February, 2015

30 Books in 30 Days: Eric Liebetrau on Roz Chast’s ‘Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant’

by Eric Liebetrau | Feb-26-2015

In the weeks leading up to the March 12 announcement of the 2014 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Eric Liebetrau offers an appreciation of autobiography finalist Roz Chast's "Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant" (Bloomsbury).

Caring for aging parents is a difficult, frustrating, messy, expensive, and time-consuming proposition, utterly exhausting on every level. While a parent’s physical decline is tough to handle—the aches, pains, declining hearing and vision—the mental erosion is often the most heartbreaking aspect of the endeavor. To watch someone you love slowly fade out of their essential character is one of life’s cruelest struggles.

In the early 2000s, beloved New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast began to experience all of these feelings and more. In her revelatory, pitch-perfect and—yes—often-hilarious graphic memoir of that time, she masterfully captures the kaleidoscopic array of emotions involved in the caregiving for her 90-something parents. The author’s trademark style—a distinct blend of wry gallows humor and heightened awareness of her own, and others’, idiosyncrasies—is on full display, but this book is much more than just a collection of cartoons. At time where graphic novels and memoirs are finally receiving the acclaim they deserve, Chast sharply demonstrates the potency of expression that the format allows.

Humor and pathos intermingle freely—and in just the right proportions—but Chast is never mawkish or overly sentimental. She is honest and understandably distraught, and she is not afraid of airing her own shortcomings.

“Meanwhile, my father lived with us,” she writes after chronicling her mother’s transfer to an assisted living facility. “Any Florence Nightingale–type visions I ever had of myself—an unselfish, patient, sweet, caring child who happily tended to her parents in their old age—were destroyed within an hour or so.”

When it became apparent that both parents required assistance beyond her abilities and had to leave their apartment in “DEEP Brooklyn, the Brooklyn of people who have left behind everything and everyone,” Chast “began the massive, deeply weird, and heartbreaking job of going through my parents’ possessions: almost 50 years’ worth, crammed into four rooms.”

Here, the author briefly shifts formats, delivering pages of actual photos of the accumulation of stuff over those years in their cramped, grimy apartment, including “random arts supplies,” hundreds of pencils, a drawer of jar lids, and decades-old first aid supplies—not to mention whatever is molding in the fridge. It’s the perfect complement to the text-and-cartoon portrait of her parents she paints throughout the narrative, a portrait she echoes later when her mother is near the end, “existing in a state of suspended animation. She was not living and not dying.”

In the last few pages of the book, Chast includes a showcase of her pencil drawings of her mother as she took her last breaths in 2009. These pages sit in stark contrast to the dynamic emotional roller coaster that has unfolded over the previous 200 pages, a fitting, understated closing frame to a story that, though universally relatable, has rarely been as powerfully rendered. For anyone going through a similar situation, skip the end-of-life self-help shelf and pick up this book instead.


Kirkus review of the book, which won the 2014 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction.

New York Times review

Guardian review.

San Francisco Chronicle review.

NPR interview.

Chast’s appearance at Politics & Prose.

30 Books in 30 Days: Colette Bancroft on Lily King’s ‘Euphoria’

by Colette Bancroft | Feb-24-2015

In the weeks leading up to the March 12 announcement of the 2014 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Colette Bancroft offers an appreciation of fiction finalist Lily King's "Euphoria" (Atlantic Monthly Press).

Lily King's "Euphoria" is inspired by cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead's books about her groundbreaking field work in the South Pacific in the early 20th century. Mead, an accomplished, influential academic and an adept popularizer of science, had a gift for portraying anthropology as both intellectual pursuit and human drama.

King's book, though, is not a biography. It's a novel, and a splendid one. She bases her three central characters on Mead and two other notable anthropologists, Reo Fortune (Mead's second husband) and Gregory Bateson (her third), all of whom did field work among tribal cultures in New Guinea in the 1930s. The plot of "Euphoria" plays out very differently from the arc of Mead's real life, but the novel embodies many of the challenges and issues she faced in its compelling, intelligent story.

"Euphoria" opens in New Guinea in the early 1930s with husband-and-wife anthropologists Nell Stone and Schuyler Fenwick, called Fen, fleeing their five months' stay with the Mumbanyo, a warrior tribe only lately persuaded to (mostly) give up their traditional practice of cannibalism. "Sometimes you just find a culture that breaks your heart," Nell says.

