On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss

Eula Biss, who I adore for Notes From No Man’s Land, with her second nonfiction work: On Immunity.

The precipitating event here is Biss’s becoming a mother. She has a new baby to worry about, decisions to make about vaccinations, and the H1N1 flu strain is spreading frighteningly. She’s surrounded by other mothers who have a wide range of feelings about vaccines and immunizations. In danger after giving birth, Biss is given a transfusion of blood from a public blood bank. These events and opinions swirl in her head, and because she’s Eula Biss, she does research. She reads widely, from antiquity through present-day research articles and conspiracy theories; she interviews doctors, including her father, an oncologist. In fact this is a family affair, calling not only on the father (a sympathetic, sweetly caring, somewhat fatalistic man) but Biss’s mother, a poet, and sister, a Kant scholar and professor of ethics. Biss’s son turns out to battle significant allergies; she and her husband have to decide whether to have him undergo surgery, as well as simple vaccines.

Obviously, the timely subject is the “anti-vaxxers” movement (a term Biss never uses), with their claims that vaccines can cause autism, among other things (the autism claim in particular unsupported by any scientific evidence, although as she points out, a theory once voiced can never be retracted). Vaccination and variolation go back a ways, though, and part of what Biss undertakes here is a social history from the beginnings of germ theory and the Jenner vaccine through the present. Because she is a literary mind, she is also concerned with myth, literary history, and linguistics: in the first few pages, she searches for synonyms for protect and comes to shield, shelter, secure, and then inoculate. The very first page deals with “the first story I ever heard about immunity”: that of Achilles. She ranges across Voltaire’s Candide, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the latter carrying a lot of weight especially late in the book. In other words, it’s the kind of essaying I love: multidisciplinary examination of an important topic of our time and of all times.

There is a central ethical question here, as Biss interrogates the idea of ‘herd immunity’ (unfortunately, as she points out, sounds awfully close to ‘herd mentality’ with its negative association). If only most of us get immunized, a few of us can get away with skipping it; but the threshold for safety within that model is detectable only when we’ve passed it. And the few who skip vaccines, and get away with it, thereby relying on the many who did their civic duty: well, there’s something a little selfish about that, right? Biss has said in an interview (crediting her sister with the idea) that this is much like traffic laws. One or two people can blow through stop signs and get away with it if most of us are obeying the law. But if enough of us disregard that stop sign, soon there will be carnage, and some innocent rule followers will be hurt as well. I’m also thinking about mountain bike trails, because it just won’t stop raining here where I live. Sure, the trails will recover if a few people ride them wet. But only because most of us don’t. Which actually makes the few who ride ruts into the mud really selfish, in my opinion. Out there having their fun while I stay home and wait less and less patiently for the right conditions.

This is also about the extent to which each of us is an individual, and in turn part of something larger, like it or not. The immune system was not introduced as a concept until fairly recently, in the 1970s. Biss muses on the blur between the natural body and the body politic, the ways in which we are undeniably individual (I can clearly see where my body ends) and undeniably united (as in shared risk).

This book is full of metaphor: the original use of ‘inoculation’ as a metaphor for grafting, “as apples are cultivated by grafting a stem from one tree onto the roots of another,” because the initial inoculation was variolation, the skin slit and infectious material placed inside. “It was a metaphor for grafting a disease, which would bear its own fruit, to the rootstock of the body.” Later, “Vaccinating in advance of the flu, critics suggest, was a foolish preemptive strike. But preemption in war has different effects than preemption in health care–rather than generating ongoing conflict, like our preemptive strike against Iraq, preventive health care can make further health care unnecessary.”

These are some of the many beauties of On Immunity. I learned a lot. And I appreciate the ways in which it is like Notes From No Man’s Land. Both deal with what it means to be a citizen, and what damage fear can do. (Also, it will perhaps not surprise you to learn that racism has played a role in the history of immunization.) But, I don’t know, this one did not blow me to pieces like the earlier book did. For one thing, the organization of this book is very different from that last one. On Immunity reads like a single, long narrative. Page breaks are merely breaks; the thread (or various braided threads) connects each smoothly. This is not an essay collection but a long essay in (untitled) chapters. Notes is properly a collection, with an organizing scheme, meaningfully titled chapters, and an order to them.

