Have you ever heard of Typhoid Mary? The Irish-American cook in the early 1900s who was lambasted for spreading typhoid through her cooking. What many don’t know is that she was an asymptomatic carrier. This was the early ages of germ theory, and most didn’t realize you could pass on an illness without any symptoms. Captured and held against her will on North Brother Island, it’s easy to empathize with her plight. Until she’s released and begins cooking again.
I grew up hearing the cautionary tale of Typhoid Mary, who was mostly mentioned within hearing range in combination with an admonition to wash your hands. But some people (mainly other children) told tales of her purposefully infecting those she served. These sentences were spoken with a combination of fear and awe. On the one hand, how understandable at a time when worker’s rights were nearly completely absent and to be both a woman and Irish in America was not a good combination. On the other hand, how evil to poison people with such a heinous illness in their food. In any case, when this fictionalized account of Mary Mallon came up, I was immediately intrigued. Who was this woman anyway? It turns out, the mixture of awe and fear reflected in myself and other children was actually fairly accurate.
I’m going to speak first about the actual Mary Mallon and then about the writing of the book. If you’re looking for the perfect example of gray area and no easy answers mixed with unfair treatment based on gender and nation of origin, then hoo boy do you find one with Mary Mallon. The early 1900s was early germ theory, and honestly, when you think about it, germ theory sounds nuts if you don’t grow up with it. You can carry invisible creatures on your skin and in your saliva that can make other people but not yourself sick. Remember, people didn’t grow up knowing about germs. It was an entirely new theory. The status quo was don’t cook while you’re sick, and hygiene was abysmally low…basically everywhere. It’s easy to understand how Mary was accidentally spreading sickness and didn’t know it. It’s also easy to understand why she would have fought at being arrested (she did nothing malicious or wrong and was afraid of the police). Much as we may say now that she should have known enough to wash her hands frequently. Wellll, maybe not so much back then.
Public health officials said that they tried to reason with Mary, and she refused to stop cooking or believe that she was infecting others. This is why they quarantined her on North Brother Island. Some point to others (male, higher social status) who were found to be asymptomatic carriers who were not quarantined. True. But they also acknowledged the risk and agreed to stop doing whatever it was that was spreading the illness. Maybe Mary was more resistant because of the prejudice she was treated with from the beginning. Or maybe she really was too stubborn to be able to understand what a real risk she posed to others. Regardless, it is my opinion that no matter the extraneous social factors (being a laundress is more difficult than being a cook, people were overly harsh with her, etc…) Mary still knowingly cooked and infected people after she was released from North Brother Island. Yes, there were better ways public health officials could have handled the whole situation but that’s still an evil thing to do. So that’s the real story of Mary Mallon. Now, on to the fictional account (and here you’ll see why I bothered discussing the facts first).
At first Keane does a good job humanizing a person who has been extremely demonized in American pop culture. Time and effort is put into establishing Mary’s life and hopes. Effort is made into showing how she may not have noticed typhoid following her wherever she went. She emigrated from Ireland. She, to put it simply, saw a lot of shit. A lot of people got sick and died. That was just life. I also liked how the author showed the ways in which Mallon was contrarian to what was expected of women. She didn’t marry. She was opinionated and sometimes accused of not dressing femininely enough. But, unfortunately, that’s where my appreciation fo the author’s handling of Mallon ends.
The author found it necessary to give Mallon a live-in, alcoholic boyfriend who gets almost as much page time as herself. In a book that should be about Mary, he gets entirely too much time, and that hurts the plot. (There is seriously a whole section about him going to Minnesota that is entirely pointless). A lot of Mary’s decisions are blamed on this boyfriend. While I get it that shitty relationships can cause you to make shitty decisions, at a certain point accountability comes into play. No one held a gun to Mary’s head and made her cook or made her date this man (I couldn’t find any records to support this whole alcoholic boyfriend, btw).