Nell and Fen had chosen to study the Mumbanyo because they were trying to avoid invading the turf of another anthropologist, Andrew Bankson, whom Fen resents for his large reputation. As soon as they reach the town of Angoram, though, they find themselves at the same party as Bankson, and to their surprise he offers to take them to the Tam, a tribe he believes will be a rich subject.

Bankson narrates many of the chapters in "Euphoria" (others are Nell's notes or third-person accounts). "I was raised on Science as other people are raised on God, or gods, or the crocodile," he tells us, and he is not only passionate but thoughtful about his work. "Anthropology at that time was in transition, moving from the study of men dead and gone to the study of living people, and slowly letting go of the rigid belief that the natural and inevitable culmination of every society is the Western model."

Bankson is also terribly lonely, haunted by memories of his two brothers, one dead in World War I, the other a suicide. Just days before running into Nell and Fen, he had been rescued by tribesmen from his own suicide attempt. So he quickly forms an attachment to the couple that is based at first on shared professional interests but soon turns into an intense attraction to Nell.

Bankson is insinuating himself into a marriage that already has fault lines. Nell has recently published her first book, "The Children of KiraKira," and it has been a success and a scandal — recalling Mead's best-known book, "Coming of Age in Samoa" (1928), which shocked Western readers with its account of the acceptance of casual sex among adolescents in a Samoan village. Fen, on the other hand, has published a single monograph, and his resentment of Nell is even stronger than his envy of Bankson.

King takes an unusual tack in portraying this romantic triangle — it's very much about not just libidos but minds, and the author merges that with smart observations about the nature and methods of anthropology. Nell and Fen have very different approaches to their work. She makes herself a part of the daily life of those she studies: "I am learning the chopped rhythm of their talk, the sound of their laughter, the cant of their heads." Yet while she plays with kids and chats with women, she is always filling notebooks, sometimes ten a day. Fen, however, "didn't want to study the natives; he wanted to be a native. His attraction to anthropology was not to puzzle out the story of humanity. ... It was to live without shoes and eat from his hands and fart in public." Bankson, it turns out, is the kind of guy who gets turned on by watching Nell take notes.

What might back in Sydney or New York or London have been a private entanglement proves, in the remote jungles of New Guinea, to have much larger reverberations. Just as the anthropologists are studying the Tam, the Tam are studying them, and the collision of cultures turns tragic.

The last dozen pages of "Euphoria" are filled with searing shocks, and the book's final image is an anthropologist's acute observation of a tiny scrap of material culture that breaks the heart.


Emily Eakin's New York Times review.

Ron Charles' Washington Post review.

Laura Miller's Salon review.

Roundup: Ander Monson, Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman, Lynda Barry, and more

by Eric Liebetrau | Feb-23-2015

Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items, including new about your new publications and recent honors, to NBCCCritics@gmail.com. Make sure to send links that do not require a subscription or username and password.


Elaine F. Tankard reviews Ander Monson's recent book, "Letter to a Future Lover."

NBCC board member Steven Kellman reviews "The Train to Crystal City."

Megan O'Grady interviews five-tour veteran Elliot Ackerman, author of a debut novel about the Afghan War, "Green on Blue."

NBCC board member David Biespiel's latest Poetry Wire.

Randon Billings Noble reviews Lynda Barry's new book, "Syllabus."

Lori Feathers reviews "The Tower" by Uwe Tellkamp.

Mike Berry digs into the archives to review Mike Smith's 1975 book, "The Death of the Detective." He also reviews Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, and Karen Lord, and interviews Jonathan Lethem.

Julie R. Enszer reviews Helen’s Humphrey’s "The Evening Chorus."

Joe Peschel reviews Quan Barry’s first novel “She Weeps Each Time You’re Born."

War Crimes 101/Tortured Reports, from Robert Birnbaum.

Jim Ruland reviews Tom McCarthy's new novel "Satin Island" for the Los Angeles Times.

At Kirkus.com, Alexia Nader explores Rachel Holmes' biography of Eleanor Marx.

Clifford Garstang's review of "Truth Poker" by Mark Brazaitis appeared at Peace Corps Worldwide.

Carol Iaciofano reviews the noir novel "Serpents in the Cold" for WBUR's The ARTery.'

