David Mitchell and Joe Hill talk writing

And Stephen King was there. (He’s Joe Hill’s dad, though he’s probably more often described as the author of The Shining, Carrie, The Stand, Under the Dome, Joyland, Mr. Mercedes…)

boneclocksJoe Hill started off with a short but sweet introduction, comparing The Bone Clocks to the Escher-esque Way of Stones in its fifth part: “a dizzying climb.” David Mitchell protested that his head had become so enormous after this intro that he’d need a second plane ticket for the way home, then he launched into reading from the third section of the book, set in 2004, narrated by war reporter Ed Brubeck. Mitchell interrupted himself frequently to “translate” from British to American, apologize for his Yorkshire accent, accuse anyone who recognized the word “Silurian” of watching too much Doctor Who, and make other self-deprecating remarks, and he concluded the reading with a teaser: “If you want to know if they find Aoife [Ed's daughter] or not, you’ll have to go to your independent bookstore…”

Hill began the Q&A by asking about genre. Mitchell views genre as “a set of preexisting formulae” that writers can tweak, change, invert, and conjoin. “Genre is dangerous to deploy,” he said, and one of the dangers is reviewers who have negative attitudes toward genres (“I don’t do elves”). However, he said, he doesn’t write for reviewers. “People can tell when books are riskless…and haven’t caused the author psychic pain.” His ideal bookstore wouldn’t have genre signs in it at all; “I don’t like these divisions,” he said. “Surely the only question that matters is Is it any good or not?

cloud_atlasHill’s next question had a geology metaphor; not “where do your ideas come from?,” but “if you drill down through your novel, what’s at the bottom?” Mitchell listed five elements of the novel: plot, character, style, ideas/themes, and structure. Plot and character are propulsive; style and ideas are…”What’s the opposite of propulsive?” (The audience shouted out ideas. Mitchell suggested this would be a fun game show. “What’s the opposite of a peacock?”) Structure is neither propulsive nor its opposite, but the neutral vehicle itself.

“Novels need ideas like bread needs yeast” – a little bit makes the whole thing rise up.

blackswangreenStructure, for Mitchell, is key: “When I find that key, the doors open in relatively rapid succession.” But you can’t impose a structure just for the sake of it; the structure must harmonize with the ideas in the novel. Cloud Atlas‘ Russian nesting doll structure suited its ideas perfectly, and may be part of the reason the book is Mitchell’s best-selling one. (“Cloud Atlas will probably be on my tombstone. It will probably pay for my tombstone.”) Black Swan Green‘s structure may be the most conventional of all Mitchell’s novels, with thirteen sections, one per month, January to January. (Hill to Mitchell: “There’s twelve months in a year, but you were close.”) Why such a radically different structure for each new book? “I’m vain enough to want to be original. Or maybe it’s not vanity…I wish to avoid cliche.” Hill commented that Mitchell’s structures make his books architectural, which chimes nicely with my own idea of each of Mitchell’s novels being like a room in a house, with characters wandering our of one and into another.

Next came the “speed round,” a series of short answer questions. “Why don’t you Internet?” Hill asked. “I do Internet. I don’t do social media,” Mitchell replied. “I don’t have time.” (If you’re going to crank out a 500+ page book every World Cup and raise children while doing it, this is probably true. Think what the rest of us could get done without Facebook and Twitter!) (Probably none of us could write The Bone Clocks, but we could do something better than “liking” pictures of friends’ cats, no?)

Hill asked if Mitchell wrote on a computer or on paper; Mitchell answered that mostly he typed, but he started new novels on paper. “I can doodle my way” into a novel on paper, but not on the screen, often starting with sketches of characters’ faces, he said.

A couple more “speed round” questions: What’s the first book you remember reading and loving? A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin. Recent favorite book? The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. (Mitchell didn’t list any other contemporary titles, but added that the book he would “run into a burning building to save the last extant copy of” is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.)

Hill then turned the mic over to the audience for a few questions.

