Important book of the day

Books I think worthy of further note and what they say about us as a group of people, all together now.

Important Book of the Day – Jon Krakauer’s ‘Missoula’

missoulaJon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a Small Town uncovers the staggering mistreatment of University of Montana rape victims by the Missoula, Montana justice system. Stranger rape is an easy issue to talk about, as the lines between right and wrong are clear. Acquaintance rape, especially when a party is also too inebriated to give consent or consent seems unclear–this is where college rape culture lies, and this is where Jon Krakauer finds himself investigating. Men who can’t recall exactly what happened because they drank so much, women who awoke from a blackout with someone on top of them.

What shocked me most was the varying treatment Krakauer chronicles between victim and assailant by law enforcement. As women are immediately challenged about their claims, the men brought in for questioning are comforted. “You aren’t thinking of committing suicide, are you,” they are asked the men. At one point, a woman with clear bruises around her throat who was drugged with GHB is asked if she could have just fallen down the night before.

Krakauer notes throughout the book that despite the title of Jezebel’s article, ‘My Weekend In America’s So-Called ‘Rape Capital’ (the author is referring to a quote given by a student), Missoula’s seemingly high rape statistics are quite normal. They just aren’t commonly discussed, as rape isn’t commonly discussed.

I remember reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, his personal account of an Everest climb gone wrong, in a buzzy good-book-haze, totally unaware of some of the aspects of climbing the highest mountain of the world. I had the same feeling again when I read his Under the Banner of Heaven, a terrifying look at the fundamentalist LDS church. Krakauer never shies from providing riveting accounts on the toughest of topics, attitudes towards acquaintance rape in Missoula are as scary as any of the other material he’s covered.

Missoula on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Further Reading:

Halloween Treat Alert! Ghastle and Yule by Josh Malerman

Malerman’s Ghastle and Yule is the sort of calorie-free Halloween treat you can’t miss. It’s less than a dollar, so the price is right.

Important Book of the Day – Spillover by David Quammen

spillover

Let’s keep an eye on wild creatures. As we besiege them, as we corner them, as we exterminate them and eat them, we’re getting their diseases.
–David Quammen, Spillover

I find myself referring to David Quammen’s Spillover quite a bit lately, as the most severe outbreak of Ebola in history spreads through West Africa. An Ebola-infected doctor has returned to Atlanta for treatment, and all sorts of questions are popping up about zoonotic diseases and their effects. This outbreak has acted as an instant reminder that we all need to care about zoonotic diseases, and that we can’t dismiss them as the concerns of health-care workers or those on other continents.

David Quammen is an award-winning science writer, and Spillover, as an almost 600 page exploration of zoonotic diseases, would be an unbearable read if it wasn’t for Quammen’s honest but bold ability to weave the stories together. Rather than coming across as a textbook, despite the almost incomprehensibly complicated subject matter presented at times, this reads as true thriller, perhaps the scariest thriller you’ll ever read.

Quammen meets brilliant, interesting researchers who are incredibly afraid, and the story of the Hendra virus is told not through numbers or complicated terms but through the story of that first dead mare, Drama Series. Who found her, and what happened after that.

Spillover reveals a world in which humans are pushing up against the wilds once left to animals, and animals are, in turn, making us sick. There’s Drama Series and her untimely demise. And then a chimp on a river, and the agonizing, winding story of SIV and HIV and the possible emergence of AIDS. Throughout these tales, research citations, developments from history, and thoughts from the scientific community create a full picture.

I never understood how exactly zoonotic diseases worked until reading this book. I never understood why Bird Flu was called Bird Flu, or even that the flu came from birds at all. I didn’t know what all those numbers and letters meant that go along with the next flu threat, labels ascribed to some sort of emerging potential pandemic. Spillover taught me the basics of all this, what exactly is rational fear and what doesn’t make sense or seems to be media hype, and even why getting my flu shot each year is so important.

Quammen manages to convey huge amounts of information to his reader without losing the story’s gripping narrative. As the outbreak continues in Africa, and as Ebola lands in Atlanta, albeit in a highly controlled environment, it seems a very good idea to educate yourself on the basic ideas of zoonotic disease.