30 Books in 30 Days: Tess Taylor and Walton Muyumba on Claudia Rankine’s ‘Citizen’

by Tess Taylor and Walton Muyumba | Feb-18-2015

In the weeks leading up to the March 12 announcement of the 2014 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board members Tess Taylor, representing the poetry committee, and Walton Muyumba, chair of the criticism committee, offer an appreciation--a dialogue of sorts--of Claudia Rankine's "Citizen," (Graywolf Press), which made NBCC history when the board voted it a finalist in two categories--criticism and poetry.

Since the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the death of Michael Brown, since the unrest in Ferguson, and right now, at the moment when we await judgments facing the police officers who shot Tamir Rice, we keep watching the painful spectacle of seemingly sanctioned violence against black bodies. These men’s deaths announce and re-announce painful questions:  Do we live in a country in which the lives of black men matter less than the lives of white ones? In which ways does racial violence persist to this day?  What does it feel like--for any of us--to live in the presence of disparity overwhelmingly marked along racial lines?

These are large questions. What Claudia Rankine’s book "Citizen" does, miraculously, is break racism’s intractability down into human-sized installations, accounts of relationships, and examples of speech. These pieces, which can equally be read as prose poems or as micro essays, map the uneasiness and charged space of living race now.

In her explorations, Rankine is at once fierce and enormously compassionate. There’s violence here, and blunder; there’s pain, and the desire to connect; there’s the horror of encountering racism both in its intended and in its disturbing, unattended moments. “The route is often associative,” writes Rankine in one of her poems, but she leaves each of us to reflect on what basis we--any of us--associate?  “Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart,” Rankine writes in another piece, but why, and how do any of us learn fear?

Defying genre, Rankine’s meditations straddle the line between diagnosis and description, between essay and poem. They often address a “you” who--no less than the figure in a Renaissance poem--is the invisible but longed for object of great desire.  In this case, the desire is that “you” --both Rankine’s unseen readers, and the culture at large -- examine ourselves, “acknowledge” our “slippage,”  and “dodge the buildup of erasure.”  

"Citizen" is about blackness, but it is also about whiteness; it speaks to current events, but it is also traces imaginaries. It uses the realm of the lyric to critique the terms by which we live. In "Citizen," our bodies and our racial selves are not isolated or even present tense, but also communal, unconscious, historical. “This is how you are a citizen,” Rankine writes.  “Come on. Let it go. Move on.”

But what does it mean to move on? How should we move? Rankine leaves this question open, pulling us in and asking us to keep thinking about it.  She notes that “All our fevered history won’t instill insight, won’t turn a body conscious, won’t make that look in the eyes say yes.”  But she also challenges us all when she writes “each moment is an answer.”

--Tess Taylor


Early in "Citizen", Claudia Rankine asks, “What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like?”   Though she’s recalling Serena Williams’ infamous outburst during the 2009 US Open women’s semifinal, Rankine might well be asking about her own body and writing in American culture.  Her question also sounds like the large questions we’re currently asking about the worth of black American lives.  These questions are as old as the nation itself, but they probably seem more pressing now because we have access to an ever-expanding video catalog of black lives not mattering, black lives policed without equal protection, and black lives dashed matter-of-factly in 21st century America. 

For some, the footage of Marlene Pinnock’s roadside beating or John Crawford’s (or Eric Garner’s or Tamir Rice’s) final moments of life is heart-rending evidence of things they’d rather have remain unknown and unseen: the lethal finality of anti-black racism.  For Rankine, as with many other African Americans, those videos document what we’ve always known about the meaning of being black in public spaces: the black body is invisible and “hypervisible” simultaneously.  "Citizen" is Rankine’s index of the psychological damages that come along with navigating American life in these concurrent states.  

While videos can display mortal blows, "Citizen" charts constellations of seemingly innocuous exchanges and experiences that injure black people psychologically and emotionally.  The worst of these injuries, Rankine explains, leave you feeling that “you don’t belong so much to you --.”  "Citizen," then, is a blues book; it’s a “worrying exhale of an ache.”  Rankine probes the black body’s grievous wounds, improvising on, revising, and thus extending the intellectual and artistic genealogy listed at the end of "Citizen" -- Patricia Williams, Carrie Mae Weems, James Baldwin, Frantz Fanon, Lauren Berlant, and Ralph Ellison, among others. 