On a similar note, a lot of effort is made into blaming literally everyone but Mary for the situation. It’s society’s fault. It’s culture’s fault. It’s Dr. Soper’s fault. They should have rehabbed her with a new job that was more comparable to cooking than being a laundress. They should have had more empathy. Blah blah blah. Yes. In a perfect world they would have realized how backbreaking being a laundress is and trained her in something else. But, my god, in the early 1900s they released her and found her a job in another career field. That’s a lot for that time period! This is the early days of public health. The fact that anyone even considered finding her a new career is kind of amazing. And while I value and understand the impact society and culture and others have on the individual’s ability to make good and moral decisions, I still believe ultimately the individual is morally responsible. And at some point, Mary, with all of her knowledge of the fact that if she cooked there was a high probability someone would die, decided to go and cook anyway. And she didn’t cook just anywhere. She cooked at a maternity ward in a hospital. So the fact that the book spends a lot of time trying to remove all personal culpability from Mary bothered me a lot.
I’m still glad I read the book, but I sort of wish I’d just read the interesting articles and watched the PBS special about her instead. It would have taken less time and been just as factual.
3 out of 5 stars
Born into the lowest class of her society, Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, only fit to clean her orchard hive. Living to accept, obey and serve, she is prepared to sacrifice everything for her beloved holy mother, the Queen. Yet Flora has talents that are not typical of her kin. And while mutant bees are usually instantly destroyed, Flora is reassigned to feed the newborns, before becoming a forager, collecting pollen on the wing. Then she finds her way into the Queen’s inner sanctum, where she discovers secrets both sublime and ominous. Enemies roam everywhere, from the fearsome fertility police to the high priestesses who jealously guard the Hive Mind. But Flora cannot help but break the most sacred law of all, and her instinct to serve is overshadowed by a desire, as overwhelming as it is forbidden.
I like books that mix scientific accuracy with a touch of personification of animals, or in this case, insects. I was expecting it to be weird, because it’s about insects, but oh boy was this book weird.
For some reason, I find the title to be hilarious. I just kept walking around saying to myself, “the bees, The Bees, THE BEES.” You may think that sounds ridiculous (and it does, and I am, indeed, a ridiculous person) but this book really closely matches that experience.
I applaud the author all the research she clearly must have done. I think it only makes logical sense that she invented a religion for the bees to follow that revolves around worshiping the queen. The horrifying dystopianesque rigid structure of bee life also makes sense based on what we scientifically know about them. All of that said, it was still deeply odd to read. Priestesses and chanting and drones and evil invading wasps. It struck me as a cartoon that took itself very very seriously. I would have preferred if it perhaps took itself a bit less seriously. Like (I’m aging myself here) SimAnt.
In any case, the book does take itself very seriously, most likely due to the very real and serious fact that bees are dying out, and reasons for this are reflected in the story, as the colony faces many challenges to staying alive. While I was able to take some of these threats quite seriously, like flowers not blooming at the right time, others were written in such a ridiculous way that I just couldn’t. For example, a giant evil cell phone tower that makes the bees lose their way when they’re out flying. It’s practically personified as a giant evil ominous entity, and I found myself laughing when I knew actually this is really a problem for bees. The book is basically caught in this uncanny valley that both prevented me from being moved by it and from finding it completely humorous. It’s a book that I think needed to sway a bit more in one direction or the other.
I was still at least 4 star enjoying it though until the end. I found the end just so deeply depressing and unnecessarily so (the point was made, no need to go so extreme) that I was left frustrated. I think, having read the ending, that perhaps the author didn’t realize that she was at times veering into ludicrous humor, and she maybe intended the whole book to be a Very Serious Read, when it simply was not.
Overall, then, if you’re a reader who is able to take some ludicrousness seriously, you will most likely enjoy the book more and get more emotional depth out of it than I did.
Now, if only there was a SimBees…..
3 out of 5 stars
Book Review: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn (Audiobook narrated by Rebecca Lowman, Cassandra Campbell, Mark Deakins, and Robertson Dean)
Libby Day testified that her brother murdered her mother and sisters as part of a Satanic cult ritual when she was just 7 years old. Twenty-five years later, running out of money, she agrees to help a group known as The Kill Club investigate the murder. Their members disagree on how actually killed her mother and sisters, and with her connections they think she can help them crack the case. Libby is sure her brother Ben did it, but money is money, and it sure beats a regular job.
