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.

 

Reading Roundup: spring, summer, and fall books

Between BEA, Edelweiss, NetGalley, and the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, I’ve gotten a chance to read several books ahead of their official publication dates this year, and they’ve all been excellent. This list is fairly fiction-heavy, but I have a few nonfiction titles coming up as well, so if that’s your thing, stay tuned.

stuckinthemiddleStuck in the Middle with You by Jennifer Finney Boylan (paperback: April 22, 2014)

Sometimes, the simplest, most innocent questions that people ask me can demand that I either lie or else have a conversation that’s much more intimate than I want to have, simply in order to tell the truth.

Boylan is the author of two previous memoirs, She’s Not There (2003) and I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted (2008). Born James Boylan, she had a sex change but remained married to her wife Deedie, parent to their two sons, Zach and Sean. Stuck in the Middle With You gives enough background so that readers who are new to Boylan won’t be lost, but focuses mainly on parenthood and family; memoir material is interspersed with interviews with many other people on the topics of gender, family, and motherhood vs. fatherhood. (I was delighted to encounter Tim Kreider, author of We Learn Nothing, in one of the interviews.) In conversation with Christine McGinn, Boylan seems to conclude that “males and females really are two different beings…but motherhood and fatherhood are social constructs.” She also concludes that her family is more similar to other families than different – and, for what it’s worth, she and Deedie are still together while many couples who got together at the same time are now separated. A great read for anyone who’s part of a family…which is pretty much everyone.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub (May 29, 2014)vacationers

Families were nothing more than hope cast out in a wide net, everyone wanting only the best.

The term “beach read” connotes something frothy and light, indulgent and not necessarily “literary,” but just because a book is set during a family’s summer vacation doesn’t make it a “beach read.” Straub’s The Vacationers certainly isn’t fluff: it’s a two-week-long snapshot of a family (and friends) whose members are all believably flawed: the husband who had an affair and lost his job over it, the wife who isn’t sure she can forgive him, the gay couple in the midst of a nerve-wracking adoption process, the son with hidden financial troubles, the son’s responsible-but-looked-down-on older girlfriend, and finally the youngest daughter, whose goal for the summer is to get laid so she doesn’t arrive at college a virgin. Straub writes about her characters with empathy and wisdom. I didn’t read her previous novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, but I may add it to my list now.

oneplusoneOne Plus One by Jojo Moyes (July 1, 2014)

Sometimes, she told herself, life was a series of obstacles that just had to be negotiated, possibly through sheer act of will….she could survive this. She could survive most things.

Jess and Ed both live in England, but they come from two different worlds: Ed is fantastically rich, thanks to some software he built with his friend Ronan, and Jess is scraping by, cleaning houses – including Ed’s – and bartending. This setup could easily tip over into cliche, but it doesn’t: Moyes creates fully rounded characters who are lovable but flawed, trying to do their best and making mistakes. Jess is trying to protect her ex-husband’s son Nicky from being bullied, and trying to figure out a way to afford for her daughter Tanzie to go to a nicer school where she can do higher-level maths; Tanzie has won a scholarship but Jess still doesn’t have enough to cover the rest, unless Tanzie also wins a competition. In Aberdeen. And Jess can’t really drive – so Ed ends up chauffeuring the three of them, plus Norman the dog. One Plus One is a satisfying romance that addresses issues of socioeconomic status and inequality.

landlineLandline by Rainbow Rowell (July 8, 2014)

“Lately I’ve been thinking that it’s impossible to know.”
“To know what?” she pushed.
“Whether it’s enough. How does anyone ever know whether love is enough? It’s an idiotic question. Like, if you fall in love, if you’re that lucky, who are you to even ask whether it’s enough to make you happy?”
“But it happens all the time,” she said. “Love isn’t always enough.”

If you have already read something by Rainbow Rowell (Attachments, Eleanor & Park, Fangirl), then you’re already waiting to get your hands on Landline, in which Rowell returns from YA to adult fiction. As always, she writes with a wonderful sense of humor as well as wisdom about what it’s like to be a person. Review | Additional quotes

secretplaceThe Secret Place by Tana French (September 2, 2014)

Some people are like that: everything comes out like a lie. Not that they’re brilliant liars, just that they’re useless at telling the truth. You get left with no way to tell what’s the real fake and what’s the fake one.