What’s your advice for writers whose characters are very different from them? Get your characters to write you letters. Consider what they have to say about money, class, prejudices, sexuality, work, religion, the state, society, early childhood experiences, health, fear of death. “People give themselves away in language all the time.” (This letter-writing advice is almost word-for-word the same as that which Crispin Hershey gives his students in section four of The Bone Clocks.)

thousandautumnsWhen you wrote The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, did you already have the whole concept of the Horologists and the Anchorites? Did you know Marinus was a Horologist? “I knew Marinus had a flexible contract with mortality,” Mitchell answered, but he hadn’t invented the whole cosmology yet. (Marinus, along with Timothy Cavendish, is one of Mitchell’s favorite characters, and one we may not have seen the last of.)

Do your beliefs inform your writing, or does your writing inform your beliefs? If he’s anything, Mitchell said, he’s a Buddhist. “It’s a thing you work at all your life really,” he said. “We need a healthier relationship with mortality.” We’re a “youth-adoring” culture, and that doesn’t serve us well. (The 49 days between the Horologists’ deaths and reincarnations is a number from Japanese Buddhism.)

Timothy Cavendish (from Cloud Atlas) appeared in the Advanced Readers Copy (ARC) of The Bone Clocks, but was edited out of the final version. Does this really have to do with entertainment lawyers? Partially yes, but he’s been replaced by a character who is featured in Mitchell’s next “significant” book, set in SoHo and Greenwich Village in London in the ’60s. (I assume he meant the 1960s, but one can never be sure. Also: will there be an “insignificant” book in between? Or is he just preparing us for a high page count?)

number9dreamThe Bone Clocks wasn’t on the Booker Prize shortlist. (Not really a question.) Mitchell quoted Julian Barnes, who’d said, “The Booker Prize is posh bingo.” Mitchell then noted that Barnes said that before he won (for The Sense of an Ending in 2011), and might not say the same now. Mitchell did mention that his books had been on the list in previous years (The Thousand Autumns longlisted in 2010, Black Swan Green in 2006; Cloud Atlas shortlisted in 2004, Number9Dream in 2001), and didn’t appear bitter that The Bone Clocks didn’t appear on this year’s list.

“If I were the Beatles, Number9Dream would be the White Album.”

His goal, he said, was that if his name were removed from his books, that no reader would be able to tell it was the same author who had written them. (Although some of the character names would be dead giveaways.) He’s always trying something different, which he allows can be trying for his publishers. But the roomful of readers in Cambridge tonight wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thanks: to LibraryThing for an ARC of The Bone Clocks; to Porter Square Books for setting up the event; to Joe Hill for sharing his thoughts on Doctor Who; to the nice people in line; to David Mitchell for signing two books; to David Ebershoff for a few minutes of nice conversation after the signing.

 

 

 

 

 

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

For a short summary and review, please see my review for the Robbins Library on Goodreads.

For a more complete summary (spoilers included) and quotes, please see my review on LibraryThing.

boneclocks

“You only value something if you know it’ll end.”

I did not read any reviews before reading The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: I wanted to come to it fresh, unbiased, with no preconceived notions or other people’s opinions clouding my view or telling me what to look for. I devoured its 620 pages in four days, and then I looked at what reviewers had said about it. I started, perhaps unwisely, with James Wood’s review in The New Yorker (about which more below); the most understanding thing I can say about it is that, with his obvious contempt for the science fiction and fantasy genres, perhaps he was not the best reviewer for this book. (“Every book its reader; every reader his/her book.“)

I thought Ursula K. Le Guin’s review for The Guardian might be more sympathetic, but she calls Mitchell’s writing “anxious” and self-conscious. She wrote – surprisingly for a fantasy/sci-fi author – “I find these radical shifts of time and person difficult, and, though willing to suspend disbelief, am uncertain when to do so. Am I to believe in the hocus-pocus of the secret cult of the Blind Cathar in the same way I am to believe in the realistic portrayal of the death agonies of corporate capitalism – or should I believe in them in different ways? How many novels is it? If it is one, I just don’t see how it hangs together. Or maybe its not hanging together is the point, and I’m not getting it.” Le Guin also probes, not unjustly, at Mitchell’s choice to narrate in the present tense. I know some readers who are particularly sensitive to present-tense narration, but in this case at least, I didn’t find it troublesome. Rather the opposite: by using the present tense, Mitchell anchors the reader in each of six presents.

