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.

Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush

This study of rising sea levels puts both science and poetry to work in honoring human and non-human coastal communities across the United States.

Journalist Elizabeth Rush’s Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore is science, poetry and personal witness, concerned with human and more-than-human communities. It is a reckoning with the ugly reality of climate change, with numbers and predictions becoming grimmer each year. It is a poetic meditation on the nature of change, on how people can make peace with a changing world and our agency in it. And it is an impassioned consideration of the injustices humans perpetrate on one another, and on the non-human world.

Rush saw firsthand the reality of rising sea levels in inland Bangladesh, when a boy named Faharul showed her his dying mustard greens, their veins filling with salt. It took her years to follow that story to the U.S. communities she visited in researching and writing this book. In Rhode Island, Louisiana, Maine, Florida, New York, Oregon and California, Rush interviews local residents, observes local flora and fauna and questions scientists. She studies climate change and the rise of sea levels globally, but particularly in wetland ecosystems.

Rush’s concerns begin with plants and animals: salt marsh harvest mouse, roseate spoonbill, Caspian tern, rufous hummingbird, red knot, black tupelo. But she quickly extrapolates them to tell a human story, too, about the people threatened alongside greater egret and cypress, and about her own struggle to navigate hope and action within despair. “I have a hard time separating excavation from elegy.” The loss of islands on Louisiana’s coast means the loss of Native communities there, and to understand that loss, one must recognize that those communities were formed by relocated tribes of Chitimacha, Biloxi, Choctaw and Acadian people pushed out of their original homes all over the continent. This is but one example of the vulnerable populations most at risk and least assisted by social supports.

Appealingly, Rush puts her research and writing to work alongside the perspectives of coastal residents: interwoven chapters are told in other voices. She makes allusions to the story of Noah and his ark, and to Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, seeking the right reference point. Striking black-and-white photographs from Rush’s travels add another gorgeous, elegiac layer to the narrative she helps to construct. Finally, an alliterative organizational structure stemming from wetland botanical structures makes this a book to be admired on many levels.

Rising is in some ways a difficult read. Its subjects are sobering and saddening, and survivors of flood events may be re-traumatized by some descriptions. The human-on-human crimes Rush documents include both discriminatory lending practices and sexual assault. These are important subjects to consider, regardless of the pain they may cause, but Rising has more to offer: pulsing, gleaming prose and a stubborn search for, if not hope, then peace in the face of disaster.


This review originally ran in the May 24, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 10 rampikes.

(Yes, that good, even though it made me terribly depressed too.)

This Book Is a Planetarium: And Other Extraordinary Pop-Up Contraptions by Kelli Anderson

This is a work of art, teaching tool, pop-up toy and book that will delight playful lifetime learners.

This Book Is a Planetarium–as well as a musical instrument, a decoder ring, a spiralgraph and more. With a smartphone or small LED light, the galaxy comes to your living room. Graphic designer Kelli Anderson exults in the science and the art in the everyday, here playing with the powers of paper. This short but engrossing large-format book is at once an art object and a collection of teaching tools. Each page pops up and moves, dynamically demonstrating lessons from physics, geometry and astronomy. Brief explanations in small print further expand the didactic element. While the text is written for adults, not children, a little grown-up assistance (and supervision of removable parts) could make this an educational toy for all ages. Sensory play involving touch and sound as well as sight is too often left to the kids, but This Book Is a Planetarium is a physical object and absorbing interactive experience for all curious and young-at-heart readers.


This review originally ran in the November 21, 2017 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 strings.

book beginnings on Friday: Origins of the Universe and What It All Means by Carole Firstman

origins of the universe

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

I’ve just begun a new memoir, about the author’s relationship with her decidedly eccentric father, a gifted biologist with poor social skills. It’s a little playful with formats within the book, and ranges from the personal to the broad. It’s called… Origins of the Universe and What It All Means.