This is my third Gillian Flynn novel, and I must admit it was the one I liked least. I was actually suspicious it was a first novel, as it had that feel–a lot of what works in her other novels is present but it’s less well-executed. However, it actually was published after Sharp Objects (review), so who knows what happened here. Regardless, while I found the mystery intriguing and I definitely listened to the audiobook every chance I got, the plot is not as tightly told nor is the central mystery as believable as it is in her other works.
What worked the best for me was Libby, a childhood survivor of a gruesome murder, as some sort of modern day noiresque private investigator. A woman PI with a personal connection to the murders was just delicious to read. I’d love to see more of that in literature. I also liked seeing a thriller that included a queer person (her aunt is a lesbian) without that being used as a way of othering someone strange or being attached to a perpetrator. Her aunt is a bystander in every sense of the word. She is never a suspect, she provides Libby with a home environment after the murders, and her sexual orientation is just a part of who she is, not a plot point. I also liked the changing perspectives among Libby present, Libby past, her mother, and her brother. I thought it added to the mystery since seeing these other perspectives did not immediately reveal precisely what was going on. I also thought it made it harder to judge her mother than it might be if the reader hadn’t had her perspective.
However, this was the first time that I was both sure who the perpetrator was quite early in a Flynn novel and also that I was disappointed by who the murderer is. I thought there was nothing creative or exciting about it, and honestly it kind of bugged me a little bit. There is also one trope that shows up here that bothered me. It could be a bit spoilery (not too bad) so skip the next paragraph if you’re concerned about that.
Libby at the end of the book ends up in a scenario that is very similar to the first murders that she survived. It’s basically a trauma survivor finding that all their fears were right by improbably having almost the same scenario happen a second time. I think it was supposed to be scary, but it just irritated me.
I also must say that I felt the whole Satanic scare thing was very dated. Yes, I get it that was a huge thing in the 80s and this is a story about murders that happened 25 years ago but something about it just made the whole book feel dated to me. I couldn’t get into it partly because I was certain that the book would ultimately reveal Satanism had nothing to do with it, since that’s just the way that plot point always goes. I suppose you could sum up most of my issues with this book as the plot was too predictable to be much fun.
Overall, if you’re a big Gillian Flynn fan and just want to experience some thrills, this book will provide some of them with the dash of strong female characters you’ve come to expect. However, do expect to be a bit disappointed by a more predictable plot and twist that isn’t all that twisty.
3 out of 5 stars
Book Review: American Gun: A History of the U.S. in Ten Firearms by Chris Kyle and William Doyle (Audiobook narrated by John Pruden)
Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL responsible for the book American Sniper, was working on a labor of love at the time of his death–this book. His wife and co-author worked together to complete the book (his wife providing an introduction of context). Kyle loved America and guns, and here he combines the two together to present the history of the US through the lens of guns.
The idea of this book is nothing new. I certainly studied a lot of guns/weapons and their impact while working on my History BA (concentration in US History). But as both a US History and gun lover, I was excited by the idea of a short book that would let me revisit both topics. I do wish I had paid more attention to the fact that this book is a co-authorship between a Navy SEAL and a Fulbright Scholar though, since I personally tend to find books written from this type of partnership to be a bit frustrating. I certainly found that this book lands in that category.
The book starts with an introduction by Chris Kyle’s wife, Taya, providing context of why he wanted to write this book and how far along he was on it. I wound up pausing to look up his death, because I honestly didn’t realize the American Sniper had died. I wish this book had mentioned, at least simply, how he died.
The guns covered in the book are: American Long Rifle, Spencer Repeater, Colt Single-Action Army Revolver, Winchester 1873 Rifle, M1903 Springfield, M1911 Pistol, Thompson Submachine Gun, M1 Garand, .38 Special Police Revolver, and M16 Rifle. Kyle clearly knows and understands how guns work. I found the descriptions of these guns to be the best-written portions of the books. In particular his explanation of shotguns (single-action or repeating) was the first I’ve heard that had me really grasping how they work.