Rankine composes music – “the dissolving blues of metaphor” – through formal indeterminacy.  She worries the fine lines delineating lyric from essay, first person exposition from second person address, glossy art exhibition catalog from literary artwork, poetry from criticism. Taking cut-outs from her experiences, she collages those pieces (like Romare Bearden, a blues improviser in his own right) into "Citizen"’s seven sections – she’s fitted her personal history to the American present. 

Maybe, then, "Citizen" is also about whiteness in the same way that all American moments have been about whiteness.  If we’re trained to understand that the ideal American citizen has a white body, then Rankine’s sense, that citizenship is about letting go of or moving on from racial injury, seems right.  But her conception is really an indictment of the voice speaking throughout "Citizen" and the reader, both of whom want, for instance, to get over, to let go of, to move on from the sight of some black boy’s body bleeding out, a toy gun, or cheap cigars, or bag of candy lying prone and meaninglessly nearby.

But this, as Toni Morrison would say, is not a thing to pass on.  Rankine’s work provokes you to envision your American life as wedded to the well-being of the black body.  And what drives you to accept "Citizen"’s challenge is a desire to comprehend blackness, its power and resiliency even in injury.  Rankine’s rendering of black invisiblity/hypervisibility is akin to Glenn Ligon’s piece, "Untitled (I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background)."  She’s placed a detail from this artwork in the third section of "Citizen."  Ligon’s subject and title come from a line in Zora Neale Hurston’s essay, “How it Feels to be Colored Me.”  Ligon stenciled the line on canvas and then used smudging oil sticks and graphite “to transform the words into abstractions.”  Though Rankine recognizes Hurston’s line as “ad copy for some aspect of life for all black bodies,” what she’s after throughout "Citizen" is a route away from hypervisible/invisible blackness in white spaces toward a vision of black human experience as something like smudged abstraction.

To realize this final vision, where each moment is an answer, you have to pass through the facsimile of Wangechi Mutu’s gorgeous, disturbing, "Sleeping Heads."  Rankine has inserted Mutu’s mixture of painting and collage in the book’s final section to sit as a pictorial simile for "Citizen."  Like the hands in Mutu’s image, Rankine’s poetry, image curating, and cultural criticism take you by the neck, put you “in a chokehold, every part roughed up, the eyes dripping,” and pull you into the smudged abstraction, what Elizabeth Alexander calls, the black interior, where you might recognize yourself.  What James Baldwin once wrote about Beauford Delaney’s paintings, you can also address to Rankine’s art in "Citizen": her “work leads the inner and outer eye, directly and inexorably, to a new confrontation with reality.  At this moment one begins to apprehend the nature of [her] triumph.  And the beauty of [her] triumph, and the proof that it is a real one, is that [she] makes it ours.”

--Walton Muyumba



The New Yorker review.

Review in The New York Times Book Review.

Slate review

Flavorwire review

Bookforum review.



Los Angeles Time interview.  

Interview, The New York Times.

NPR's Weekend Edition interview.


And a Slate piece about the changes made in the various reprintings of 'Citizen.'

30 Books in 30 Days: Alex Abramovich on ‘The Essential Ellen Willis’

by Jane Ciabattari | Feb-17-2015

In the weeks leading up to the March 12 announcement of the 2014 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Alex Abramovich offers an appreciation of criticism finalist Ellen Willis' "The Essential Ellen Willis" (University of Minnesota Press).

Three years ago, Ellen Willis's "Out of the Vinyl Deeps" was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. "The Essential Ellen Willis" picks up where that collection left off, rounding out our understanding of a magnificent thinker and writer—one who, unlike most rock critics, was really much more than a rock critic. Then again, for a rock critic, Willis was never typical.

"What cultural revolutionaries do not seem to grasp," she wrote, in 1969, "is that, far from being a grass-roots art form that has been taken over by businessmen, rock itself comes from the commercial exploitation of blues. It is bourgeois at its core, a mass-produced commodity, dependent on advanced technology and therefore on the money controlled by those in power. Its rebelliousness does not imply specific political content; it can be—and has been—criminal, fascistic, and cooly individualistic as well as revolutionary. Nor is the hip lifestyle inherently radical. It can simply be a more pleasurable way of surviving within the system, which is what the pop sensibility has always been about. Certainly that was what Woodstock was about: ignore the bad, groove on the good, hang loose, and let things happen. The truth is that there can't be a revolutionary culture until there is a revolution. In the meantime, we should at least insist that the capitalists who produce rock concerts charge reasonable prices for reasonable service." 