Joanna Kavenna, in the Telegraph (UK), is generally positive, though she doesn’t sound entirely pleased for David Mitchell that he has entered that “lit-fic kingdom of heaven” where one is both “critically acclaimed” and “wildly popular.” Michiko Kakutani, for The New York Times, provides more of a summary than any other reviewer; her review is mixed, praising the realistic parts of the novel and dismissing the “silly mumbo-jumbo” of the more fantasy-heavy sections. I found the “mumbo-jumbo” fairly easy to decode, but I could see how readers might have trouble with the denser paragraphs of it. Considered individually, the words Mitchell makes up or repurposes are all logical, even if he does sometimes use a noun as a verb (e.g. hiatus).

Pico Iyer’s take in the Sunday Book Review aligns most closely with my own, though he puts everything better. Unlike Le Guin (“How many novels is it?”), Iyer writes, “with Mitchell it’s the whole, the way he stitches the pieces together to make something greater than their sum, that makes the work unique.” He admits that the fifth section strays too far into “Marvel Comicsdom” for his tastes, adding generously, “[Mitchell's] take on everyday life is so alive and so much his own that it seems a waste when he starts inventing realities, as so many other writers do.” In his final paragraph, Iyer concludes, “Other writers may be more moving, and some may push deeper, but very few excite the reader about both the visceral world and the visionary one as Mitchell does.”

Back to James Wood’s review in The New Yorker, in which he displays his condescension for fantasy and science fiction. He gives a head-nod to Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series and Mark Haddon’s Boom! (“a terrific little book I enjoyed reading to my son a few years ago, but which I didn’t bother to treat as more than a nice bedtime game”), but clearly he believes that fantasy and sci-fi are for children (who, apparently, only read or are read to for diversion, not to set their imaginations on fire and develop worldviews).

Undoubtedly, The Bone Clocks has elements of both science fiction and fantasy, and no reviewer who scorns these genres as less serious than “literary fiction” can review it fairly. (Besides, as Holly’s father points out to her partner, Ed: “Life’s more science-fictiony by the day.”) Wood’s lack of interest in these aspects of the novel led to his misunderstanding in at least one case: there wasn’t a “schism” between the Horologists and the Anchorites; they are fundamentally different creatures. The Horologists are reincarnated; the Anchorites practice animacide (not “animicide,” as it was printed in The New Yorker. Anima = soul).

cloud_atlasFurthermore, Wood seems to disparage storytelling itself. In the opening paragraph of his review, he writes, “As the novel’s cultural centrality dims, so storytelling…flies up and fills the air. Meaning is a bit of a bore, but storytelling is alive.” I would argue that storytelling is central to the human experience, and good stories – the stories we remember and retell – do have meaning. Mitchell’s novels, particularly Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, have more meaning than most of the other contemporary novels I’ve read. Wood barely addresses the sixth and final section of the novel, wherein Mitchell imagines a realistically grim version of 2043.