The Secret Place differs from French’s four previous novels in that the narration is split in two, with one half – from the perspective of Detective Stephen Moran – taking place over the course of one long day, and the other half filling in most of the back story. This is largely effective, though there are many threads to keep track of; readers are never too far ahead of Moran and his partner-for-the-day, Antoinette Conway, and there are plenty of leads that lead to dead ends. The case centers around a murder that occurred on the grounds of a girls’ boarding school; the murder went unsolved for a year, but a new clue has surfaced, brought to Moran’s attention by Holly Mackey, a student at the school. Soon, Moran begins to wonder if Holly was involved. As always, French has crafted a psychologically gripping, beautifully written, hard-to-put-down literary mystery.

stationelevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (September 9, 2014)

The more you remember, the more you’ve lost.

The world as we know it: Arthur Leander has a heart attack onstage while playing King Lear. Audience member Jeevan, a paparazzo-turned-journalist-turned EMT, jumps onstage to help. Child actress Kirsten Raymonde watches as Jeevan tries to save Arthur, but Arthur dies. Later that evening, Jeevan receives a call from a doctor friend, telling him about a fast-moving, lethal flu that has arrived in Toronto. He stocks up on emergency supplies.

Time had been reset by catastrophe.

The world in Year Twenty: Twenty years after the Georgia Flu has killed 99.99% of the world’s population, Kirsten is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a band of Shakespearean actors and musicians always on the move between small settlements. She’s also on the lookout for anyone who might know anything about one of her few possessions, copies of the first two volumes of a graphic novel called Station Eleven. When Symphony members begin to go missing, it seems as though Station Eleven might be leaking from the page into real life.

There have been several notable post-apocalyptic novels for adults recently (The Road, The Age of Miracles, The Dog Stars), but in my opinion this is the best. The author pays attention to the logistics of the collapse, but the characters are of primary importance: the way they deal with the post-flu world, the way they are all connected in a looping way that is almost reminiscent of the best time-travel novels. I only finished reading it a few days ago, but I think it will linger with me.

 

Leah Hager Cohen at the Robbins Library

No Book But the World (2)Cross-posted at the Robbins Library blog.

Leah Hager Cohen graced the Robbins Library with her presence on Monday night, reading a section from her newest novel, No Book But the World, in a soft, clear, expressive voice. The passage described the main character, Ava, as a child, playing with her younger brother Fred and overhearing her parents discussing whether or not her mother should teach Ava to read sheet music. Ava wants her parents to keep talking about her, but Fred chokes on a rock, and though Ava gets him to spit it out, their parents come running to Fred’s wails.

Devoted readers will notice what Cohen herself has noticed about her books, both fiction and nonfiction: “All of my books, as I look back on them, seem to engage the idea of “other,” whether in the form of marginalized cultures or the private “otherness” we all sometimes feel in moments of loneliness or isolation. And I see all of them as part of a larger effort to reach out beyond that isolation, to fathom the unfathomable” (quote from a January 2012 interview with Steven Wingate in Fiction Writers Review). Storytelling, Cohen said, is a way of bridging the gaps, making connections between people.

Her new novel, No Book But the World, investigates the question, “What do we do about people in the world who are difficult to love?” The difficult-to-love character is Fred, who likely has an autism spectrum disorder, but his parents, Neel and June, are against “pathologizing the individual,” so Fred remains undiagnosed; Neel and June think Fred is “okay the way he is.” As the book begins, the adult Fred has been accused of a crime, and Ava is convinced that if she can only coax Fred into telling his side of the story, she can serve as the interpreter between him and the world. Ava insists that she knows Fred better than anyone – but how possible is it to know someone else? “Sympathy and empathy can go a long way toward reaching the Other, but it is arrogance to think we can know the Other.” Still, there is the hope that “if only we could tell the story well enough, complete enough, some of the pain of otherness/separateness could be alleviated.”

“Who could ever tell a story complete?” -Leah Hager Cohen, No Book But the World

During the Q&A following the reading, one reader who had already finished No Book But the World tiptoed around the ending, trying not to spoil it for those who hadn’t read it yet; she asked about Fred’s choice near the end of the book. Cohen said that her literary agent had a similar reaction: to most readers, Fred seems like a character the world happens to, but in this case he makes a surprising choice for himself. Though Cohen considered changing the ending, she ultimately kept the original.

TrainGoSorryThough lately Cohen has published more fiction (The Grief of Others, House Lights), she started out publishing nonfiction after graduating from Columbia University’s Journalism School. Journalism “seemed like a way to balance my pleasure in writing and being socially useful.” With journalism, Cohen believed, storytelling can help fill in what we don’t know. She quickly realized that “journalism is too often subservient to capitalism,” but turned one of her pieces for school into a book proposal, which became Train Go Sorry.