It has been a good two and a half years since I read that one (and went back and reread a short section a little more recently), but what I recall is incandescent line-by-line writing, fascinatingly complex structure, and great subtlety. This one, On Immunity, is a good book in many ways. But none of these three elements struck me. The writing is always graceful and clear and communicative and often clever, but it did not ring for me like poetry. The structure – well, there is still a structure, a braid, and a range. There are recurring characters (the family members). But I missed a table of contents that could almost be read itself like a song. And the subject matter is faced much more head-on. Not a criticism; but a very different kind of book.

Here is a subtlety I did appreciate, though. For Biss’s subtitle, An Inoculation, I will let her tell it. (From the same Barnes and Noble interview, linked above.)

The subtitle actually started out as a little joke to myself. I didn’t intend for it to remain as the subtitle. But once that subtitle stuck I did start to think of certain aspects of the book that I was uncomfortable with as working like an inoculation works. One of the things I was reluctant to do in this book was repeat fears of vaccination and risk spreading them further, because many of the fears of vaccination that I write about in this book were fears that I didn’t know about and didn’t have until other mothers shared them with me. I felt a little bit infected by fears I hadn’t had before, and I didn’t want to participate in doing that more.

So when I started thinking about the book as an inoculation, I saw the possibility that it could work the way a vaccine works. A vaccine introduces a small amount or a tempered version of the virus into the body — just enough to that the body is able to recognize it and deal with it when it encounters it again in the future. So I was thinking that maybe the book would work like this. If I introduced these fears to readers who may not have encountered them yet, perhaps I could introduce them in a way that would better equip those readers to deal with those fears the next time they ran into them.

I’ll end there: with a lovely metaphor for the fine work of this fine book.


Rating: 8 risks.

Ways to Hide in Winter by Sarah St. Vincent

A reclusive young widow in the wintry mountains of Pennsylvania and a mysterious stranger from Uzbekistan guard the secrets of their pasts in a present that is still filled with danger.

Kathleen works in a small store at the edge of a state park in Pennsylvania’s Blue Ridge Mountains, frying burgers and onion rings for hikers and hunters, keeping to herself. She was widowed at 22 by a car wreck that left her badly injured, but she insists that she does not have a limp. She wants only to be left alone. But then a stranger appears out of the harsh snow of mountain winter, wearing dress shoes and a disarming expression; his native country is Uzbekistan, and he gives no good reason why he should be lurking out-of-season at the hostel next to Kathleen’s store. Despite her instincts, she indulges him with conversation and, eventually, a cautious friendship.

Sarah St. Vincent’s first novel, Ways to Hide in Winter, tells the story of these two people, each skittish in their own way, as they avert their eyes from the past. Kathleen keeps her world small: she cares for her grandmother, occasionally visits with an old school friend, warily guards a bad habit or two. The stranger–who has a name, but it’s rarely used; Kathleen calls him simply “the stranger”–speaks haltingly of a family and career back home, but there is clearly more that he’s not telling.

This is a story of secrets. Ways to Hide in Winter is told in Kathleen’s first-person perspective, so that the reader discovers the stranger’s secrets as Kathleen does herself; her own are as carefully doled out. It gradually becomes clear that Kathleen is protecting even herself from a past trauma. The stranger confesses to a crime committed back home, but this confession may not be what it seems. As the action of this gripping novel unfolds, then, the mystery of two personal histories races against the present: What will be revealed, and will it be in time to save the protagonists?

This novel of suspense has many strengths. Kathleen offers depths of emotional truth and texture. Other characters are portrayed at a certain remove, according to the narrator’s personality, but they open up by turns as she experiences them. Kathleen is thoughtful, as when she considers the morality of the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and wonders about Uzbekistan. The setting in rural Pennsylvania mountains is harshly beautiful and handsomely evoked. And, warning: this is a book to keep one up late into the night, its considerable momentum pulling the reader toward its finale. Ways to Hide in Winter is an impressive, compelling first novel, with characters that will be missed after its conclusion.