Some of Wood’s criticisms are fair; he writes that “[Mitchell's] characters, whether fifteen-year-old girls or middle-aged male English novelists, sound too alike.” It’s true that Holly Sykes (at all ages), Hugo Lamb, Ed Brubeck, Crispin Hershey, and Dr. Iris Fenby (a.k.a. Marinus) are all clever, witty, insightful, and observant, but their dialogue and their thoughts are unique enough to be distinct. (Mitchell has already proved, in Cloud Atlas, that he’s capable of writing in many different voices and dialects.) And it’s not as if character was sacrificed for the sake of storytelling, either; Kakutani calls Holly “a thoroughly captivating character,” and I’m inclined to agree.

blackswangreenThough it is by no means easy reading, I love spending time in the Mitchell universe, where every novel belongs to one “‘Uber-book,’ in which themes and characters recur and overlap.” Seeing these characters reappear is like running into an old lost friend at a Christmas party: unexpected recognition, a delighted sense of “oh, it’s you!” In The Bone Clocks, nearly everyone makes an appearance: there are cameos from Jason and Julia, Alan Wall, and Nurse Noakes (Black Swan Green), Timothy Cavendish (Cloud Atlas), and the omnipresent moon-grey cat; there is a larger but behind-the-scenes role for Luisa Rey (Cloud Atlas); and Marinus (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) and Hugo Lamb (Black Swan Green) play significant roles.

So, what is The Bone Clocks about? It is about the life of Holly Sykes, fifteen when we first encounter her in 1984 and seventy-four when we last see her in 2043. It is about the war between the Horologists and the Anchorites, which is really a war about the value of life; the Horologists’ aim is to prevent the Anchorites from committing animacide (killing) in order to preserve their own youth. Mitchell has called The Bone Clocks his midlife crisis novel, and one can’t read it without considering aging and death on the ordinary human scale as well as the “Atemporal” one; as Nurse Noakes says to Hugo, “You’d think old age was a criminal offence, not a destination we’re all heading to.”

According to David Mitchell himselfThe Bone Clocks is about survival. And it is about the future we are all headed for if we don’t begin making drastic changes now: a scarcity of resources and a consolidation of power, lawless zones and fear, a time when we’ll remember clean water and electricity as luxuries. Of course, both survival and life can be considered on more than one scale: in The Bone Clocks, there is the individual, the species, and the Atemporals. The Horologists and the Anchorites may be pure fiction, but we still have to worry about the rest. Will 2043 look like it does in Mitchell’s vision?

 

Althea & Oliver by Cristina Moracho

altheaoliverSometimes it’s easy to remember why you picked up a certain book: a friend recommended it, or you read a great review somewhere, or you liked the cover or the title. Sometimes one recommendation or review isn’t enough, and it’s not until you hear about a book a few times that you’re motivated to pick it up. In the case of Althea & Oliver, I first heard of it in a Booklist review, then it showed up in my e-mail through Penguin’s First to Read program. I liked the names in the title; I liked the fancy ampersand. Was that all?

If it was, it was enough. Taking place in the pre-cell phone 1990s, Althea & Oliver reminded me of some other excellent YA novels, including John Green’s Paper Towns, Katja Millay’s The Sea of Tranquility, Lauren Myracle’s The Infinite Moment of Us, and Tim Tharp’s The Spectacular Now. Set in Wilmington, NC, Althea & Oliver has a few things in common with these books: the focus is close on two characters; it takes place in the South (mostly); and while parental supervision isn’t entirely absent, Althea’s dad Garth and Oliver’s mom Nicky aren’t helicopter parents, either.

Althea and Oliver have been best friends for ten years, but just as Althea begins to see Oliver as more than just a best friend, Oliver falls asleep. Not metaphorically, and not just for a nap: Oliver falls asleep for weeks. While Oliver is asleep, he has episodes – an incident at Waffle House, for example – that he can’t remember when he wakes up. When he wakes up for real, he wants everything to go back to normal. But when it happens again, his mom Nicky begins to do some research, and discovers that Oliver isn’t the only one; what he has is called Kleine-Levin Syndrome (KLS), and there’s a study going on in New York.

Oliver doesn’t tell Althea about the study and his imminent departure, at first because he doesn’t know how, and then because of something that happens between them during one of his episodes. When Althea realizes that Oliver is gone, not just asleep, she finds out where he went and goes after him, launching herself into a new phase of life, alone. Althea arrives at the hospital in New York just minutes after Oliver falls asleep again; she winds up in Red Hook, in a house with a bunch of other young adults, and astonishingly – after being friends with no one but Oliver for years – Althea makes friends with them.