Another audience member noted Cohen’s exceptional vocabulary. Cohen laughed and put it more baldly: “How come you use all those words?” She answered, “I’m not trying to be inaccessible…I am aware that the tool that I have is English, is language, [and it is] pretty meager compared to all this stuff [life, the world, etc.]…The reason we’re here is to tell each other those things, [but] I can only get part of the way there through words.” She then related a story about first encountering the word “hyperbole”: “Back in adolescence, I remember having an epiphany that the whole idea of hyperbole is fallacious—since nothing we perceive, nor any words we are capable of using to express it, could ever begin to approach the fullness of the thing” (quote from the interview with Steven Wingate).

One of Cohen’s first jobs after graduating from Hampshire College college was as an American Sign Language interpreter. ASL has “a richness of expression in its visual and spatial aspects,” whereas English is linear (one word follows another word). She added, “All of this language stuff is great but it’s not the end.” However, she clearly enjoys language as a tool for play and work; she loved writing even as a child, when sometimes her “desire to enjoy making things out of language sometimes preceded having something to say.”

Though all her books share a few thematic commonalities – for example, people’s struggle to connect with and understand other people, especially those who are different – Cohen said she doesn’t rely on an outline and doesn’t plan what to write. She quoted E.L. Doctorow: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

“For why are we here if not to try to fathom one another? Not through facts alone, but with the full extent of our imaginations. And what are stories if not tools for imagining?” -Leah Hager Cohen, No Book But the World

BEA 2014 Part Four: Buzzy and Boozy

BEA14FriBookExpo America, Day Three (continued)

Read about the first two sessions of Day Three here.

The Librarians Book Buzz Part II continued in much the same vein as Part I. I’ll use the same format, highlighting just a few titles I found interesting from each publisher:

  • From Random House: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel; Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix (think IKEA meets haunted house)
  • From Penguin: One Plus One by Jojo Moyes (author of Me Before You); The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters; The Secret Place by Tana French; Five Days Left by Julie Lawson Timmer; and If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go by Judy Chicurel
  • From W.W. Norton: An Italian Wife by Ann Hood; The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr (author of The Shallows); The Birth of the Pill by Jonathan Eig; Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty; The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson; and the graphic novel Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
  • From S&S: Juliet’s Nurse by Lois Leveen; As You Wish by Cary Elwes (about whom more later); We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas; The Innovators by Walter Isaacson
  • From Workman: The High Divide by Lin Enger, and several big beautiful nonfiction books, from dinosaurs to whiskey to molecules and the ocean.
  • From New York Review Books (not to be confused with the New York Review of Books): The Burning of the World by Bela Zombory-Moldovan; Conversations with Beethoven by Sanford Friedman; and Blackballed: The Black Vote and U.S. Democracy by Daryl Pinckney

I can definitely recommend One Plus One and The Secret Place, having already read the galleys, and I’m looking forward to several of these others. The to-read list grows! (That’s the only thing it does. Never gets any shorter, only grows.)

Librarian Shout ‘n’ Share

Moderated by Barbara Genco of Library Journal, this panel was both buzzy and boozy (one suggested hashtag was #vodkaatBEA). The panelists:

  • Douglas Lord, LSTA Coordinator, Division of Library Development, CT State Library, longtime Library Journal book reviewer and Books for Dudes Columnist
  • Alene Moroni, Manager, Selection and Order, King County Library System (WA) and a 2013 Library Journal “Mover and Shaker”
  • Charlene Rue, Deputy Director of Collection Management, BookOps: The shared technical services organization of New York Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library
  • Etta Thornton-Verma, Library Journal Reviews Editor (NY)
  • Jamie Watson, Collection Development Coordinator, Baltimore County Public Library (MD) and a 2008 Library Journal “Mover and Shaker”

My notes from this session are a bit haphazard due to the pace of the panel and people jumping in with suggestions and comments, so I may not have ascribed all the suggestions correctly. I’m just going to list books that I first heard about at the Shout ‘n’ Share, omitting any that I’d already heard about during BEA (from the Editors’ Book Buzz, Librarians’ Book Buzz, giant posters hanging in the exhibit hall, etc.).

Shout ‘n’ Share finds: Fiction

Shout ‘n’ Share finds: Nonfiction

And that was the end of BEA for me. Stay tuned for a (very belated, by now) recap of BookCon.