What a remarkably beautiful, bullshit-free passage this is! And all the more so for appearing before the mud at Woodstock had dried. But, as David Ulin wrote, on this page, in 2012, "Willis was smart enough to get out of the rock writing business when the getting was good." What followed, over the course of four decades, were essays about feminism, radicalism, Judaism, child-rearing, AIDs, drugs, pornography, radical politics, terrorism, and Freud, among not a few other subjects—and they, too, were well-reasoned, beautifully written, and right. "The Essential" brings us right up to 2006, the year of Willis's death—one of the very last pieces is a three-pronged eulogy for Susan Sontag—and ends with selections from her final, unfinished book, which she had tentatively titled "The Cultural Unconscious in American Politics." Edited by her daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz, and framed with appreciations by Ann Friedman, Spencer Ackerman, and others, it presents the full sweep, in 500 pages, of Willis's well-spent, well-argued life as a critic.  

Read David Ulin on "Out of the Vinyl Depths" in The Rumpus, cross-posted on Critical Mass here.

Visit the website maintained by Willis's daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz


NBCC Criticism Finalist Eula Biss in Conversation with Haley Sledge

by admin | Feb-17-2015

Thanks to The School of Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of their students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2014 in our 30 Books 2014 series.

Haley Sledge, on behalf of the The School of Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Eula Biss about her book On Immunity: An Inoculation (Graywolf Press), which is among the final five selections, in the category of Criticism, for the 2014 NBCC awards.

Haley Sledge: I was first introduced to On Immunity in a graduate seminar. We’d just finished another book of yours, Notes from No Man’s Land, which was also nominated for an NBCC award — and won. Our professor, Craig Morgan Teicher, gave us xeroxed copies of the first few sections of On Immunity, including the part where you assert that we “owe each other our bodies,” which becomes a major concept and point of investigation in your discussion of vaccination. If you have always acknowledged your body’s role in, and, thus, responsibility to your community, where did that originate from? How does this assertion inform or influence discussions of bodily autonomy and control, specifically in regards to feminist discussions concerning our culture of entitlement towards women’s bodies?

Eula Biss: In Notes from No Man’s Land, I was already thinking about the question of what we owe each other, but I don’t think I had fully arrived at this idea that we owe each other our bodies. It is, I think, such a challenging idea that it took me some time to get there. And yes, like you, I struggled with what this idea might mean for women. When I immersed myself in anti-vaccine literature, I began to notice that some of the stories I was reading resembled date-rape narratives. These were stories told by women who regretted that their children had been vaccinated and the stories often included a phrase like, “I said no, but it was too late,” or “I didn’t want it, but I didn’t say anything because I was afraid.” And, indeed, the whole concept of “consent” in the context of vaccination is quite charged. Vaccination does involve a penetration, and it can trigger our feelings about other unwelcome penetrations. But when I say “we owe each other our bodies” I don’t mean that we owe other people trespasses on our bodies. What I mean is something more along the lines of, “we all live downstream.” I mean that we only have our bodies because of the debts we owe to other bodies. I also mean that if we hold a belief, a value, an ideal — a commitment to social justice, for instance — we must enact that belief through our bodies. And this enactment can be empowering. I once felt like something was being done to me when I was vaccinated, but I now think of it as something I’m doing — a choice I’m making that is aligned with my personal ethics.

But yes, this question of autonomy is challenging. Being pregnant and going through childbirth and breastfeeding changed the way I conceived of my bodily autonomy. When a vulnerable person is dependent on your body, you do lose some autonomy. Or, more accurately, you lose some of the illusion of autonomy. For me, motherhood was a clarifying experience. It helped me see how caring for other people, and sustaining other people, can call our bodies into service in ways that are sometimes uncomfortable. And this brings us back to the conundrum at the heart of your question — our bodies belong to us, and they do not belong to us. This paradox can be especially complicated for those of us who have known sexual subjugation, or those of us who are living the legacy of slavery. But understanding, intimately, what it is to be bodily vulnerable can inspire us to align ourselves with other vulnerable groups — those who are HIV positive, those who are very young, those who are very old, etc. This is where vaccination becomes socially radical.