This review originally ran in the October 9, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 chess pieces.

If You Knew Then What I Know Now by Ryan Van Meter

Another beautiful recommendation by Jeremy Jones. Thank you, Jeremy. And thank you Jessie for cuing me to watch this one for its organization. Jessie has not read the book, but she knew that organization of an essay collection is what I need right now and she somehow knew this was the right fit. (Trust in Jeremy, perhaps? What a fascinating, beautiful world.)

This is an essay collection about the narrator’s finding out that he is gay and eventually living as a gay man. These linked essays appear in almost perfectly chronological order, and the bulk of them take place in childhood or young adulthood (while he’s still living at home). The discovery and coming-out processes took time for this individual, and those twenty-three years (I think) therefore take up most of the book. A few essays cover his adult life after coming out; one essay (although a long one) covers an eight-year relationship, which is his first, and this is one of my favorite essays.

These pieces are nicely linked and ordered, with sensible transitions and little repeated information. Each essay within itself tends to feature repeated images or symbolism that work well to make a point, to come to a conclusion–if anything, perhaps a hair more neatly than I’d prefer, but these points are always clear, and maybe that’s the side to err on. As a collection, it’s a beautiful profile of the narrator and a life, tender and thoughtful, and admirably fair to the flawed but loved parents.

I had a few favorites, of course. The opening piece, “First,” is lovely, and I remember it – I assume Jeremy sent it to me during our semester of working together, because I don’t know where else it would have come from. It’s a quick scene, riding in the car as a small boy, and an early (anti-gay) lesson given by his mother. This is a perfect capsule: scene, scrap of dialog, reflection, and back out again. The final line of the essay reads, “We all just sit and wait and watch our own views of the road–the parents see what is ahead of us while the only thing I can look at is what we have just left behind.” Van Meter is really good at final lines. This is one that I’d say approaches the too-neat conclusion, but doesn’t quite go there. Instead, it’s a perfect summing up and cue to the reader of the meaning of this painful scene we’ve just witnessed. It inspires a sigh, a murmur of recognition.

While most essays feature narrative storytelling, with their points subtly made in the narrator’s reflection, one essay was different. “To Bear, To Carry: Notes on ‘Faggot'” is much more an assaying essay, with the narrator musing on a particular nasty word, its etymology and uses and effects in history and in his own life. There are anecdotes, but the essay concentrates on a concept and not a story. While I loved the storytelling style throughout, I thought this essay was both well-written and well-executed, and well placed in the collection. It is the one, I think, that comes out of chronological order–but that’s appropriate because it’s not nearly so rooted in the chronology of the writer’s life. It showcases a different kind of writing skill, and zooms out to give the reader a different perspective on his life. It cues us to a more zoomed-out view of that life, too: from here on the essays will cover much more time compressed in each one. Childhood has ended and adulthood has fully begun. From here, the narrator is no longer struggling to know that he is gay and come out, and begin his life; now he is living.

I think my clear-favorite essay is the one that follows. “The Goldfish History” is one of the longest in the collection, and it’s the one that compresses that eight-year relationship, using as vehicle a pet goldfish. We learn about the narrator’s best friend and that relationship, which has its troubles over the years in question. We meet the first real boyfriend and follow their romance and break-up. Through it all it is the goldfish that holds the threads together and in some very real ways, the people as well. While every essay in this collection has something to teach and much to admire, this is the one I most climbed inside of and loved.

Very readable (in one sitting, in fact, and what a relief following Goldbarth) and highly recommended, for its individual essays and for its organization overall. A tender, heartfelt, generous, brave portrayal of finding one’s way. As sometimes happens when we read personal essays, I feel like I want to be friends with the man who wrote these words.


Rating: 7 stilt-walkers.