Elizabeth McCracken in conversation with Paul Harding at Porter Square Books

thunderstruck“I’m just tickled to see you all here,” Elizabeth McCracken said to the audience after a Porter Square Books staff member and author Paul Harding introduced her. McCracken is a former public librarian and the author of Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry: Stories (1993), The Giant’s House (1996), Niagara Falls All Over Again (2001), the heart-wrenching memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination (2008), and, this year, Thunderstruck and Other Stories. McCracken said that she had thought she might not go back to writing stories, but when a novel she was writing wasn’t working out, “I tossed it aside and it broke into pieces.” Three of those pieces, including “The Lost & Found Department of Greater Boston,” made it into Thunderstruck.*

The conversational format was excellent, especially as both writers are extremely – and in Harding’s case, surprisingly – funny (Paul Harding is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tinkers, a lyrical but decidedly un-cheery book), and McCracken taught Harding at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, so they know each other well. Harding, a former drummer (?!), asked how McCracken settled on the sequence of the stories in Thunderstruck. They are not organized in the order she wrote them, but the oldest, “Juliet,” is first, and the newest, “Thunderstruck,” is last.

They talked about the recurring themes in McCracken’s work, particularly loss and missing people. “I just repeat the same things over and over again,” said McCracken. “A finite deck that you keep reshuffling,” agreed Harding, but while “it’s easy to keep most stories at arm’s length if you want to,” that’s impossible with McCracken’s work. She is fond of writing in the second person, which can be effective at drawing the reader in, but also has its risks.

Harding used this example:
[Author writing in second person] “You’re in a bar on a Tuesday night, snorting coke–”
[Reader reaction] “No, I’m not.”

McCracken’s “you” is more generalized, though, and works well; she shifts from third person to second so smoothly the reader may not even notice at first (“Whatever you have lost there are more of, just not yours.”). She was self-effacing about Harding’s praise (“Anything I do is entirely accidental”), but I suspect there’s rather more to it than that.

Speaking of her fascination with lost people, including relatives she’d never met, she said, “Grandfather McCracken was a genealogist.” (She pronounced it jenny-ologist, a career I’m fairly certain no one has, except possibly an obsessed young man in a yet-to-be-written Nick Hornby novel.)

They moved on to talking about the writing process. “Writing is not a particularly efficient process,” said Harding; he compared it to archaeology, digging through the rubble and picking the best bits. They talked about truth in fiction, and the “distinction between imaginary and factual truth.” McCracken, with good humor, called it “aggravating” when something she had made up turns out to be true.

sinewave_credo

Sine wave illustration from The Penguin Dictionary of Science

Harding observed that McCracken writes in “experienced time, not linear time,” and is great at “not over-determining.” He described a sine wave with his hands in the air: “Anything between here [top of sine wave] and here [bottom of sine wave] could have happened.” It’s a way of acknowledging that “somewhere in the universe, things are different.”

“It was on this day, a Monday, that we first saw Juliet.”

McCracken read from the beginning of “Juliet,” then the Q&A began. Someone asked a version of the “Where do you get your ideas?” question, and McCracken answered, “Stories can arrive in any different way…Every story in this collection occurred in a different way.”

How do you shift between the story and novel formats? “Writing a great short story is harder than writing a great novel.” She might one day write a great novel, she said, but “I am never going to write ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find.’” While that point is indisputable, and it’s true that Elizabeth McCracken is not Flannery O’Connor, this overlooks the fact that she is Elizabeth McCracken, and many readers would respectfully argue that she has already written great short stories.

Do you write poetry? “I used to write poetry. It was really bad.” She would go to poetry readings and become inspired to write poetry, but then realize, “I don’t want to write poetry; I want to write that poem you just read.” She said, “Poets are better at leaving things out.” Dream Songs by John Berryman is a favorite collection of hers.

While poets may know when to leave things out while they’re writing, McCracken knows when, where, and how to cut something she’s already written. She said it is easy for her to cut whole pages and paragraphs, but to cut “a single sentence pains me.” She is unsentimental about her writing, to the point of scrapping whole stories entirely. (At this point, I’m sure a few people in the audience considered stealing her trash in order to read these abandoned stories.) Harding asked, “If you have to cut a line you love, do you ever smuggle it into the next thing?” YES, McCracken answered, no matter how many tries it takes. And some things reappear again and again: “I’ve written a house fire into everything I’ve ever written.” McCracken is likewise fond of writing about cake, furniture, and corpses in the walls. (Need I say there was more than the average amount of laughter at this author event?) Harding suggested that these things provide the armature “while you figure out what the story is really about.”