Oliver wakes up just before New Year’s, escapes the hospital with another boy in the study, and goes in search of Althea. Improbably, he finds her. He tells her about a possible solution to his KLS, but even if it solves his sleep problems, it won’t solve what went wrong between them. They can’t go back to normal – they can only go forward.

Unconventional and utterly, convincingly real, Althea & Oliver is full of well-rounded, believable characters. No one is a prop, no one is one-dimensional; from Wilmington punk friends Val and Howard (a.k.a. Minty Fresh) to the Red Hook house full of dropouts and vegans, every character in this book could be the center of his or her own story. But it is Althea who is the heart of this one; Althea who is angry and violent, heartbroken and determined, scrappy and searching; Althea who realizes, at last, that neither she nor Oliver are going to get what they want, but that there is something else out there for them both.

I received an e-galley of this book through Penguin’s First to Read program. Althea & Oliver will be published in October 2014.

“Netflix for books” already exists: it’s called the library

Even in a profession where we interact with the general public daily, it can be tricky for librarians to assess how much other people know about what we do, and what libraries offer – which is why it is so delightful to see an article by a non-librarian raising awareness of a service libraries offer. In “Why the Public Library Beats Amazon – For Now” in the Wall Street Journal, Geoffrey A. Fowler praises public libraries across the country, more than 90% of which offer e-books (according to the Digital Inclusion Study funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services).

Noting the rise of Netflix-style subscription platforms like Oyster and Scribd, Fowler observes that libraries still have a few key advantages: they’re free, and they offer more books that people want to read.

random-house-penguin11

Graphic designer Aaron Tung’s idea for the Penguin – Random House logo

Librarians have been working with publishers for several years, negotiating various deals and trying out different models (sometimes it seems like two steps forward, one step back), but finally all of the Big Five have come on board and agreed to “sell” (license) e-books and digital audiobooks to libraries under some model. (The Big Five were formerly the Big Six, but Random House and Penguin merged and became Penguin Random House, missing a tremendous opportunity to call themselves Random Penguin House, with accompanying awesome logo.)

Thus, while Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (KU for short – has the University of Kansas made a fuss about this yet? They should) touts its 600,000 titles, the question readers should be asking is, which 600,000 titles? All books are not created equal. The library is more likely to have the books you want to read, as Fowler points out in his article. It may be true that Amazon, Oyster, and Scribd have prettier user interfaces, and it may take fewer clicks to download the book you want (if it’s there), but library platforms – including OverDrive, 3M Cloud Library, and others – have made huge strides in this area. If you haven’t downloaded an e-book from your library recently, or at all, give it a try now – it’s leaps and bounds smoother than it used to be. You may have to wait for it – most publishers still insist on the “one copy/one user” model, rather than a simultaneous use model – but it is free. (Or if you’re impatient and solvent, you can go ahead and buy it.)

Readers' advisory desk at the Portland (ME) Public Library.

Readers’ advisory desk at the Portland (ME) Public Library.

Another way in which the library differs from for-profit book-rental platforms is that, to put it bluntly, the library isn’t spying on you. If you’re reading a Kindle book, Amazon knows how fast you read, where you stop, what you highlight. Libraries, on the other hand, have always valued privacy. The next time you’re looking for an e-book, try your local library – all you need is your library card number and PIN.

Everything you think you know

A version of this post can also be found on the Robbins Library blog.

 

The squares marked A and B are the same shade of gray.

The squares marked A and B are the same shade of gray.

Humans are amazing. But we are very often wrong when we think – when we know – we are right. The example above easily illustrates how our powers of perception can mislead us. (Click on the image to see the proof and explanation.) This example is cited in the book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schultz, but there are hundreds of other examples, and optical illusions are only one way in which our perception of a thing can be inaccurate. We can be wrong – even when we think we’re right – in hundreds of ways, dozens of times a day. Comforting thought, isn’t it? It could be, if we accept Schultz’s assertion that “errors do not lead us away from the truth. Instead, they edge us incrementally toward it.”

