I unwittingly chose to read (by which I mean listen to on audio) Megan Abbott’s new novel The Fever at just the right time — right after I finished Eula Biss’s excellent book On Immunity. On Immunity takes up controversies over vaccines and explores their cultural meanings and is really, truly great. The Fever is, in part, a fictional exploration of our cultural anxieties about vaccines (among other threats), and it’s also great, although it’s an entirely different book — a thrilling, plot-driven novel about hysteria in a small-town high school. One girl has a seizure and goes into a coma and shortly afterward girl after girl gets struck down with terrifying and inexplicable symptoms. As the bodies of the young girls go out of control, the minds of the adults go bonkers as well; they desperately search for a culprit and one likely source is the HPV vaccine recently administered to the students. This, of course, allows them to freak out not only about vaccines, but about adolescent female sexuality, which, of course, parents are perfectly primed to freak out about.
But this is only one possibility — there is also the polluted lake that everyone was supposed to stop swimming in but that some people swam in anyway. And there are many other dangers and pollutants lurking everywhere, in building materials, in processed food, in the air and the ground and everywhere. No one feels safe and no one knows what to do about it. Abbott is really great at capturing what it’s like to be a teenager today (or at least this strikes me, as one who is very much not a teenager, as true) and makes me feel relieved I’m all grown up. She’s particularly good at describing what it’s like to live with modern technology, and interestingly, the characters seem to find it a burden. Their phones never let them forget about gossip and scandals and what everyone else is doing and tie them to people they would prefer to escape. They interrupt the moment with the promise of new information but more often bring only anxiety. As the characters try to sort out the dangers, if any, of something like the HPV vaccine, information on the internet only confuses the issue further.
Fortunately, Abbott’s protagonists are sympathetic and do their best to stay calm and sane in the midst of the uncertainty around them, and this keeps the tone of the book from becoming too dark. The novel is both entertaining, and a good portrayal of some of our current cultural obsessions. This novel, along with On Immunity, make excellent reading for anyone wanting to understand more about the things — vaccinations included — that scare us.
Lots of interesting reading going on around here these days, including:
- Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment. This is my first Ferrante, and probably won’t be my last. It was a strange book, difficult — in the sense of emotionally wrenching — unpleasant, surreal at times. It’s the story of a woman dealing with her husband’s abandonment, and it starts off in what feels like familiar territory but then veers off into unexpected places. I can’t say I enjoyed the book exactly, but I was intrigued by it. The book was unpleasant in a way I’m not entirely sure how I feel about, but this was not entirely bad.
- Sarah Waters’s The Paying Guests. I may have been spoiled for further Sarah Waters books by Fingersmith, which I liked a whole lot. I’ve also read The Night Watch, which was good but not quite as good, and now The Paying Guests was not quite as good as well. I thought the first half was too slowly paced and the direction the plot was heading in was obvious. The second half picked up the pace a lot, which was good, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the entire thing needed more shaping and editing. I was reasonably happy reading this — Waters is good at what she does — but I wanted more. I read Waters to get immersed in a good story, and she sometimes delivers that, but this was uneven.
- Matthew Salesses’s I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying. This one was intriguing. It’s a fairly short book, and is described as a novel written in flash fiction, or “short-shorts,” which sounds kind of gimmicky, but it worked really well. There are 115 short chapters, usually only part of a page long, describing a man’s experience as he finds out about and meets his five-year-old son. It’s a first-person narration from this man’s point of view, and he is straightforward about his many affairs and infidelities and all his other character flaws. There’s something about his voice that is compelling in spite of all his unpleasantness. But mostly it’s the writing that makes this book so good. Each chapter is a self-contained unit that’s a little like a poem in its richness. I wanted to slow down and read each piece slowly so as not to miss anything.
I haven’t posted about cycling here in ages, but I’m still out there riding, off and on. Of course, it’s much trickier to ride now that there is a toddler in the house. Hobgoblin and I go on rides together MUCH less often than we used to. And it’s also tricky to ride when you’re getting ready to move, and then moving, and then recovering from the move, as we did last spring and early summer. I didn’t ride at all from last October until this April, and then I didn’t ride regularly until June. But in the last couple months I’ve ridden at least twice each week and in the last few weeks I’ve ridden four times a week. I’m nearing 1,000 miles for the year, which is pitiful given that my best year was nearly 6,400 miles. But still. Riding is as important to me as ever, even if I don’t do it as much; I always feel better when I’ve ridden and I love getting in shape. The few moments when I feel strong out on the road are wonderful.
About racing, though … I don’t miss racing at all, and I’m not sure if I’ll do it again next year or in whatever year I feel I’m finally in good enough shape. If I don’t like it, I shouldn’t do it, right? Yes, but. It provides great motivation and a goal to work toward, it makes me really, really strong, and my friends do it and pressure me into doing it. I can be hopeless when it comes to certain kinds of peer pressure.
But that’s not a worry for now, as I’m far, far from racing shape. Now I am just happy to be out there riding, watching the seasons change.