"A girl was never ruined by books," my mother used to say. I've spent most of my life trying to prove that wrong.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Jonas Salk and Philip Roth: the Nemesis

Google opened this morning with a tribute to Jonas Salk, the developer of the first inactivated polio virus vaccine on what would have been his 100th birthday.  I'm old enough to remember polio scares--no swimming, no crowds, no fun during the summer--and the relief apparent on our parents' faces when a vaccine was found.

But it is very easy to forget just what a mysterious threat the disease was, which is one reason it's worth reading Philip Roth's Nemesis now.  The book is told from the point of view of a man who'd been a kid during a polio epidemic in New Jersey during World War II.  His idol and mentor was a teacher who apparently carries the disease to a summer camp before succumbing himself.  Both the narrator, who also get it, and the teacher carry with them years of suffering and struggle post-polio--and its consequences.

The tone is naive at first, as befits the observations of a boy, but becomes increasingly nuanced and philosophical as the story progresses.  Roth says that he doesn't write books of philosophy but the question of responsiblity--and the teacher is haunted all his life by the suspicion that he was an agent of death--and the unfairness of life is paramount.  An example: "He was struck by how lives diverge and by how powerless each of us is up against the force of circumstance. And where does God figure in this?”

One of the things notable about the story is the implicit comparison between mainstream religion (in this case moderate Judaism) and a kind of primitive magic (a made-up Native American ritual that is part of the camp's schtick). Roth seems to be saying that there isn't much difference, in the end. 

Also striking is the way the narrator is able to build a reasonably good life for himself even though he is badly damaged by polio but the teacher remains mired in a sort of noble self-pity.  Roth introduces the possiblity of individual choice and will into the equation.

Polio is a thing of the past throughout much of the world now (only in Pakistan does it seem to be markedly on the increase.) But Roth's novel is a good and deceptively simple read that raises a host of concerns that we all must consider.

That's Salk in the photo on the right, and Roth on the left, in case you hadn't guessed. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Alice Munro on Fanaticism: the Juliet Stories in Runaway

In this week when two young  Canadian men killed two other ones because, it seems, of misguided ideas about Islam, my thoughts have turned to Alice Munro's compelling stories in Runaway. As it happens, I've re-read it twice this fall and will probably read it at least two times more as my book discussion groups talk about it. 

Three of the stories in the collection tell of Juliet's progress from being the smartest girl in a rural Ontario town to teaching classics in British Columbia, meeting and falling in love with a man on the train, building a life with him that is free of the constraints she felt in her own childhood, and then being sorely disappointed when, after raising their daughter alone after his death, the girl is seduced by a cult.

My bookies have been particularly troubled by these stories.  How can Juliet bear having her daugher run away like that?  they ask.  What a tragedy that the girl doesn't appreciate what her mother has done!  Why would she choose to follow the strict tenets of the group she joins?

That there are no simple answers to these questions is a hallmark of Munro's writing.  She makes us think, after she's led us deeper and deeper into her story, but never tells us what to think.

And what I think is that Juliet was mistaken in depriving her daughter of any contact with traditional spiritual or religious throught.  Her daughter wants to escape this kind of thought control just as Juliet wanted to escape the closed world she was born into.  Better to have allowed a certain amount of that other paradigm into her daughter's life.  Doing that might have made the inevitable separation of parent and child less irrevocable.


Monday, October 20, 2014

Amazon Kills the Buzz: Krugman on the Effects of the Big On-Line Retailer

I had never heard of monopsony until this morning when I read Paul Krugman's column in The New York Times.  It's the undue power of a monster buyer, as opposed to monopoly which is that of a monster seller.  In both cases, the organization wielding this power can influence price and supply--and in the case of Amazon's monoposony, what we read and even think.

Krugman gives a short summary of Amazon's fight with the French-based publisher Hachette over pricing, and then talks about what this means to readers and writers.  Then he writes: "Book sales depend crucially on buzz and word of mouth (which is why authors are often sent on grueling book tours); you buy a book because you’ve heard about it, because other people are reading it, because it’s a topic of conversation, because it’s made the best-seller list. And what Amazon possesses is the power to kill the buzz. It’s definitely possible, with some extra effort, to buy a book you’ve heard about even if Amazon doesn’t carry it — but if Amazon doesn’t carry that book, you’re much less likely to hear about it in the first place."

He gives as an example two books by recently mentioned prominently in the NYT:  "One is Daniel Schulman’s “Sons of Wichita,” a profile of the Koch brothers; the other is “The Way Forward,” by Paul Ryan, who was Mitt Romney’s running mate and is chairman of the House Budget Committee. Both are listed as eligible for Amazon Prime, and for Mr. Ryan’s book Amazon offers the usual free two-day delivery. What about “Sons of Wichita”? As of Sunday, it “usually ships in 2 to 3 weeks.” Uh-huh."

I'm not sure just what Amazon might be promoting here--are they promoting one kind of right-wing thought over anyother?--but any writer who's had a book effectively unavailable through Amazon knows just how hard it is to fight that kind of non-promotion.  And that's saying nothing about the fact that Amazon sets prices lower than other retailers which mean less revenue for writers whose royalties are based on retail prices.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

What Literary Juries Think: Go Figure!