The quality of the history writing comes and goes, though, and I think that’s evidence of places Doyle had a stronger hand on the writing. Some of the historical episodes are presented clearly, factually, and without obvious bias. Others, though, beg for an editing pass either for removal or acknowledgement of bias or to tighten up the focus or provide a better story arc. Historical nonfiction can still have a story arc, something that Kyle clearly understands, but he tends to go off on rants about certain parts of the story that he finds most interesting leaving the reader a bit lost or frustrated. The passage that I found most frustrating was when Kyle chose to focus on a soldier in the Revolutionary War era because he descended from him. Sure, that soldier used the gun being focused upon, but so did practically everyone else at the time. It read a bit like your uncle doing the family genealogy, rather than a serious historical nonfiction. What I found most jarring though was the rapid switching between this style of writing and more typical mainstream serious historical nonfiction.
I felt the audiobook narrator did a good job embodying Kyle’s voice, and was easy to listen to.
Overall, readers looking for greater quick knowledge of the guns used at pivotal points in US History would be the most likely to benefit from this read. Those looking for more serious historical analysis or typical historical writing should look elsewhere.
3 out of 5 stars
Book Review: Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola (Audiobook narrated by Sarah Hepola)
“It’s such a savage thing to lose your memory, but the crazy thing is, it doesn’t hurt one bit. A blackout doesn’t sting, or stab, or leave a scar when it robs you. Close your eyes and open them again. That’s what a blackout feels like.”
For years Sarah Hepola ignored her blackouts. She was a young woman with a successful writing career living in New York City. She was empowered, and part of embracing equality was drinking like one of the guys. But while littering her writing with references to drinking and laughing off her drunken escapades, she actually spent her daytimes cleaning up after her blackouts. Figuring out how she scraped up her knees or tracking down her purse. Eventually, she realized that drinking wasn’t making her the life of the party and one of the guys. It was stealing who she was, and it was time to get herself back.
I have a thing for addiction memoirs (and addiction documentaries….movies…tv shows…). But I have often found myself puzzled by the female drinking memoir. Often presented as a woman (usually a wife and mother) who appears to have it all and hides all of her drinking because women don’t drink. I’m sorry, but as a Millennial, that’s not the kind of drinking I’ve seen women in my generation partake in. Drinking was considered unladylike by generations even as recent as the one right before ours (that my brother is in). But in mine? What I often saw was women proving their coolness by keeping up with the guys. These women would never hide wine. They’d take shots and get praised for it. So when I saw this memoir talking about the impact on women of drinking like one of the guys; of how this equality of substance abuse is really impacting women, I had a sense it was going to be something good and insightful, and I was right.
Sarah Hepola shows the reader through a clear lens exactly how the different perceptions of women and alcohol impacted her drinking, and thus how they might impact other women. The book starts with some context of how young women are both encouraged by their peers to binge drink but then are also blamed by them when bad things happen to them when they are drunk. She then moves on to talking about her own childhood when she would steal sips of beer from open cans in the fridge, and how her parents never suspected she was sneaking beer because little girls wouldn’t do that. She then gradually brings us up through time and shows us how with drinking she was subconsciously trying to pursue both fitting in and equality. She drank to fit in and be cool in college. She drank with co-workers on her male-dominated first job to be one of the guys and get the same networking opportunities they got after work by going out for beers. She liked that it wasn’t necessarily feminine. She liked feeling strong and empowered.
By embracing something that is perceived of by the culture as hyper-masculine, like binge drinking, women are seeking to be taken seriously and viewed as equals. Women do this in other areas too. Just look at power suits or the short haircuts preferred by women in positions of power. Our culture devalues what is perceived of as feminine and elevates what is perceived of as masculine. There are many issues with this, which I can’t go into in a short book review, but what matters about this for women and alcohol is that women’s bodies just don’t biologically process alcohol the same way men’s bodies do. Sarah Hepola goes into this in quite some detail, but essentially, women get drunker faster on less alcohol than men do, which means women black out more easily, and blackouts are dangerous. They make anyone vulnerable, but they make women particularly vulnerable to things like date rape.
