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.

Stephen King’s The Body: Bookmarked by Aaron Burch

A writer’s examination of the writing that shaped him–even reluctantly–yields layers of self-awareness.

stephen kings the body

Ig Publishing’s Bookmarked series features writers contemplating the literature that has made deep impressions on their lives and work. Aaron Burch’s entry is Stephen King’s The Body, a brief but incisive consideration of King’s novella and Burch’s life in ways that surprise the author and intrigue the reader.

“The Body” is one of four novellas in King’s Different Seasons (which also includes “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”). It is perhaps better known for the film adaptation, 1986’s Stand by Me. Burch’s lifelong fascination began with the movie; he writes here about coming later to King’s written work as he becomes a reader, a writer and a teacher. King’s protagonist, Gordie Lachance, is also a writer and very much resembles King himself. The layers of meta-awareness continue in Stephen King’s The Body: Burch refers to his writing of the book and to its earlier drafts.

“The Body” is a Bildungsroman circling themes of friendship, nostalgia and loss as four childhood friends trek cross-country to view the dead body of a boy their age. Burch explores these themes with tenderness and sentiment, even as he resists the latter. Although “The Body” and Stand by Me provide the framework for Burch’s contemplation, his work is at least as much self-reflective memoir or personal essay as it is literary criticism. As he writes, his marriage looks to be breaking apart–a parallel Burch forces himself to confront. The two processes, writing and considering a marriage, prompt a direct gaze into difficult truths, but as King writes (as Gordie Lachance): “The most important things are the hardest to say.” This is a recurring sentiment in Burch’s slim book, where he earnestly attempts to address those hard things.

Burch exposes himself as a striking character who has a complicated relationship with art–the art he produces (up until now, only fiction) and the art he enjoys. He is an unlikely writer of literary criticism, with his resistance to considering authorial intent, and purposefully avoids behind-the-scenes perspectives on his favorite works. “It can be fun to take apart a magic trick and figure out how it actually works, but it also ruins the magic of the trick.” Having pushed himself, however, Burch is surprised to find his venture into literary criticism extraordinarily enlightening.

Burch elaborates on King’s themes of loss and friendship with those of transitions, of firsts: first date, first kiss, first job, first road trip. As Gordie (or King) writes, “There’s a high ritual to all fundamental events… the rites of passage, the magic corridor where the change happens.” The beauty of Stephen King’s The Body is in Burch entering that magic corridor, and splitting the experience wide open–uncomfortably, even–for the reader to study with him.


This review originally ran in the August 1, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 scenes.

The Art of History: Unlocking the Past in Fiction & Nonfiction by Christopher Bram

A succinct survey of history in both fiction and nonfiction offers advice for writers and readers.

the art of history

Christopher Bram takes on the broad subject of what history has to offer literature–and vice versa–with The Art of History: Unlocking the Past in Fiction & Nonfiction.

Beginning with memories of a high school English teacher, Bram celebrates the interest and value of reading and writing history. His thesis is that history need not be written in dry, textbook form: in both fiction and nonfiction, a talent for storytelling and a keen eye for just the right details, in the right quantity, can render the near and distant past in enthralling fashion. “Details,” he says, “are the raisins in the raisin bread.” He examines works including Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and topics ranging through war, slavery in the United States, comedic perspectives and the blending of lines between fiction and nonfiction. An author in both disciplines, Bram does not claim objectivity: he is clear about his love for Toni Morrison’s Beloved and his disregard for Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, among others.

Books in “The Art of” series inspect craft from a perspective seemingly for writers and critics, and Bram offers good advice: “In both fiction and nonfiction, writing well means knowing what to leave out.” But The Art of History works for readers as well, as in an appendix of Bram’s recommended reading. Exploration, appreciation and instruction combine in this slim, accessible study of literary history and historical literature.


This review originally ran in the July 5, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 details.