I wanted to find a way to ask Elizabeth about the following passage from “Peter Elroy: A Documentary by Ian Casey.” Surely, only someone who taught writing could or would write such a passage:

     Somewhere, a dog barked. No, it didn’t. Only in novels did you catch such a break, a hollow in your stomach answered by some far-off dog making an unanswered dog-call. Dogs were not allowed at Drake’s Landing. Still, surely, somewhere in the world a dog was barking, a cat was hissing, a parrot with an unkind recently deceased owner was saying something inappropriate to an animal shelter volunteer.
     Outside, in the light from the Drake’s Landing floodlights, the snow sparkled like something that wasn’t snow. Diamonds, or asphalt, or emery boards.

How has teaching affected your writing? She replied that she had included the cliche sentence “Somewhere, a dog barked” because Ron Charles had said something about it on Twitter and, being “so bloody-minded,” McCracken wanted to include it in her next book. I couldn’t find the original Twitter exchange, but I’m calling this McCracken 1, Ron Charles 0.

Why did you choose “Thunderstruck” as the title? “I really like past tense verbs.” She’s interested in “what happens right after a disaster.” She also pointed out a strange fact: thunderstruck is a word, but lightningstruck isn’t – even though thunder doesn’t actually strike and lightning does.

Do you know where the novel is going when you start? “I know who’s alive at the beginning and who’s dead at the end,” but not how. (How Shakespearean!) McCracken was careful to note that her process works for her, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone. “Every single writer is different. All that matters is that you manage to write from the beginning to the end.” McCracken writes chronologically, from page one through the end, then moves things around. (Cake, furniture, corpses, fire.) “Your job is to figure out what your process is” – there is no one right way. The “terrifying and wonderful” thing about fiction writing is “there are no rules. Absolutely no rules.”

McCracken told of being on a panel with her friend Ann Patchett when an audience member asked, How do you know you’ve chosen the right scene to write? In fiction writing as in life, Patchett said, “You make a decision and you stick with it.” McCracken revealed that for some, there is more second-guessing, regret, and doubt involved. “The way that you write fiction is the way you process life,” she said. Then she introduced a cooking metaphor: If writing a novel (or short story) was like making a souffle, she could stand in front of a room and teach people how to do it. Difficult, yes, but there are steps to follow; it could be done. However, “There’s no souffle in fiction writing…All you can do is make the stew you’re going to make.” (Harding said of his own creative process, “I feel like I’m taking dictation from the universe. If I’m sitting in front of the drums it comes out as rhythm, if I’m at a laptop it comes out as words.” A lovely idea, but again, there’s probably more work involved than that.)

Overall, an absolutely lovely evening. I’m so glad I got the chance to see her speak!

Someone at Porter Square Books was live-tweeting the talk.

 

*Edited to add 5/23/14: elizmccrackentweetSo there you have it!

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Some novels take place over the course of a day; some cover several decades. How much story is an author able to fit into 350 pages or 500 pages or 750 pages? How much they can develop their characters so the reader feels like they are real people? These questions point to the magic and the mystery of writing. A reader might pause on page twelve and wonder, How do I already know so much about these people? How did the author do that? Or the reader might be fifty pages in, thinking, Nothing has happened yet, but I sure do know a lot about nineteenth-century London. Some writers are economical; some are expansive. Either kind of book can be powerful.

storiedlifeajfikryGabrielle Zevin does a lot with a little. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is 272 pages, and it covers about sixteen years. A.J. is a widower and a bookshop owner on Alice Island; he has just told off a new sales rep, Amelia Loman, and is proceeding with his plan to drink himself to death when he discovers two-year-old Maya in his shop, accompanied by a note. Soon afterward, Maya’s mother’s body washes up on the shore, and instead of handing the baby over to social services, A.J. decides to keep her.

A.J. does the paperwork and jumps through the necessary hoops off-screen, as it were, leaving the reader to enjoy Maya’s non-christening christening party in the bookstore. Because of Maya, A.J. becomes involved in the life of the town in a way he never did before; though his wife Nic was an islander, A.J. himself was perceived as an outsider. He emerges from his shell, becoming friends with the remarkably kind and sensible police chief, Lambiase, and forging a relationship with Amelia. (Again, they surmount some practical obstacles – i.e., the inconvenience of her living on an island when her job involves so much travel – off the page.)

“Shelf-talkers” for short stories serve as section dividers. These are addressed not to the reading public, but to Maya; the reason A.J. is writing these becomes clear late in the book. Maya’s history is also revealed: Lambiase discovers it (along with the valuable copy of Tamerlane that went missing from A.J.’s apartment just before Maya’s arrival) not through detective work but when he begins to date A.J.’s ex-sister-in-law, Ismay, after the death of her husband.