This is the season of prizes.  The Nobel goes to French writer Patrick Mondiano (whom I've never read, and must now), the biggest Canadian prize for non-fiction, the $60,000 CDN Hillary Weston Writers' Trust Prize,  goes to Naomi Klein for This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. the Climate, the Booker goes to an Australian guy who was stone cold broke when he finished the book, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, and our local fiction prize named after novelist Hugh MacLennan will go to one of three names who are not big ones, yet.

The Quebec Writers' Federation short list includes: Jon Paul Fiorentino for I’m Not Scared of You or Anything from Anvil Press, Sean Michaels  for Us Conductors from Random House Canada and Guillaume Morissette for  New Tab from VĂ©hicule Press/Esplanade Books.

Interestingly, neither Heather O'Neill's The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, finalist for the Scotia Bank Giller Prize nor Claire Holden Rothman's My October, finalist for the Governor General's Prize for Fiction,  made the cut.

This appears to be the result of completely different juries having different ideas about what is good, and in the case of the QWF jury,  perhaps a penchant for young writers.  The three finalists are well under 40. 

That's probably all to the good, but I guess I'm going to have to read all the books to decide which jury has the line on quality.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Ebola and Other Plagues: A Book to Put Them in Context

Laurie Garrett's book The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance is nearly 20 years old but it offers very interesting background information about the first round of Ebola in Africa, plus important discussion of how diseases develop and spread.   Garrett is now  senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Pulitzer Prize winning science writer, as well as being an engaging writer.

I had read this book several years ago when doing research on some medical matter at a time when AIDS was still little understood by the public.  The chapters on Ebola and Marburg diseases were fascinating.  While much has changed  since, the account gives some idea of how diseases emerged out of nowhere and then receded after less than a year.

What is puzzling is that the diseases seemed to burn themselves out.  This does not seem to be happening here, possibly because the outbreaks began in more densely populated, better connected parts of Africa than during the 25 previous episodes of the disease.  (For an interesting comment see: Ebola: The Tolling Bell.)  When people incubating the virus can travel, the risk of them contaminating others is great.  In earlier epidemics, Ebola appears to have been confined to relatively isolated villages and once everyone in contracted the disease and either died or survived and became immune, the outbreak was over.

The video attached is from Outbreak, a blockbuster disaster flick, that ends without the world ending, despite forecasts of universal doom.  Better to read Garrett's book or her trenchant piece Foreign Policy published Oct. 6, 2014.  She writes:  "First, a rapid point-of-care diagnostic that can find Ebola virus in a single droplet of blood must be developed. A point-of-care test avoids the need to ship samples to a laboratory and then wait for days to learn the results....I suggest the use of self-administered implements commonly used by diabetics to make a finger prick and squeeze out a droplet of blood. That droplet would go into a tiny plastic well -- an object about an inch in size that is internally coated with either DNA or antibodies that recognize specific genes or proteins found exclusively in the Ebola virus. If those viral markers are present, the device would glow with bioluminescence or change color -- the result would be observable with the naked eye...

"Finger-prick tests for Ebola are in development now at Senova, a company in Weimar, Germany; at a small Colorado company called Corgenix; and at California-based Theranos...One of these screening tests should soon meet the criteria of speed, accuracy, and ease of use necessary to prevent travelers' spread of Ebola; facilitate contact tracing; and, in the midst of the epidemic, tell who has the virus and who does not."

I Have a Great Conversation with Two Urban Experts

One of the high points of this summer was a conversation moderated by Dimitri Nasrallah with Taras Grescoe, Avi Friedman and yours truly called Imagining the Cities of Tomorrow.

Such fun!  And I think quite informative.  Would love to have another chance to talk to them about the future of cities!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Cooks, Biographies, and Eating Well

This week I made Devil's Food Cake Cockaigne, a lush chocolate cake that I hadn't thought about for several years.  The occasion was Elin's birthday, and while we'll be celebrating with  joint party in a few weeks time, it seemed that Friday was a good night for a mini-fĂȘte.  Jeanne particularly liked sprinkling little candy stars on top after the cake was iced, but apart from that I was a little disappointed.

Not sure if that is due to changing ability to taste things or to a more developed appetite for exotic food.  Whatever the cause, it made me start thinking of The Joy of Cooking, the first good cook book I ever got, and the delightful biography of the book's authors, Stand Facing the Stove: The Story of the Women Who Gave America the Joy of Cooking  by Anne Mendelson.

Left a widow with a small legacy, Irma Rombauer decided to collect recipes and publish a cook book for women like herself  who found themselves at the beginning of the Great Depression with the necessity to cook for their families for the first time in their lives.  Some of them literally did  not know how to boil water, hence the step by step directions which included "stand facing the stove." Aided by  her daughter, Marion Rombauer Becker, Mrs. Rombauer created a cook book that  became one of the most successful ever.  It did not bring her the fortune that it should have, though, which is one of the most fascinating portions of this biography.

Stand Facing the Stove  appeared shortly before the book was completely revised by Mrs. Rombauer's grandson with the aid of a host of professional cooks.  It removed much of the lively commentary that made earlier editions such fun to read. I remember thinking bah humbug when I saw it, and when I went looking for cook books for my kids when they started out on their own, I sought out earlier versions. The 1964 version, which is the one I have, gave me many evenings of entertaining reading when I putting a lot of energy into learning how to cook well because I had discovered that eating well is, next to love,  the greatest pleasure in life.

But I guess my taste for chocolate just isn't what it was.  For the next birthday, I'll seek out some other dessert, I think.