From the beginning, I conceived of On Immunity as a conversation with other women about, among other things, sexism. There is a culture of entitlement, as you say, toward women’s bodies, but one way to resist that culture, for us, as women, is to refuse to act entitled to other people’s bodies. To refuse, for example, to assume that other people should bear the burden of a system that keeps us all free from disease.

HS: One vaccine that I’m particularly interested in, especially as it relates to the previous question, but that you only briefly touch on in the book is the HPV vaccine. Did it feature prominently in your research, or were you more concerned with early childhood vaccinations? What are your thoughts on the controversy surrounding the vaccine, specifically, the fear that receiving the vaccine will encourage promiscuity? What about the vaccine’s marketing targeting young women more than young men?

EB: I did do some research on HPV, in part because I’m interested in viruses that cause cancer. A number of viruses, including HPV and hep B, are carcinogenic. But what is unique about HPV is that it is the sole cause of cervical cancer. In this country, about 12,000 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed each year and about 4,000 women die from it every year. Some people don’t think that’s a significant enough number of deaths for us to vaccinate against HPV. But, as an oncologist told me, “You only have to see one case of cervical cancer to be convinced that one case is too many.”

When people get diagnosed with cancer, their communities often rally around them, offering money and food and other help. In the same spirit, we can rally around women before they develop cervical cancer by shielding them from HPV through widespread use of the vaccine in both girls and boys. The vaccine does have benefits for boys, in that it can help prevent throat cancer, but I also think it’s an opportunity for boys to participate in women’s health.

I can think of about a thousand things that strike me as more likely to inspire sexual activity than getting a vaccine, but that fear is out there. And it’s prevalent enough that a study was done to determine whether vaccinated girls engage in sex earlier or more frequently than their unvaccinated peers — they do not.

HS: I can’t help but feel that there is a connection between the history of women’s experience with medicine and women resisting the vaccination of their children. How much, do you think, of that particularly dark history, in conjunction with contemporary women’s experiences — especially concerning gynecological care before children and obstetric care — informs their decision to vaccinate?

EB: Very much. Even those of us who are not very familiar with the history of how women’s bodies have been treated by physicians (with menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause all being regarded, at one point or another, as forms of dysfunction or disease) have sensed that history in the way our bodies are now treated in medical contexts. I saw a midwife for all my prenatal care, but that didn’t save me from being told at one point that I wasn’t gaining enough weight and told at another point that I was gaining too much — the message being suspiciously similar to the prevalent cultural message that my body, specifically my weight, is a problem, and that, fat or thin, something is wrong with me. So yes, there’s that. And then there’s the fact that medical care was once women’s work, and was wrested away from women, so that, until very recently, women were actively excluded from medicine as a profession. Taking all these things into consideration, I don’t think it’s hard to imagine why a woman might feel suspicious of the medical system in general, and might be attracted to the idea of regaining control over preventative medicine — traditionally the purview of wise women, midwives, and mothers — by making her own decisions about vaccination and refusing the advice of doctors.

HS: Was your examination of metaphor and the categories of language that we use to conceptualize the mechanics of our bodies, immune systems, and vaccines the result of your research, or were you previously interested? What were your most helpful sources in this investigation, especially when you examine the use of military language?

EB: I’ve been interested in metaphor since before I began writing. My mother is constantly reading the metaphors around her — in fairytales, religious rituals, movies, conversation, everything — and I learned that impulse from her. Shortly after I began taking poetry courses in college, where we very frequently discussed metaphor as a literary device, I read Susan Sontag’s essay Illness as Metaphor. That book remains important to me, and Sontag’s suspicion of military metaphors has stayed with me. But my work in On Immunity was also influenced by James Geary’s treatise on metaphor, I is an Other, and Emily Martin’s anthropological studyFlexible Bodies, which is very attentive to the metaphors, particularly military metaphors, we use to think about our own health.

HS: At one point in the book you discuss the “rabbit-hole” of research and how overwhelming it can become. How did you decide you were finished with your research, especially with the variety of literature that you employ? How did research for this book differ from No Man’s Land? What were the most difficult or upsetting aspects or points in your research, and, conversely, the most joyous?