Sarah Hepola does a much more eloquent job in the book than I am doing here in the review of illuminating how gender and alcohol mix to make the modern alcoholic young woman. And the book doesn’t just detail the dramatics of her youthful drinking. She also goes into great detail about what it was like to stop. To find the empowerment of being completely in control again and not losing parts of herself and her life to blackouts. She talks about her sober life and how exciting it is, and she even talks about finding some spirituality. Most importantly to me, she discusses how women in western culture today are often told we are equal but are able to sense that things that are feminine are just not taken seriously. So they pursue the masculine to be taken more seriously and in some cases the masculine is simply not helpful. It is harmful. Sometimes, in cases like with binge drinking, it’s even more dangerous for women than for men. I believe the book offers some hope when Hepola talks about finding strength in her sober living and in her accomplishments at facing life as a single woman.
Those listening to the audiobook will be entranced by Hepola’s own voice telling the story. I couldn’t stop listening and listened every second I could. One of the more haunting moments of the audiobook is when toward the end Hepola introduces a tape recording she made as a teenager discussing a sexual encounter she had while drunk with a much older boy. Hearing the incredibly young voice of a woman already being drawn into the harmful world of addiction was heartbreaking to listen to and made me want to fix things, even though I wasn’t totally sure how.
This book left me realizing that the reality of women and alcohol has changed, and the cultural narrative needs to catch up with it. Women aren’t drinking in closets to dull their feminine mystique pain anymore. They’re drinking loud and proud because they want to be empowered and taken seriously and yes, even perceived of as cool. While we can talk about finding more positive ways of empowerment, I think it’s also important that we as a culture strive to stop putting innate positive value on the masculine and negative on the feminine. Things should be valued based on their impact on the world and not on the gender norm of who does it. And young women will stop feeling pressured to act like a man when men and women are equally valued. All of these things I am saying play into male drinking as well. If you think zero young men are binge drinking to be seen of as more of a man, you’re very wrong. We just see less of the immediate negative impact of male binge drinking because women black out so much more easily.
Hepola wrote a brave book that illuminates the issue of binge drinking among young women today. It’s both personal and with an eye to the culture as a whole, thinking beyond just the author herself. Readers will be haunted both by the voice of the young Sarah and by the thought of young women seeking to empower themselves actually making themselves more vulnerable. A key read for anyone who works with or cares about these younger generations of women.
5 out of 5 stars
Illness(es) featured: Addictive Disorders
On a far future Earth destroyed by nuclear warfare, most people have reverted to tribal living on the desert. These people rely on roaming healers armed with three snakes whose venom help provide healing relief. Snake is on her first year of bringing roving healing, but when a misunderstanding ends in the death of her dreamsnake, she is determined not to return home to the healers until she finds a way to replace him. It is almost impossible to breed dreamsnakes, but maybe the city will be able to help. The city that keeps the tribes mostly locked out and communicates with the people who live in outer space.
This book made it onto my tbr for three reasons. It’s 1970s scifi by a woman author, known for being feminist, and is supposed to be able to change your mind about snakes. I was surprised to find it on Audible but elated, especially when I heard the sample of the narrator’s voice. She speaks at the perfect speed and tone for my listening taste. What I found, upon listening, was a book that brought everything I had been promised in a unique plot that I still find myself thinking about periodically. It is just so different, and different is good in my scifi.
You can’t talk about this book without talking about the snakes. I have a gut negative reaction to snakes; one that most likely was learned before I have memories, I’m sure. Both my husband and a close friend think snakes are super cute, so I was hoping this book might change my perception to at least be less negative. Interestingly, a key part of the plot revolves around a person minsinterpreting a snake as dangerous and reacting violently to it. Snakes are not seen as not dangerous, just that only certain snakes have truly dangerous venom, and people are encouraged to get immunized against this venom and to be cautious in areas where they might frighten a snake into striking. I came to care about Snake’s snakes and by the end of the book, where there is a scene that normally would have haunted my dreams (it involves someone in a pit full of snakes), I actually was able to react rationally to the situation and be more concerned about the evil of the person who threw the person in the pit and whether the person would be able to get out of the pit eventually than really be concerned about the snakes themselves. The book presents snakes much like other animals. They’re a living creature that can be dangerous or harmless or some mixture of both, and it’s about building your own knowledge so you know how to handle them more so than just being gut afraid of them. If that was all this book gave me, I would have been impressed, but it gave me so much more.