“That our intuition could lead us astray is troubling in direct proportion to the degree of trust we place in it.” -Leah Hager Cohen, I don’t know

If Being Wrong disturbs you, try Leah Hager Cohen’s book I don’t know: in praise of admitting ignorance and doubt (except when you shouldn’t). At just over a hundred pages, it gives a great return for time spent; in fact, I could easily see it becoming required reading for students entering high school or college. Cohen writes about learning to admit when we don’t know something, and goes further, asking, “but what about all those times we don’t know we don’t know?

Both Schultz and Cohen warn about the danger of belief hardening into certainty, and emphasize the importance of doubt. Cohen writes, “Real civil discourse necessarily leaves room for doubt. That doesn’t make us wishy-washy…We can still hold fervent beliefs. The difference is, we don’t let those beliefs calcify into unconsidered doctrine.” She continues, Fundamentalism of any kind is the refusal to allow doubt. The opposite of fundamentalism is the willingness to say ‘I don’t know.'”

For a quick, high-energy take on the same material, Hank Green (brother of John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, etc.) has a four-minute video entitled “Towering Mountains of Ignorance.” He says, “I’m glad that we have the desire to understand the world, that results in all sorts of great stuff. We want to know everything, we’re curious….But I think a lot of the time we end up mixing up thinking something with knowing something.”

Watch the whole video by clicking below.

hankgreen2

“I think that I know a lot of things…but the vast majority of things, vast majority, I don’t know.” -Hank Green

Hank Green: “Now, I know that I don’t know, but somehow everyone else seems to know. They all know differently from each other, but they all seem to know. When you look at all deeply at this, you realize that people aren’t basing their opinions on what they think is the best course of action or the actual best explanation, they’re basing it on their values.”

“What I’m saying is nobody’s opinions are correct…and yet it’s impossible not to tie your opinions to your concept of self.” -Hank Green

In Being Wrong, Kathryn Schultz puts it this way: “The idea of knowledge and the idea of error are fundamentally incompatible. When we claim to know something, we are essentially saying that we can’t be wrong. If we want to contend with the possibility that we could be wrong, then the idea of knowledge won’t serve us; we need to embrace the idea of belief instead.” Call it what you want – knowledge, belief, opinions, values – it/they are “inextricable from our identities,” which is “one reason why being wrong can so easily wound our sense of self.”

"I DON'T KNOW!"

“I DON’T KNOW!”

The two books mentioned above, Being Wrong and I don’t know, are nonfiction, and I highly recommend them both to anyone and everyone. But fiction, too, can be useful, in that it allows readers to see from the point of view of someone different. The link between fiction and empathy is real (Scientific American, New York Times, this blog), and reading fiction, especially books where the narrators or main characters are very different from us, can help us break down what we think we know – especially what we think we know about other people.

 

Half Magic, Half Real: Reading in childhood and adolescence

halfmagicRecently, over on my library’s blog, we’ve been doing a series of collaborative blog posts, where we come up with a question and each offer our answers. We started with how to fit reading into a busy schedule, and then we discussed book-to-movie adaptations. This month, I asked the impossible: One favorite book you read as a child, and one favorite you read as a teen. Naturally we struggled to choose just one each, and some of us (ahem) outright failed. But it’s a good failure, when you think back to all the books you grew up reading and they’re all so deeply embedded in your memory that you can’t choose between them.

As every librarian and bookseller and book lover knows, there are many ways to categorize books, but what I noticed about the books I remembered from growing up was the division between fantasy and “realistic” fiction. (I didn’t really read nonfiction for fun as a kid, except those DK Eyewitness ones – Crystal & Gem, anyone? – and one about King Tut’s tomb with that terrifying black and gold death mask on the cover.)