Alex Haley: And the Books That Changed a Nation by Robert J. Norrell

History and literary criticism enrich the first biography of Alex Haley, author of Roots and Malcolm X’s Autobiography.

alex haley

Alex Haley wrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X (as told to him), and Roots, the story of his family from Africa through slavery and the Civil War. Separately, these books had a profound impact on how the United States viewed race relations and its own history. Together, their influence could hardly be overstated, and that is what Robert J. Norrell argues in Alex Haley: And the Books That Changed a Nation, the first biography of Haley and a study of his two seminal works and the controversies they fostered.

Norrell covers Haley’s forebears and Tennessee childhood, his three marriages and a writing career growing from the Coast Guard (where ghost-writing personal letters led to public relations assignments) to magazine work, which led to his interviewing Malcolm X for Reader’s Digest and Playboy. The process for Malcolm’s Autobiography (1965) was dynamic, as Haley walked the fine line between Malcolm’s voice and Haley’s more moderate political position, and as Malcolm’s views on race relations evolved. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Roots (1976) was even harder won, as Haley drew a short book contract out over more than 11 years of research and travel. The effect of the book, and its accompanying television miniseries, was astounding. And yet the rest of his life and work would be shadowed by accusations of copyright infringements and invention in what Haley called a work of nonfiction.

With sensitivity and careful study, Norrell examines Haley’s embattled life and extraordinary achievements. His final conclusion about this “likeable narcissist” is that despite Haley’s imperfections, his influence was prodigious and deserves our respect and continued study today.


This review originally ran in the December 18, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 pieces of gossip.

Norman Maclean (American Author Series), edited by Ron McFarland and Hugh Nichols

norman macleanI believe Norman Maclean is the finest writer I know of. This book helped me to recall & develop that idea. It is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and highly recommended, but with one qualification: I advice any reader to start with Maclean’s masterpieces, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories and Young Men and Fire. This collection makes sense with those works as background, and most appeals to readers whose appreciation has been developed by enjoying them.

Norman Maclean includes 10 short pieces by Maclean himself (essays, and texts of talks given), two “interviews” (one really a profile piece), and 7 critical essays about his work. Maclean is as good as ever. As I said when I read The Norman Maclean Reader, “Retrievers Good and Bad” is still a delight. I liked his discussions of his own work, which a person might find slightly self-congratulatory if we weren’t talking about A River Runs Through It, a story entirely deserving of all praise. His comments about college students – how they seem to want to be coddled, but really need their professors to be tough with them – sound absolutely contemporary today. His favorite phrases begin to echo in refrain as I read (& sometimes reread) his collected works; but they do not lessen by repetition. As driven home in some of the writings about his writing, Maclean’s art was meticulous on every level, including (as he points out himself) in the rhythms of his language. “Teaching and Storytelling” is a real gem; I loved the extended metaphor coming from his youth, “playing games with garbage cans, although in the morning they have to be fished out of the creek.”

And then I got to the section of “essays in appreciation and criticism,” and confess I sighed a moment, because Maclean’s voice would now be silent and others would speak; but the first essay was by Wallace Stegner, and if someone has to follow Maclean it should be Stegner. Actually, that is to skip over Pete Dexter’s preceding essay, “The Old Man and the River,” which is the one I mentioned, listed under interviews but really more of a personal profile piece, and is lovely: it captures the feeling of admiration that I feel in a tone of some humor, and evokes Maclean perhaps more even than his own voice does. This is Maclean the man, which is often a little less visible when Maclean the writer is present, even though so much of his writing is autobiographical.

Some of the critical essays approach from the decidedly academic side, and these were sometimes a little dry and effortful reading, but they also enlightened me and expanded my appreciation. Both of these points are true, for example, of Harold P. Simonson’s essay “Norman Maclean’s Big Two-Hearted River”, which examines A River Runs Through It in theological terms – a very rational lens, and one invited by Maclean, but not one I was well-prepared for, so I had a lot to learn.