What a title, right? Wait til you see the opening page. I’ve zoomed in, but this is the entire content of page one and chapter one:

one

“In the beginning there was darkness.”

Don’t worry, though, it’s justified & appropriate for this book. Do I have your attention now? Stay tuned…

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future by Lauren Redniss

Superb illustrations accompany fascinating tidbits about weather and the world in this lovely, distinctive book.

thunder lightning

Lauren Redniss (Radioactive) offers a gorgeously rendered and singular piece of work with Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future. Her original artwork is stunning, dreamy and evocative, the perfect complement to facts about weather and carefully selected interview excerpts and quotations.

Redniss’s “Note on the Art” describes her media: copper plate photogravure etchings and photopolymer process prints, hand-colored, and a few drawings in oil pastel. She comments on the artistic tradition that inspired her: artist/scientists whose devotion to precision and accuracy have historically paired with “a sensation of strangeness, wonder, terror.” Her work is certainly worthy of that tradition; drawings of wildfires recall Picasso’s Guernica, and the chapter entitled “Sky” contains only striking illustrations and no text. These drawings are both otherworldly and very much of our world.

Redniss’s text, based on scientific research and cultural traditions, riffs on weather phenomena rather than offering a comprehensive study. Her chapters cover conditions (cold, rain, heat, fog) as well as concepts (dominion, war, profit), and span the planet and various peoples throughout history. She considers weather that has been blamed on witches or credited to gods; the use of cloud seeding as a weapon by the United States against Vietnam; and weather derivatives and insurance. Redniss’s subjects are quirky and entertaining; her chapter “Forecast” is as concerned with the Old Farmer’s Almanac as with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That tone of marvel and whimsy, plus exquisite illustrations, make Thunder & Lightning both remarkably beautiful and pleasingly informative.


This review originally ran in the November 10, 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: 8 gorgeous interpretive hand-colored prints.

A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup

A comprehensible survey of poisons and a celebration of the Queen of Crime.

a is for arsenic

Chemist Kathryn Harkup combines her scientific expertise and love of a good mystery in her first book, A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie. B is for belladonna, and C is for cyanide, as Harkup works her way through 14 mysteries and 14 discrete poisons, with meticulous and informed explanations of the science behind each toxin’s effects (an appendix contains chemical structures). Each chapter also details famous real-life cases involving these deadly substances, including those that might have inspired–or been inspired by–Christie’s work, and analyses of how accurately the Queen of Crime represented the science within her stories. Generally the renowned writer does very well: as Harkup explains, Christie worked as a volunteer nurse in World War I and showed such aptitude that she was encouraged to continue her education and training as a pharmacist. By the Second World War, her work as a dispenser left her ample time to pursue her other profession, writing bestselling stories and novels.

Harkup’s writing style is accessible to the lay reader, although she does become technical when discussing poisons’ actions on the body, with full detail at the cellular level. She keeps these explanations short, however, and general readers will be able to follow along. For Christie fans, the review of famous mysteries is great fun, and the few spoilers come with ample warning. A Is for Arsenic is both informative science and a spur to read or reread the most popular mysteries ever written.


This review originally ran in the September 25, 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: 6 grains.

Teaser Tuesdays: Thunder & Lightning by Lauren Redniss

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

thunder lightning

This is a lovely, gorgeous art book, you guys, and isn’t weather fascinating? Clear win all around, and I can’t wait to share my review with you. For now, I couldn’t help but indulge in these lines, which cracked me up, in a men-Mars-women-Venus sort of way.

Look at men’s and women’s boots. The first chill in the air in September or October, women’s boot sales go right through the roof. Now, the weather’s still nice at that time of year in a lot of the U.S. Men’s boot sales don’t budge. Men’s boot sales move much later in the season, in late October or November when it’s really cold and really wet and men’s socks are getting wet.

(From a lengthy quotation by Frederick Fox, CEO of Planalytics.)

Even with intriguing and whimsical text, the visual art is the best part. Sign up for your copy now.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

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