I wish I’d kept a reading log my whole life so I’d know now when I encountered each of these, but I haven’t. Here are some of the earlier books that I remember reading and re-reading:

castleintheatticHalf Magic by Edward Eager
The Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop
Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher by Bruce Coville
Matilda / The Witches / The BFG by Roald Dahl
Wait Til Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn
Voices After Midnight by Richard Peck
The Boggart by Susan Cooper
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
The Giver by Lois Lowry
The Lion Tamer’s Daughter by Peter Dickinson
The Golden Compass / The Subtle Knife / The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

boggartThat whole batch – and these titles came to mind almost instantly once I’d formed the question – are fantasy. Magic, dragons, ghosts, time travel, ageless Scottish spirits, doppelgangers. I read realistic fiction too – the Boxcar Children, Nancy Drew, the Thoroughbred series by Joanna Campbell, and several standalone works by the likes of E.L. Konigsburg, Judy Blume, Chris Crutcher, Lois Duncan, Joan Lowery Nixon, and Caroline B. Cooney – and I remember those as well, but the books with an element of magic seem set apart, unique. The authors had to invent whole new worlds, or twist and shape our world in such a way that it seemed foreign. Then – Once upon a time…It was a dark and stormy night… – they invited the reader in, as a co-imaginer, a sidekick, a tagalong.

wrinkleintime2Part of the appeal of fantasy, science fiction, dystopia, fairy tale, myth, and horror is that they invite the reader to consider how she would react when placed in a strange situation, or how she would fit in to an unfamiliar world, from the safety of wherever she happens to be reading. These genres open the imagination of all readers, young and old, who are willing to suspend disbelief and engage with them. Books with these elements are, sometimes, more memorable than strictly realistic books. That element of magic catches at us, makes us think; these stories use otherworldly frameworks for concepts we have, but have no name for.

This month, I read Shirley Jackson’s literary horror novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House. The latter had an introduction (“Haunted Castles, Dark Mirrors”) by Penguin Horror editor Guillermo del Toro, who wrote, “[I]t is a fact that, through the ages, most storytellers have had to resort to the fantastic in order to elevate their discourse to the level of parable….At a primal level, we crave parables, because they allow us to grasp the impossibly large concepts and to understand our universe without and within.”

goldencompassThe books I mentioned above aren’t parables, exactly; they are, first and foremost, stories, and if they have lessons in them, they are more subtle than most parables (or fairy tales or myths, for that matter). But many of them do offer a way to grasp “impossibly large concepts” at a young age. Think of the tesseract from A Wrinkle in Time, where instead of traveling in a straight line from point A to point B – commonly thought to be the shortest distance between two points – points A and B are instead brought together. Or think of any number of Philip Pullman’s inventions, from the daemon – an aspect of the personality or soul that lives outside the human body in animal form, invisibly connected – to the intention craft (just what it sounds like), to particles of consciousness (the misunderstood Dust), to a simple concept that resonates: you can visit other worlds, but they cannot sustain you for a full long lifetime, as your home world can. We can travel very far, but we still have to return home from time to time for sustenance we can’t get from any other place.

What’s your favorite childhood or teen book, magical or non-magical?

7/29/14 Edited to add: Further reading from YALSA’s The Hub: “There’s No Escaping the Power of Fantasy Fiction”  by Kelly Dickinson, and “YA Books That Changed Our Lives” by multiple contributors.

 

On Immunity: An Inoculation, by Eula Biss (Graywolf Press)

onimmunityOn Immunity: An Inoculation was one of the two nonfiction books at this year’s BEA Editors’ Buzz. At just about 200 pages, including the notes and acknowledgements, it is undaunting in length, which I hope will encourage even more people to pick it up.

Disease is defined as “any deviation from or interruption of the normal structure or function of any body part, organ, or system that is manifested by a characteristic set of symptoms and signs and whose etiology, pathology, and prognosis may be known or unknown.” But an obsolete use of the word disease is “lack of ease; trouble,” more like today’s unease. And disease certainly does make people uncomfortable: the idea of it causes mental and emotional discomfort, while its physical effects can range from undetected to uncomfortable to fatal.