It occurred to me on this reading of Maclean that one thing that distinguishes him from other extraordinary writers like Hemingway is that he refuses to be cynical. He can be humorous, but not cynical; he retains a sense of wonder and awe that Hemingway, for example, did not always manage to retain. (Contrast the narrator of A River Runs Through It with Jake’s answer to Lady Brett Ashley, “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”) I have thought before, in other contexts, that we often confuse an absence of cynicism with a lack of sophistication, but that this is sometimes a mistake. There is much made throughout this lovely collection of the beautiful, the sublime, and of grace. Maclean writes of a “slowness of movement that turned out not to be slowness but the shortest distance between two points, which is one definition of grace.” For me, another definition will be his continuing sense of wonder.

Norman Maclean is a new favorite, and will certainly be one of the best of this year. Again, please take my recommendation with the understanding that you should read his two masterpieces first, before continuing to appreciate him here.


Rating: 10 timeless raindrops.

Teaser Tuesdays: Norman Maclean, edited by Ron McFarland and Hugh Nichols

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

Returning to Norman Maclean has been an epiphany, all over again: his writing may well be perfect. I’m not sure I’ve read anyone better.

norman maclean

This edition in the “American Author Series” includes essays by Maclean (some developed from talks he gave), two interviews with him, and essays in appreciation and criticism of his work. There are no sizable excerpts from A River Runs Through It or its accompanying stories, because as the editors rightfully point out, we already have access to those; their goal here (among others) is to bring us Maclean works that are less accessible.

Nevertheless, I had read some of these pieces before – I could not say where – but nevertheless they are so good I am boggled every time I read them.

Today’s teaser comes from “Retrievers Good and Bad”, which is among other things a catalog of duck dogs in Maclean’s family.

The Missouri is one of the main flyways for ducks in America, and when the autumn storms begin in the north, the ducks come whistling out of Canada, hit the Missouri River, follow it to the Mississippi and coast the rest of the way to Louisiana. When they go around those big bends on the upper Missouri, the air is left hurt and shaking, and if you are a duck hunter, the place to be is behind a rock on the cliffside of the bends, because the ducks’ speed on the turns almost drives them into the cliffs and into your bun barrel. That is just where my father and I were.

Of course “the air left hurt and shaking” is an extraordinary phrase, but there is a rhythm to the whole, and an awareness of scope and scale; and then it finishes with family and immediacy. To me, this simple couple of sentences is a fine example of what Maclean can do with words.

So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures by Maureen Corrigan

An impassioned guide to The Great Gatsby by a highly qualified and devoted fan.

so we read on

NPR’s Fresh Air book critic Maureen Corrigan (Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading) didn’t like The Great Gatsby the first time she read it for school when she was a teenager. But after teaching and lecturing about it for decades, her enthusiasm and ardent passion for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel infuse So We Read On (a title that spins off the novel’s famous closing line).

Corrigan argues that “if there is such an animal [as the Great American Novel], then The Great Gatsby is it.” She feels that many readers who encounter Gatsby for the first time in high school or even middle school are too young and inexperienced to appreciate it fully; many will unfortunately and unnecessarily form a dislike for a book that they might learn to love later in life. She also debunks a widespread interpretation of the novel as a grand, decadent celebration of materialistic American culture; it is, rather, an enormously subtle criticism of a class system that Fitzgerald felt had snubbed him.

In exploring these and other ideas, Corrigan undertakes a close reading of the text, examining language and punctuation and considering the context of the Roaring ’20s, the Lost Generation, Fitzgerald’s literary colleagues (including his “frenemy” Ernest Hemingway) and family (the famous or infamous Zelda). Despite her scholarly method, Corrigan’s work remains resolutely accessible to the everyday reader. Indeed, those who haven’t encountered Gatsby since high school are her intended audience. With humor and even the occasional pun, Corrigan offers the love of a classic novel to any and all.


This review originally ran in the September 9, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 9 dives.
%d bloggers like this: