On Immunity: An Inoculation
Eula Biss, Graywolf, 206 pages
“The womb is sterile,” Eula Biss observes in “On Immunity: An Inoculation,” “and so birth is the original inoculation.” It is in the passage from our mothers’ bodies that we are first exposed to the germs and microbes that both threaten and, in many ways, define us – without which we cannot survive.
“We have more microorganisms in our guts,” Biss writes, “than we have cells in our bodies – we are crawling with bacteria and we are full of chemicals. We are, in other words, continuous with everything here on earth. Including, and especially, each other.” That’s the point of this intelligent book, which occupies a space between research and reflection, investigating our attitudes toward immunity and inoculation through a personal and cultural lens.
Inspired by the birth of her son and subsequent encounters with parents opposed to vaccination, Biss moves from folklore to epidemiology to literature, riffing on mercury and autism, paranoia and politics. She is a vigorous advocate for inoculation.
Meg Wolitzer, Dutton, 266 pages
Jam Gallahue is one of five teenage protagonists attending a New England boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent students.” They meet in a class called “Special Topics in English,” where their teacher announces they will read “The Bell Jar” and other works by Sylvia Plath, surprising choices for those who are easily bruised. The students are also instructed to write in a journal twice a week.
Jam has shut down after the death of her boyfriend. For much of the class, Jam shares only superficial details, but the reader is allowed to relive parts of her romance as she imagines their moments together. Their attraction seems intense; their devotion, complete.
Jam’s classmates include Griffin, good-looking “but in a hostile way”; Sierra, an African-American girl who dances and looks model perfect; Marc, president of the student council and captain of the debate team; and Casey, new to a wheelchair. It will not surprise you to learn that they gradually share their stories of pain.