting for these two characters?
If the answer to that question seemed like yes to anyone, it’s because that’s what girls are for. And that is the thing. The thing that makes me want to punch a wall. When all I goddamn wanted from this book was a fun fucking adventure story.