Eula Biss wades into this uneasy territory, and finds companions in other writers, historians, philosophers, anthropologists, and doctors. During the writing of On Immunity, Biss – already a published author and essayist – became a mother, and she approaches the topic of immunity and vaccination from a mother’s point of view as well as a “citizen thinker’s” perspective. She acknowledges that all parents’ decisions – to vaccinate or not to vaccinate their children – come from the same desire: to keep their children safe. But it is better to make these decisions from a place of knowledge than from a place of fear, and knowledge is what Biss strives for, and shares, in this book.

Fears of vaccines do not seem easily quieted by an abundance of expert risk-benefit analyses assuring us that the good they do is far greater than the harm.

One of the first steps in the process of deciding whether or not to vaccinate is risk assessment, and yet humans are not as good at this as we would like to think. Biss quotes the historian Michael Willrich, who says, “Perceptions of risk…can be stubbornly resistant to the evidence of experts.” People engage in dangerous activities (e.g. driving, riding in, or walking near cars) every day, but the familiarity we develop with these activities dulls our fear of the associated risks. “The disregard for statistical risk,” Biss writes, “may be at least partly due to an unwillingness to live lives dictated by danger.”

Risk perception may not be about quantifiable risk so much as it is about immeasurable fear….When we encounter information that contradicts our beliefs…we tend to doubt the information, not ourselves.

Safe and dangerous aren’t as binary as we’d like to think, either; as toxicologists say, “the dose makes the poison.” But, Biss notes, “most people prefer to think of substances as either safe or dangerous, regardless of the dose.” I caught myself in this exact thought pattern a single day after I finished reading On Immunity, while I was reading about the ingredients in a multivitamin; it’s difficult to remember, but any substance, even water, can be toxic in large enough doses, and small doses of “dangerous” substances may be harmless.

If vaccination is a choice people make at the individual level (“allowing oneself to remain vulnerable to disease remains a legal privilege today”), it is also a choice individuals are making on behalf of the larger community in which they live. The author’s father Roger Biss, a doctor, explains, “Vaccination works by enlisting a majority in the protection of a minority.” The more people who are vaccinated and carry immunity, the safer everyone is from disease. Achieving a 100% vaccination rate in any given population is unlikely, but by aiming for that rate, we have a better chance of attaining “herd immunity.” Unfortunately, Biss discovers, “We know the threshold [at which herd immunity is lost], in many cases, only after we’ve exceeded it.”

Faced with too much information, or misinformation, some people choose not to vaccinate, threatening the protection that herd immunity confers. Yet refusing to vaccinate “undermines a system…in which both the burdens and the benefits are shared across the entire population.” Or, as the author’s sister notes, “The health of our bodies always depends on choices other people are making.”

Biss includes a wealth of references, both in the text and in the notes; she draws upon such various sources as Susan Sontag, Bram Stoker (Dracula), Rachel Carson (Silent Spring), and Jean-Paul Sartre, among others. While I read On Immunity, however, I was often reminded of a book she didn’t mention: Leah Hager Cohen’s I don’t know: in praise of admitting ignorance and doubt (except when you shouldn’t). In this slim, wise volume, Cohen – also a mother, and also a Hampshire College graduate – explores the question, “How should we make decisions when we can’t know what’s right?”

We have to make the best decision we can, based on the best information we can gather. After a careful examination of research an opinion from many sources, Biss concludes, reasonably, that vaccination is the choice that is best for the individual, and for society at large – of which we are all a part. This works to everyone’s advantage; after all, “No single person…has the genetic material to respond to all diseases, but collectively humans have enough genetic diversity for humankind to survive any disease.”

I received a galley of this book from the publisher at BookExpo America 2014. Quotes in the review above are from the galley, and may differ from the final copy. On Immunity: An Inoculation will be published on September 30, 2014.