EB: I never felt finished with the research. In fact, the more I learned, the less I felt I knew. This book is, in part, the story of a quest for knowledge. But knowledge is more of a process, really, than a product. And knowledge is, by its nature, always incomplete. My research for this book included interviewing people with expertise in immunology and infectious diseases and I was often struck, in those conversations, by their humility around knowledge — they were very frank about what they themselves did not know and quite open about what was not known by anyone in their field. I remember asking an influenza expert a question about chicken pox and he told me that I would have to talk to a chicken pox expert about that question — I did, but I also left that moment thinking, hmm, if this infectious disease expert and professor of medicine is unwilling to answer this fairly basic question because he doesn’t feel like he knows enough, what does that say about my audacity in thinking that I might teach myself everything there is to know about all this?

I was initially very frustrated by my sense that I would never be able to learn everything I needed to know to write this book, but I eventually came to a place where I didn’t feel frustrated so much as deeply humbled. As an essayist, I’m a generalist — I’m not a medical writer or even a science writer — and I believe that generalists like me play an important role in making different kinds and sources of knowledge talk to each other. We’re communicators and synthesizers. But the research I did for this book gave me a newfound respect for experts. After struggling to make sense of everything I was reading, it was such a thrill to talk with someone who had a deep understanding of the subject and could put what I had been reading into context. Often, I discovered that there were things I had been completely misunderstanding and my entire way of thinking would be rearranged by one conversation. And that’s the thing — information isn’t very hard to come by. But information doesn’t become knowledge until it’s contextualized and understood in relationship to other information. Learning how scientists do this helped me understand how collaborative scientific investigation is — scientists are constantly working in teams and building off of each other’s knowledge and refining each other’s work and accomplishing, together, things that no one mind could accomplish alone. Here, again, is another beautiful example of our interdependence. We owe each other our bodies, and also our minds.

Roundup: Anne Tyler, Kelly Link, Peter Heller, Charles Darwin, and more

by Eric Liebetrau | Feb-16-2015

Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items, including new about your new publications and recent honors, to NBCCCritics@gmail.com. Make sure to send links that do not require a subscription or username and password.


Elfrieda Abbe reviews "Thus Were Their Faces," an anthology of Silvina Ocampo's short works.

Talking Cuba and Che with Jon Lee Anderson, from Robert Birnbaum. In honor of President's Day, Birnbaum explores the Land of Lincoln.

Michael Magras reviews Kelly Link's "Get in Trouble."

2013 Balakian winner Katherine A. Powers reviews Nick Hornby's "Funny Girl" for the Barnes and Noble Review.

Carl Rollyson reviews Jonny Steinberg's "A Man of Good Hope."

Hope Reese reviews Daniel Galera's "Blood-Drenched Beard."

This Week’s Hot Reads, by Mythili Rao.

Janette Currie reviews Anne Tyler's "A Spool of Blue Thread."

Laurie Hertzel interviews Peter Heller.

Angie Jabine reviews Curtis Johnson's "Darwin’s Dice: The Idea of Chance in the Thought of Charles Darwin."

Clifford Garstang's novel in stories "What the Zhang Boys Know" was reviewed by Sally Whitney at Late Last Night Books and by Jan Worth-Nelson.

David Cooper reviews "Lies, First Person" by Gail Hareven.

Michelle Newby Lancaster reviews Jan Jarboe Russell's "The Train to Crystal City." She also reviews Mary Helen Specht's "Migratory Animals," as well as "Ghost Horse" by Thomas H. McNeely.

Clea Simon on the Boston noir “Serpents in the Cold."

Rayyan Al-Shawaf reviews "All True Not A Lie In It" by Alix Hawley.

"Down with the Strong Female Character," by Howard Lovy.

Meganne Fabrega reviews "How to Be a Heroine" by Samantha Ellis in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Ellen Akins reviews "After Birth," by Elisa Albert.

In People, Meredith Maran answers the question: “Should I read Oprah’s new book club pick?” Maran also reviews M.O. Walsh's "My Sunshine Away."

Julie Hakim Azzam reviews Megan Mayhew Bergman’s latest short story collection, "Almost Famous Women."

Laura Collins-Hughes reviews "He Wanted the Moon: The Madness and Medical Genius of Dr. Perry Baird, and His Daughter's Quest to Know Him," by Mimi Baird with Eve Claxton, in the Boston Globe.

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