Many Circles: New and Selected Essays by Albert Goldbarth

My word. This is a complicated one.

I admire Albert Goldbarth very much. I’ve read his essay “Fuller” several times now, but I think that’s the only work of his that I’d read before this book. As an overall impression, I am deeply impressed, and challenged. These essays are beautiful and complicated. They are braids of many strands, often organized around an abstract concept, and Goldbarth makes it his job to help us see the connections, which can as well be pretty abstract. In other words, classic essayistic thinking-on-the-page. I’m thinking of the masterful braiding in Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” which I so love, but even more complexly. And long: these essays are 20, 30, 40 and 50 pages long, which can make their braiding quite an organizational feat, and a feat for the reader as well.

They tend to focus on dualities or multiplicities, and profiles of people in history as well as in the present. The amount of information presented in each–scientific, historical–is boggling, and yet each essay makes sense in the end almost despite itself. I want to call the subject matter often obscure, but that’s an issue for each reader to decide, isn’t it; I am not the most well-read person I know, but I am not the least, either, and I certainly found some of the historical figures new to me. (I was fine with Yeats, and Einstein, and the Greek myths, of course; but the archaeologists John Lloyd Stephens* and Augustus Le Plongeon? Millionaire astronomer Pecival Lowell?) Goldbarth himself: extremely well-read and wide-ranging. Reading him is an education.** And I really, really enjoyed reading these essays and learning so much; but they must be taken slowly, to follow and parse all those threads.

Goldbarth is a poet to boot, and adds lyricism and whimsy in where we least expect it, expanding the ways in which he makes connections–imagistic and figurative ones, and wordplay–which make his work so much more beautiful but also that much more complex to follow in his meanings. His images and sentences as well as his essays are surprising, gorgeous, complicated, and rich.

I find his clearest obsession to be the concept of a “sympathy of souls” (the title of an earlier essay collection, many of whose essays reappear here), the interlinking of concepts and images, yes, but also of people. My two favorite examples of this type of essay are “Fuller,” which I’ve read repeatedly and finally begin to grasp, and “After Yitzl.”

The first links Marie Curie with the dancer Loie Fuller. They were contemporaries, and the historical record shows that they met; but much of their touching, close relationship as Goldbarth writes it here is born in his imagination. It’s a stunning piece, first in its portrayal of Marie and Pierre Curie’s passion for their research (and the starry brightness it yielded), and then in its, yes, sympathy between the two women. The narrator’s present life and relationship with his wife sneak in, too. I admired in many essays that the narrator was present as a writer and researcher: this line of poetry he was struggling with and its relationship to the apparently unconnected essay draft, etc.

“After Yitzl” is also a sort of dream sequence, which opens this collection and the earlier Sympathy of Souls. It is about the narrator’s ancestor, his ancestral connections to Jewish immigrants to the United States. It’s brief, and lovely, and as much imagination as anything else, but also research-heavy…

And then there are the longer essays: “Many Circles,” “Worlds,” and “Ellen’s,” which I could read a dozen times and still not grasp all of. It’s about the narrator’s friend Ellen, who is both a genius and mentally ill, and her deep relationship with James Joyce; it’s about Leonardo da Vinci, Dorothy in Oz, and spirals in architecture and nature and imagination. Whew.

Do I recommend this collection? Wholeheartedly, I do; but be ready for a challenge and some slow page-turning, and take notes. I’ll be studying this one for a long time.


Rating: 9 thimbling netsukes, if you’re up for the challenge.

*But then it turned out I did know the archaeologist John Lloyd Stephens: when Goldbarth got to the part about his two-volume work Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán, I looked up and yes, spotted those two volumes on my to-be-read shelf. (Thank you Fil for that perfectly appropriate gift.)


**Stay tuned for a vocabulary lessons post to come on Friday.

guest review: Earth Works by Scott Russell Sanders, from Pops

I originally reviewed Scott Russell Sanders’s Earth Works in two parts. I also sent a copy to my Pops, because I felt he needed it. I’m glad to have heard back from him now.