The characters in The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry are at once easy to slot into roles, and more complicated than they appear. Books and stories play a powerful role in all of their lives, and there is a good deal of book-related wisdom throughout this novel, delivered with a light touch. “We are what we love,” A.J. finally concludes. Most people who love books (and especially those who have ever dreamed of living in a bookstore) will like this one.

 

World Book Night 2014: Experience of a First-time Giver

World Book Night was last week, and I had twenty copies of Code Name Verity to give away. It was April 23, a perfect spring evening…no, scratch that, it was cold and windy, because it is Massachusetts and Spring is being especially coy this year. But I went ahead with my original plan to hand out the books near a subway stop and shopping center. I was a little nervous, because although I have spent my life talking to people about books, and do so daily at my job, I do not habitually approach strangers on the street and try to foist books upon them, even really excellent, free books.

WBNGiverSticker_wbn2014It turns out, as I suspected, that it’s pretty tricky to convince people that you want to give them a good book for free. Even though I wasn’t sporting any of the red flags that pedestrians typically try to avoid (a clipboard, a windbreaker with a logo on it, a handful of pamphlets about Our Lord and Savior), people were hesitant to slow down or make eye contact. Everyone expects to be asked for things; no one expects to be given something (something they might want) for free.

Also, about half the people walking by were wearing headphones or had their eyes glued to a mobile device (or both); I let these people pass by. My most successful pitch to draw people in was “Would you like a free book for World Book Night?”

Once they’d stopped, I still felt rushed; I had more short transactions than long conversations. No one had heard of World Book Night, except for one woman who had encountered another WBN giver earlier in the day. I explained to those who stopped that it was a night where volunteers gave out free copies of books that authors and publishers had donated to spread the love of reading, and then I told them a little about the book I was giving out. Of the people who stopped, most were happy to take a copy of the book. One woman considered it for her daughter, but thought it might scare her (fair enough), so she didn’t take it. More men than women stopped, and they seemed really pleased to get a book – they’re not exactly the target demographic, and I wonder what they’ll make of Code Name Verity, but I do think anyone can enjoy it.

Although I picked up my box of books the week before World Book Night, I didn’t open the box till that day, and was a little dismayed to see that the special WBN cover had a white border that made the book look self-published; more than one person asked if I was the author. As much as I would love to have written Code Name Verity, I tried to clear up the misconception; it helped that it said “New York Times Bestseller” on the front, but the initial impression wasn’t that of a traditionally published book.

So, what would I do differently next time? I’d follow my librarian blogger friend Anna’s lead: she joined up with two other givers on World Book Night. This has a couple advantages: (1) it gives potential recipients a choice of books, and (2) it allows the givers to lend each other moral support. Anna and her team also set up in a local Starbucks (with the management’s permission, of course), so they could set up signs and people could choose to approach them and engage in conversation or not – much more comfortable for everyone than the hawking-on-the-sidewalk method.

I still think WBN is a fantastic initiative, and I want to thank the authors and publishers that donated their books, and the WBN organization itself for making this happen year after year. Here are all the WBN 2014 titles:

Books_wbn2014

Gabrielle Zevin at Porter Square Books

elsewhereJust over a year ago, the children’s librarian at the library where I work pressed a book called Elsewhere into my hands and convinced me to read it simply because she had loved it so much herself; even though she’d read it for the first time years ago, she said she still thought about it regularly. (This is usually a good sign.)

I think I read the book in a day, or maybe a weekend. I found it just as sweet, thoughtful, and unique as promised. However, I neglected to hunt down the author’s other books, and when I began hearing about The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry a few months ago, I did not make the connection. I put two and two together just in time to see Gabrielle Zevin speak at Porter Square Books this past Monday.

A bookstore employee introduced Zevin as a graduate of “our local university down the street” (i.e., Harvard). Zevin started her talk by telling the audience how she got into publishing. She sold her first two novels, Elsewhere and Margarettown, in the same year; Elsewhere was an ALA Notable Children’s Book and won a few other awards as well, while Margarettown, despite several good reviews, “was a flop.”

“A flop” can mean two things in publishing: it can mean that the book was terrible and/or got bad reviews, but it can also mean that the book was decent, even good, but didn’t merit significant attention, and was buried beneath the next season’s books. Margarettown is still on the shelves of fourteen of the libraries in the Minuteman Library Network, so while it may be out of print, it’s still available; it may find fans yet.