The plot leads through multiple different tribes and cultures, and all are imagined creatively and differently from each other. Cultural understanding is valued but only to the point where the culture is not actively harming innocents. As mentioned earlier, the whole book centers around a cultural misunderstading, and everyone on both sides of it takes responsibility for the situation. There’s a love interest for Snake who seeks to help her but she also helps herself (along with others). There’s a positive representation of adoption, as well as multiple sexualities and women and men both being responsible for birth control. Without giving anything away, the ultimate conclusion is about how changing your viewpoint can bring a solution, which is kind of the other side of the coin of the original cultural misunderstanding. It’s a smart book, largely about how different people interact and how humility and willingness to listen can move everyone forward.
Overall, this is a unique piece of scifi with an engaging plot that will change your mind about snakes. It left me wishing there was a sequel so I could revisit this world.
5 out of 5 stars
Readers who are sensitive to discussions of child rape should be aware it is discussed as something that occurred in the past to a character, although not depicted, and the victim is ultimately empowered.
Audiobook Review: The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Brandon Espinoza and Phoebe Strole)
When a giant spaceship showed up above Earth that wasn’t ours, Cassie and everyone else expected contact. What they didn’t expect was waves of attacks, everything from EMP to disease. Now, she’s at a refugee camp with her father and little brother wondering what the 5th wave of the attack might be. When it comes, will they even know?
I really enjoyed Rick Yancey’s other series (The Monstrumologist, series review). I must admit to being surprised that this is the series that got picked up into a movie. I didn’t find the blurb nearly as intriguing as that of The Monstrumologist. But since I liked the other series so much, I figured I’d give it a shot. While I can see why it’s taken off, I don’t find it to be as well-constructed or nearly as unique as Yancey’s other series.
The beginning of the book is very slow-paced. Cassie is off hiding in the woods on her own and through her diary where she tries to deal with what has happened the reader learns about the waves of the alien invasion. I like a diary book, but the slow pacing just really didn’t work for a book about an alien invasion.
At a certain point, this narration switches for one chapter to that of the perspective of an alien. Then it switches to the perspective of a boy from Cassie’s high school she had a crush on and his experiences with the alien invasion. Later it flips back to Cassie, only it’s now no longer her diary. Her diary just sort of gets dropped. While I can enjoy multiple narrators, I don’t think these are handled as well as they could have been. The chapter from the alien’s perspective ruins any tension or mystery that had been building around a certain event, in particular. Often switching between Cassie and Ben just feels like it’s convenient for world building and not adding very much to the plot. That said, I do like that the “star” position of this YA action is shared between a boy and a girl fairly equally.
The plot, although slow-moving, starts out strong. There is a plot twist that made me roll my eyes and that I think makes this less unique in YA literature than it started out.
Initially it appears that there will be no love triangle but there ends up being one. I can’t go into the details without some big spoilers but I will say that you make it through most of the book without a love triangle, and then there ends up being one in the last bit. It was disappointing, as I thought something more unique was being done (something akin to a crush turning into a real friendship…but that’s not what happens).
Ultimately the book ends up feeling less about aliens and more about the horrors of child soldiers and war stealing childhood. I definitely think scifi can bring a current issue such as this to people’s attention, but I also think the narration and various irritating and/or confusing plot points ultimately weakens the point. I doubt when I was a teen that such a book would have made me think about child soldiers. Instead I would have felt misled by the title and blurb and been irritated about that, distracting from the point.
All of that said, if a YA reader is looking for an apocalyptic setting featuring dual leads instead of one hero, this is a book that will fit that bill. Just be sure the reader is ok with some surprisingly slow-moving portions for a book with an action-packed blurb. However, I would suggest that a YA reader looking for something truly different check out Yancey’s other YA series: The Monstrumologist.
3 out of 5 stars