Thanks for the book! A few weeks ago I finally dabbled my way through the whole thing. At first I expected to read only those essays that were new to me; but I found the continuous approach irresistible.

As did I, on both counts, actually. A well-organized collection, then!

I blame summer rather than Sanders for taking this long, but Sanders deserves some credit for all the time I took in contemplation and consideration. This collection is indeed challenging in its range and subject matter, but mostly for Sanders’ unguarded candor and intimacy. He is quite simply baring his soul; whether we choose to appreciate what he has to say is up to us. In other words, I had to remember ‘how’ to read him, accepting the variety of both subject matter, and the responses he may arouse for the reader. The wide range of those things is central to the attraction, I think. He is boldly and humbly naked in his writing.

Which is why I wanted to respond to your ‘part one’ blog comments here, because I got as far as “The Men we Carry…” and wish to rise, not to defend him, but explain my reading of it.

Actually, there is no defending, and you did an excellent job of explicating that. And we still don’t know if he has reconsidered his words here. But as I read the essay, his Preface words were fresh in my mind; you quoted those briefly, but here a bit more complete, with my emphasis: “I have refrained from making significant revisions, allowing the essays to remain, for better or worse, essentially as they were when they appeared in print.”

As I suggested earlier, this candor, with all its risk and embarrassment so well exposed, is part of the masala, the potpourri – and the challenge – of reading Sanders essays. In some others earlier, he has already disappointed, frustrated and angered me; I am now unsurprised. I have resolved to consider time and place and context, accept it as material helping me understand this complicated and flawed person (as are we all), whose thoughts I am now invested in.

It’s the difference, if you will, between reading to examine what’s inside an author’s head, versus critique or enjoyment of content only. Increasingly, as my reading has become more intentional, it seems to lean towards the former, while I still enjoy the latter.

Mostly, I appreciate how such dissonance inspires me to better understand my own thoughts and values – for better or worse. Your own thoughtful response to his mansplaining is perhaps an example, with your values now in print with such clarity.

Pleasantly, with Sanders his best are still very rewarding.

FYI: By the numbers:
There are 30 essays here, covering 3 decades;
21 were published in other collections, the others only in periodicals;
I marked 12 favorites out of the lot, including 7 that I had already read elsewhere (including 3 of the 4 from Staying Put.)
But I read every single one, for a complete journey. Favorites tended to be most personal about family and father; nature and its human impacts; existential questioning. Interestingly, the ‘others’ tended to be similar ground but pursued in excess, taking me a bit over the edge, and often simply too personal and intimate – or dissonant.

I love a good numbers round-up, so thanks for that last section!

Glad that my comments made sense to you (I’m not the least bit surprised). From a distance now of nine or ten months, I remember this collection as a whole and as a reading experience, rather than in its particulars, and that overall impression is positive: I would say I like Sanders very much. But I do remember the essay that upset me, too.

The point you make in quoting the Preface is well taken, and I’m glad he made that statement. But I guess the distress and anger I felt in reading that essay was strong enough that I think it should have warranted a response from him – maybe let the essay stand as originally published but write an addendum, letting us know how wrong he got it and how much he’s grown and learned. If Sanders were reading this, that would be my request of him: republish; but now respond to your own writing, too. Well, I won’t hold my breath, but as you said, I’m glad I have gotten my own response out there, however small my platform.

I think there is an ongoing question of how to handle writings that seem wise in many ways but require of us that we make allowances for attitudes like racism, sexism, colonialism, classism, etc. and on and on. To what extent do we accept that something is “dated” and still find a way to enjoy it or to find value? I keep reminding myself that in every era somebody has been enlightened enough to see past the values of the time. It’s something I’m still doing battle with, myself. (Stay tuned, one of these days, for my troubles with Wendell Berry.)

Thanks for yet another thoughtful guest review, Pops.

Useful Phrases for Immigrants by May-lee Chai

These stories about Chinese immigrant families range widely in their specifics, but offer a universal attention to love, hope and striving.