Zevin spoke about her relationship with books going back to childhood. Ever since her parents used to drop her off at a bookstore while they went grocery shopping, she said, entering a bookstore fills her with “a heady sense of freedom and possibility.” In bookstores, she said, she always felt safe, like nothing bad could ever happen in a bookstore – “and nothing bad ever has happened to me in a bookstore.”

storiedlifeajfikryOn to the matter of inspiration: where do her ideas for books come from? “Most of my books have started with a question.” For A.J. Fikry, there were two questions: What is the importance of bookstores to the world? And what effect do the stories we read have on our lives?

Zevin is obviously a believer in books and stories. She stated, “Children who read grow into adults you want to know.” People who read develop empathy. (I’ve written about the link between fiction and empathy here before, especially in this post inspired by an interview with Lauren Groff.) Bookstores, Zevin believes, are special places; they “represent the good in a community. They are about more than just commerce; they are about the exchange of ideas.” (The same can be said of libraries, which are entirely about ideas and community and not about commerce at all.) Reading and writing may be solitary activities, but they connect us as a community. Though those in the self-publishing business (more about that later) may disdain gatekeepers, Zevin said, “We need people [editors, booksellers, librarians] to tell us what is good and what is bad. The future of literary culture depends on these people. Booksellers are curators.”

The book world is changing. From 2005, when Elsewhere was published, to 2014, there have been huge changes: the ubiquity of the Internet, the expectation that authors will have a social media presence, the rise of e-books. “I think it’s worth being mindful of what we lose as these changes occur,” said Zevin. She doesn’t worry about futures in which children fight to the death or Chicago is divided into factions by personality type (clear allusions to The Hunger Games and Divergent); “I do, however, worry very much about the world without books.”

An Indie Next Pick for April 2014, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry was published as The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry in the U.K. The idea behind this title is that “collected works” can refer to everything a person has read in his or her life, rather than everything s/he has written. This idea instantly reminded me of Audrey Niffenegger’s graphic novel The Night Bookmobile, in which Alexandra discovers a bookmobile filled with every book she’s ever read. (The Night Bookmobile was first serialized in The Guardian, then published in hardcover by Jonathan Cape.) Such a bookmobile would be fascinating; as Zevin said, “Anybody’s reading life is so gloriously random.”

“We read to know we’re not alone. We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone. We are not alone.” –The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin

During the Q&A, Zevin spoke again about debuts. Her first two books were published quite close together, and while Elsewhere was successful, Margarettown was less so; its publisher actually folded, and the book is now out of print. Zevin said, “Everybody has a sad story about a first novel…Most of the time everyone fails. Most of the time everyone gets it wrong. How do you get over failure? You keep working…A lot of debuts are not a writer’s best work.” She added, “The work is separate from people’s response to it,” which struck me as a sensible and wise perspective to maintain.

Because Zevin writes for both YA and adult audiences, someone asked her how she shifted between them, and how she decided which audience to write for. Zevin said that the main character’s age and situation determine the audience; she has the idea first, then decides on the audience accordingly. She shared an anecdote from another author’s response to this question; that author said that the difference is hope – YA books must be hopeful – but Zevin thinks “adults like hope too.”

I haven’t yet read The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (though it’s next on my to-read list), but I know the eponymous main character is a bookseller. (Zevin read a funny passage wherein Fikry elucidates to the sales rep, Amelia, all the kinds of books he isn’t interested in.) However, Zevin said, “A.J.’s [literary] tastes aren’t mine.” She’s a keen observer of other people’s reading habits, and noted that spying on people’s reading on the subway is much harder now because of e-readers.

Another audience question concerned research. Zevin said that while she doesn’t write two books at one time, she can research one while writing another, and she did quite a lot of research for her novel The Hole We’re In, about “female soldiers in Iraq.” (She also mentioned, offhandedly, that she dislikes National Novel Writing Month - or at least thinks it “needs to be preceded by National Thinking About Your Novel Month.”)

After about ten years of working with traditional publishers, Zevin has learned a lot about how they work, and she has “respect and appreciation” for all jobs in publishing. Although “the books are still more important than how they get sold,” a tremendous amount of work goes into all aspects of a book: not just the writing of it, but the editing, the design, the jacket copy and cover art, the distribution and marketing and sales. She started off knowing very little of this – she admitted she didn’t even know that sales reps, who bring publishers’ books and catalogs to bookstores, existed – but concluded, “I do think it’s always better to be armed with information.” Many articles about self-publishing (she mentioned the Wall Street Journal particularly) display a “deep misunderstanding about the publishing process.” There is more to making a book that writing it and clicking a button. (See also: “In defense of editors,” “We built this together.”)

