Publisher/Year: Harper, 2015
What it is: Microbes make up 90% of our bodies and help keep us healthy. However, with the twentieth century diet, we’ve also seen a rise in twentieth century diseases. Collen, a biologist, conveys some of the latest research charting the roles microbes may play in common modern health issues.
Why I read it: I was interested in learning more about microbiomes.
What I thought: Collen does an excellent job of conveying a lot of information in an accessible and engaging way. The book is fascinating and kind of scary; the chapters that center around autism and childbirth are particularly alarming. That said, she also takes a common sense approach in the advice she gives should you decide to try to mend your own microbiome. And the coolest project I heard about? You can DNA sequence your poop to get a picture of what your gut bacteria looks like. Is it TMI to say I’m all about that idea?
Wit by Margaret Edson
Publisher/Year: Faber & Faber, 1999
What it is: A Pulitzer Prize-winning play about an esteemed poetry professor, Dr. Vivian Bearing, who is dying of ovarian cancer. Feared and revered by her students, she’s known for coldly holding everyone to the highest standards. She agrees to brutal experimental treatments to fight her Stage IV cancer, and as she becomes the subject at the teaching hospital, she’s left to reflect on her own past interactions with people.
Why I read it: I saw the HBO adaptation several years ago and have always wanted to read the original play.
What I thought: Even though I already knew what would happen, this was still an emotionally brutal book for me. I think it hit me even more since I was also listening to Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air at the time; the two books have closely related subject matter. Vivian’s reflections and regrets in the way she related to people are poignant; there are parallels in the way she treated her students and the way her doctors are now treating her. As her end draws near, she has to confront many of her values and ideas about the purpose of her life. It’s devastating.
Maeve Fanning and her mother, a widowed Irish immigrant, live in Boston’s impoverished North End. It’s the 1930s and jobs are scarce. Maeve’s mother works long hours as a seamstress and hopes that she’ll one day be promoted to saleswoman, but she knows that’s unlikely; no one would hire an Irish salesperson. As such, all of her hopes are pinned on Maeve to succeed.
A while back, Maeve left her beau and suddenly moved to New York City to start a new life. She tells her mother she’s working for an eccentric millionaire, but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth: she relishes her newfound freedom, develops a taste for the nightlife…and ends up in a psychiatric hospital. She returns to Boston humiliated and determined to keep The Thing that happened in New York a secret.
With the Great Depression worsening, jobs have gotten even more scarce in the North End since Maeve first left. She hears of a job opening at an antiques shop, but she’s in a similar situation as her mother: a high-end shop that caters to Boston’s elite would never hire someone Irish, and Maeve’s name and beautiful red hair are dead giveaways. With a bottle of peroxide, some wardrobe finagling, and considerable pluck, May Fanning now passes herself off as a well-bred woman from Albany. She’s hired, and in the course of her work runs into Diana Van der Laar, a beautiful and troubled socialite who had also been hospitalized in New York. Maeve is terrified about her secret being revealed, but Diana is impishly thrilled. The two settle into a whirlwind friendship, but it’s a high stakes situation for Maeve, who is constantly trying to hide her impoverished Irish roots from her new acquaintances.
Given the current political climate — with a huge abortion access case before Supreme Court, a presidential candidate proposing women be punished for having abortions, and people still in a frenzy over last year’s “sting” videos that were doctored to make Planned Parenthood look as bad as possible — the publication of Ellen Feldman’s Terrible Virtue couldn’t be more timely.
The book is a fictional reimagining of Margaret Sanger’s life. Born into poverty, her father an outspoken atheist and her mother an Irish Catholic, Sanger saw firsthand the toll that constant childbearing had on families. Her own mother died at the age of 49, frail and aged beyond her years after eleven successful pregnancies; she also had several miscarriages. In Feldman’s book, Margaret and two of her sisters vow never to marry or have children. They do not want to end up like their mother.
Spanning from China to Hawaii, Cecily Wong’s debut novel, Diamond Head, follows four generations of the Leong family through wars and betrayals. It’s a saga that takes sees the family through the Boxer Rebellion and World War II, one in which people’s fortunes turn around seemingly overnight. The patriarch of the family is Frank, a savvy businessman in China who disapproves of his brother’s radical inclinations and instead favors stability and wealth. The births and subsequent deaths of his infant daughters are an ominous sign, but the birth of his first son signals a change. Eventually, a move to Hawaii offers their small family a new start and wealth beyond their wildest dreams.
When we first meet the Leong family, however, all of this good fortune is long past. Frank has been dead for over two decades, the victim of a mysterious unsolved murder. The women of the Leong family have gathered for a different funeral altogether, and in their mourning, long-held secrets start spilling out.
Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, Karen Abbott’s latest nonfiction work, tells the story of four women — Elizabeth Van Lew and Emma Edmonds, Belle Boyd, Rose O’Neal Greenhow — who refused to sit idly by and watch the Civil War take its toll. There was little that women could do those days in any official capacity, but each of the women featured in this book, as well as several of their female servants, found a way to actively support their side.
In the Yankees’ corner, the wealthy and well-connected Elizabeth Van Lew was a Union sympathizer living in Confederate territory. She and her brother were abolitionists who treated their servants well and even sent one of them, Mary Jane, off to be formally educated in the North. By orchestrating a well-informed spy ring and finding Mary Jane work in Jefferson and Varina Davis’s home, Van Lew was able to send valuable information to the Union.
Emma Edmonds came from a much more humble background, escaping her abusive father by running away and disguising herself as a man. As Frank Thompson, she enlisted in the Union army, mostly working as a medic, but eventually also working as a spy and a messenger. She saw battle, and save for two confidants, had to keep her true identity a secret; plenty of women posed as male soldiers in order to serve their country and many fought in battle; however, women who were discovered were treated as little more than prostitutes and were cast out in shame. It wasn’t until old injuries flared up in her later years that Emma decided to come clean about her identity; she fought for the pension that male veterans took for granted.