Spillover by David Quammen on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Important Book of the Day – The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian

the childrens hospital blue

My last post talked about a few of my favorite things, things meaning books that stand out to me today, or in my not-too-distant past, as being some kind of revelatory. It’s hard to talk of any sort of favorites in our world without remembering the heavy hitters of Greek or Roman myth, and other classics, that timelessly walk along with us as we create new stories. I see a bit of Ulysses in every hero with too much bluster and bravado, and a bit of Oedipus in every fated family tale.

I recently read Faust, and the power lying in that tragedy totally rocked me to my core. Goethe uses such simple, short and plain exclamations of sadness which sum up incomprehensible destruction of each aspect of a person’s life, reminding me that sometimes less is more when it comes to the most poignant part of the drama. I’m a sucker for big tragedy–the downers of life thoroughly explored and encapsulated for all of us to visit again and again. I see these older stories in every new thing I read. Every news story and courtroom spectacle seems predicted by people who lived so long ago but understood so much about the deepest parts of existence, like we’re all still the pawns of vicious gods seeking to entertain themselves with our 24 hour news cycles.

One of the oldest stories is that of a flood. I’ve always been captivated with the flood myth’s timelessness, its ability to flow like water from one culture to another, from some of the first written books to all important religious texts to fiction today. This myth alone deserves its own post, as a ton of amazing literature surrounds it, but I want to talk about my absolute favorite book, which happens to be a modern take on the flood myth: The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian.

This one book stands for me above all the rest. This is what I talk about when people ask about my favorite book, but I haven’t come across a person yet who recognizes his name or the title. He’s a well kept secret.

The New York Times review of The Children’s Hospital talks of Adrian’s following the formula of writing what one knows, which seems unusual in this case, as the novel is about a world-ending flood, in which a children’s hospital rises above the deluge, its patients and staff seemingly the only chosen ones left to survive. And yet, Adrian is a graduate from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, a former student of Harvard Divinity School, and an M.D. He is currently (the internet tells me) in the pediatric hematology/oncology fellowship at UCSF. Fitting, then, that his masterpiece involves the world’s end, flooding of biblical proportion, angels, and a children’s hospital rising above the destruction. This stuff is on his mind, this stuff of life and death and the meaning of it all.

This is not a short book, nor a light-hearted one. I read it after its release in 2006, while unfortunately trying to date someone. His questions of “What do you want to do?” would always be answered by my “I just want to read this book.” I would lie sideways with my head hanging off my bed, arms dangling and heavy hardback copy of The Children’s Hospital laying on the floor. Eventually, the guy left, and I kept reading. This book is everything good about reading–an almost randomly imaginative concept combined with crisp exactitude in expressing the human experience. In Adrian’s writing, anarchy meets accuracy, in all the best ways possible: anorexics on the eating disorder wing vomit the food given to them by angels, a 15-year-old cancer patient paints her room and her body black after she sees the floodwaters out her window, a little boy may be mentally ill or may be something much, much darker…  Here’s an excerpt:

     Here and there, in blocks of two or three hours, she and Rob would sleep. He’d finish crying, his sobs quieting to little hiccups, and then he was snoring and already starting to drool. Jemma always fell asleep soon after him, but woke within an hour or two. She might watch him for a little while, note his eyes moving under his lids and wonder if he was dreaming of his mother and his sisters, but then she would rise and wander. Every night, passing by the patient rooms, she’d see nurses or parents or bleary-eyed residents, standing beneath the televisions and looking uselessly from channel to channel. She would have avoided the television in any disaster, anyhow. All the late junior disasters had made her stomach hurt to consider, and she’d actively run away from the screens everywhere that played them over and over again. She stopped once beside a nurse she didn’t know and looked up at the screen, imagining in the static an endless repetition of flood, a supremely high and distant vantage that showed the earth in space turning a deeper and deeper blue. If you flipped for long enough the angel-lady would offer you a cheery movie, whether you wanted one or not.

They wanted a voice and an image, she supposed. Someone to tell them what was happening, even after the windows cleared and it become so obvious what had happened. Never mind that the angel broadcast blessings in her buzzing, broken mechanical nose voice. They were as repetitious and horrible, in their way, as a television scene would have been. ‘Creatures,’ she’d call out. ‘I will preserve you.’ It sounded less comforting every time she said it.

gob's griefGob’s Grief is Adrian’s first book, and it is slightly related to The Children’s Hospital. By no means a direct prequel, it is also haunting in its portrayal of human pain and impossible not to mention. Exploring the Civil War and its tragedies with Adrian’s signature dark, eloquent magical realism, we meet Walt Whitman as he tends to the dying off the battlefield, and a doctor named Gob as he bathes unbearably in grief, spending his life building a machine to bring back his twin brother, who ran away to join the Union Army at age eleven and died in his first battle.