I’m really excited to start reading The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, and maybe some of Zevin’s other books too. You can see all of her books on her website, and if you live in the Cambridge area, check out the upcoming events at Porter Square Books.

World Book Night 2014

WBN2014_logo_672x652My fabulous YA librarian friend Anna wrote about World Book Night last December and inspired me to apply. I had heard of World Book Night before (basically, I knew that it was a night where people gave out free books), but Anna explains all the important stuff in her post.

This year is my first year as a giver, and I’m giving out Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Why did I choose Code Name Verity? Because it is one of the most compelling WWII stories I’ve ever read, which is saying something, given the glut of WWII fiction and the amount of it I’ve consumed. It features a young British pilot, Maddie, and a young Scottish (“I am not English!“) spy, and their friendship is central to the story: “We make a sensational team,” says the Scot.

The Scot tells the first half of the story as a written confession to her Nazi captors in occupied France. She has made a Faustian bargain with a Gestapo officer in order to be able to write her account, which she tells, mostly, in the third person, referring to herself as “Queenie.” It is a powerful narrative, heartbreaking and gruesome in turns, and also, improbably, with moments of humor.

I can’t well tell about the second half without giving much of the story away; suffice to say I think teens and adults can and will enjoy the story equally, and the conversational, journalistic style makes for easy reading. The audiobook, read by Morven Christie and Lucy Gaskell, is also incredibly good (though I won’t be handing those out on World Book Night, just the good old paper copies).

World Book Night is April 23 this year. If you missed signing up to be a giver this year, don’t fret – there’s always next year!

Graduates in Wonderland

graduatesinwonderlandSometimes a book comes along, and as you read the description, you realize it ticks every one of your boxes. Here’s the tagline for Graduates in Wonderland from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program: “Two best friends document their post-college lives through emails in this hilarious, relatable, and powerfully honest memoir.”

Best friends. Check. More books should have friendship at their core.

Post-college. Check. This book occupies that nebulous “new adult” space, and proves NA isn’t just YA with sex scenes.

E-mails. Check. I love a good epistolary novel, and these e-mails are really in-depth letters.

Hilarious, relatable, honest, etc. Check. I take any adjectives in a publisher’s description with a grain of salt, but as it turns out, these ones apply.

I don’t know if Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale wrote these letters with an eye toward publication the whole time, or whether they were edited after the fact (for clarity and grammar if nothing else), but either way, this is a fantastic read that I wanted to recommend to many of my friends before I’d even finished it. Because of the format (e-mail), both authors use a casual, honest, straightforward style. They reveal their fears and insecurities about their nascent careers and love lives, and they encourage each other, offer advice, and build each other up.

Graduates of Brown, the authors are privileged but conscientious. Jessica moves from New York to Beijing to Australia, while Rachel spends more time in New York before going to Paris; both of them end up in London, though the book ends before they settle there. They are both creative, and explore various career paths; they aren’t completely sure what they want to do at first. They’re also struggling with living in unfamiliar places and speaking second languages, and of course they’re both looking for The One. The e-mails strike a perfect balance in subject matter between work and romance.

They are honest: I don’t think the people I see on a daily basis realize how down I really am.”

They are funny: Get a French person to try to read the word hodgepodge out loud. They will say, ‘hogey-pogey,’ and it will be the best moment of your life.”

They are practical: Note to future selves: Never buy anything. You will just have to pack it in a suitcase one day.”

They are observant: Yesterday, I was in a park and I saw a Chinese man out walking his birds. In each hand he held a birdcage as he strolled, showing the birds the park scenery before hanging the cages from a tree while he went to go socialize with his fellow bird-walkers. I’m really going to miss this place.”

They are contemplative: Everywhere people and friendships are changing. I’m starting to wonder how many friends I’ve made here will still be friends for the long haul. How many places can you leave people behind and still expect to keep in touch with all of them?”

They are, sometimes, wise: “I feel like I haven’t lived enough to really focus on my writing. I don’t think I’m ready.” / He sounds great, but we need to listen to the warnings that guys give about themselves.” 

They have a sense of themselves in the world: These beautiful moments are a nice distraction from the stagnation of my career. (Is it stagnation if it hasn’t begun?)”

While I’m not sold on the title or the cover, I really, really liked this book, and would recommend it to anyone who is in college now or who has graduated in the past ten years or so. It fits perfectly between Tara Altebrando and Sara Zarr’s novel Roomies, which takes place in the summer between high school and college, and Rachel Bertsche’s MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Frienda memoir of the author’s experience moving from New York to Chicago after getting married.

roomies MWFseeking BFF