In Useful Phrases for Immigrants, May-lee Chai (Hapa Girl; Tiger Girl) illuminates a range of characters with experiences in common. This story collection is aptly titled: these are tales of Chinese immigrants to North America and, sometimes, within China. They are stories of family and community dynamics.

They encompass an adventure with a dying mother, an ice cream cake that potently stands in for a critical memory of childhood tragedy and the distinctive trials of a Chinese-American traveling to Beijing. A young boy new to the big city quickly learns to play rougher games there. While not linked by specific characters, these stories share certain things: the names and numbers of siblings vary, but details, like a treasured cloisonné bowl, reappear. Such commonalities, rather than contributing to a feeling of homogeneity, lend a feeling of continuity. In other words, families may diverge in their particulars, but face similar challenges concerning culture and relationships.

Literary form varies: one story examines an unfortunate event in public view–a body discovered at a construction site–from the perspectives of five characters, none of whom knew the deceased. Their somewhat clinical approaches leave room for the reader’s compassion to move in. The titular story begins with a simple shopping excursion and gets complicated by the protagonist’s English, which she is still learning. She relies on those useful phrases: “I would like to speak to your manager,” “I know my rights,” “rain check.” The shopping problem turns out to be a stand-in for a larger issue of filial relationships. In the final story, poignantly titled “Shouting Means I Love You,” an aging father makes a pilgrimage to honor his family’s hero; his daughter grumbles before realizing a profound truth.

Chai’s stories carry themes about borders–national, cultural and psychic–and traditions old, new and invented. As the world becomes increasingly global, this material proves ever-relevant. Chai’s prose is often unadorned, but occasionally startlingly lovely: “summer days stretched taffy slow from one Good Humor truck to the next.” Even unnamed characters prove memorable long after their brief appearances.

These evocative stories are variously funny, surprising, gloomy and heartening, ultimately about a universal human experience, of immigration and beyond.


This review originally ran in the September 25, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 training bras.

follow-up to The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet by Kim Adrian

This Wednesday I posted my review of Kim Adrian’s new memoir; but I have more to say.

The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet came to me as one of a series of happy accidents, or coincidences – or synchronicity. At this point, I’m not sure I can call it coincidence; this is more like the result of a cultivated reading life, for which I’m grateful. Recall how I loved and raved about Adrian’s Sock. That review posted just as I headed off to residency, and I heard almost immediately from her publicist, offering me this memoir for review. Well, I say no to these offers 99% of the time, plus I was at residency (spread extra thin), and entering thesis semester. But I was intrigued. I looked up the book. I knew I liked the author; it was the right length. I pitched the review to Shelf Awareness, who accepted, making it worth my time in that (monetary) sense. So I said yes, send me that book.

And it was not only a wonderful book, as I’ve written, but turned out to be uncannily well-suited to my studies this semester – in other words, it serves all these functions for me: a review for the blog (as requested by a pleasant, not pushy, publicist), a review for the Shelf, and a nice tie into my schoolwork.

Adrian’s memoir features photographs – described, not included – which is also something I’m doing in my thesis. (My dear friend Delaney used photographs in her thesis last semester – included them, as in Dorothy Allison’s Two or Three Things I Know For Sure – and taught on “art and artifacts” for her graduate seminar.) She studies a difficult-to-pin-down mother figure, which was the original plan for my thesis – I’ve given up on that for now, but it’s still in the back of my head. Finally and best of all, she uses that strange but quite successful structure, the glossary, an alphabetically organized series of fragments. These entries rarely strike me as “narrative” on their own, but they definitely combine to tell the story, and in chronological order. My lightbulb realization, which seems so obvious in hindsight: these entries were not titled and then sorted; they were titled for their place, to serve the alphabetical structure.

I found this fruitful reading in several senses – and not least, it was gripping. I stayed up until 1am to finish it, which is something I’ve not done, I think, in several years. So it merited this second post and my firm endorsement.

Thank you, Kim Adrian, and thanks to her fine publicist, Carrie Adams, for doing the work of connecting the right reader with the right book.

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