 

the great nightAdrian’s most recent release, The Great Night, published in 2011, is a dazzling, dizzying and bright retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which takes place in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park on New Year’s Eve, 2008. Three broken-hearted people walk into the park at the same time but from different directions (one from the Haight, one from the Sunset, and one from the Castro), and so begins a night enchanted with spoiled, cruel faeries and homeless folks intent on producing a musical.

All three of Adrian’s books are memorable, with the combination of brilliantly odd ideas meshed with stunning writing ability creating believability where other authors might fall short. Adrian asks you to explore yourself and those around you by looking at impossible situations, and it somehow works. The Children’s Hospital stands alone as (so far) Adrian’s single masterpiece–a sprawling concept with precise and staggering detail, an ugly angry triumphant story of humanity at its best and worst, an examination of why we keep going in the face of so many unanswered questions, or really why we go on at all. Don’t take on this book lightly, but I urge you, please, take it on.

 The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian on Powell’s.com/Amazon.com/Indiebound.org

Important book of the Day – The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead.

whitehead-the-intuitionist

“What does the perfect elevator look like, the one that will deliver us from the cities we suffer now, these stunted shacks?” —The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead

This is a near perfect book with striking language – Colson Whitehead’s metaphors are worth pausing over and re-reading.  He writes such gems as “In person he is too flesh, a handful of raw meat.  Dogs have been known to follow him, optimistic.”

Centering around the elevators we all must ride in to rise up, quite literally, allows for allegory on so many levels – the concept’s brilliance comes from its simplicity.  A black female elevator inspector tries make it in a white elevator inspector’s world, intuitionist trying to make it in a rationalist’s world, all of us built up on top of each other in these big cities waiting to take the ride up to that next level.

I think this is a book that kids will be reading in high school in America when all of us are long gone.

The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead on Amazon.com

Important book of the day – The Shallows by Nicholas Carr.

The-Shallows

No doubt the connectivity and other features of e-books will bring new delights and diversions. We may even, as Kelly suggests, come to see digitization as a liberating act, a way of freeing text from the page. But the cost will be a further weakening, if not a final severing, of the intimate intellectual attachment between the lone writer and the lone reader. The practice of deep reading that became popular in the wake of Gutenberg’s invention, in which “the quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind,” will continue to fade, in all likelihood becoming the province of a small and dwindling elite. We will, in other words, revert to the historical norm. As a group of Northwestern University professors wrote in a 2005 article in the Annual Review of Sociology, the recent changes in our reading habits suggest that the “era of mass [book] reading” was a brief “anomaly” in our intellectual history: “We are now seeing such reading return to its formal social base: a self-perpetuating minority that we shall call the reading class.” The question that remains to be answered, they went on, is whether that reading class will have the “power and prestige associated with an increasingly rare form of cultural capital” or will be viewed as the eccentric practitioners of “an increasingly arcane hobby.” —The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr

A young acquaintance who had been an English major, when I asked her what she was reading, replied: “You mean linear reading? Like when you read a book from start to finish?”  –Jonathan Franzen, Why Bother? an essay from the book How to be Alone

Some books have a tendency to haunt.  They stick to me long after I’ve read them, and I compulsively begin to tell people the anecdotes they contain at dinner tables and in cars.  “But taxi drivers have a larger part of the brain that visualizes the road!”  “Did you know deep reading hasn’t always been a part of various societies’ popular cultures?”  These tidbits of info floating in my mind are thanks to Nicholas Carr, who has some serious business with our brains and the internet.

I’ve felt the internet’s impact on novels, and especially been aware of it as of late.  I realize it is partly just a trend, but so many popular fiction novels aren’t linear anymore.  As with the internet, they’re hopping from place to place or time to time or narrator to narrator.  Some non-linear novels are great, but I do want to pause and ask – why are we, as a society, writing like this?  Why do we all want to read books which use this single literary device, the non-linear narrative?  What about settling in with a more traditional book, which plays out start to finish and beginning to end, has lost its appeal?  Nicholas Carr has the answer to this question in The Shallows.

The Shallows website