Monthly Archives: September 2014

The Strange, Split ‘Selfie’ Pilot


Social Media superstar Eliza Dooley has 263,000 followers who hang on to her every post, tweet and selfie. But she needs help from Henry (John Cho).i
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Social Media superstar Eliza Dooley has 263,000 followers who hang on to her every post, tweet and selfie. But she needs help from Henry (John Cho).

Nicole Wilder/ABC


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Social Media superstar Eliza Dooley has 263,000 followers who hang on to her every post, tweet and selfie. But she needs help from Henry (John Cho).

Social Media superstar Eliza Dooley has 263,000 followers who hang on to her every post, tweet and selfie. But she needs help from Henry (John Cho).

Nicole Wilder/ABC

The pilot of the ABC show Selfie, starring Karen Gillan and John Cho in a Pygmalion update built on the notion that being obsessed with Twitter is the new Flawed But Fixable Personality Problem, is only about 22 minutes long — a little less. Given that pilots always have to contain a certain amount of pure exposition, that barely seems like enough time for the pilot to have both good parts and bad parts.

But it does. Specifically, the first half is really awful and the second half is like watching a lighter flicked and flicked and flicked, where it refuses to produce a flame but feels like it could.

When we first meet Eliza Dooley (sigh), she is literally flight-y. She is traveling for work with a bunch of her colleagues, including disapproving stick in the mud Henry, who laments the fact that “her generation” (Cho, in fact, 15 years older than Gillan, though they don’t really read that way) is obsessed with social media. Eliza explains to the audience that her embrace of online friends is the result of her difficulty making other friends, and that her desire for attention comes from deep loneliness — something the show could perhaps have drawn out rather than announced, but: bygones.

In part, the first half of the pilot fails because Eliza is an idiot and Henry is boring. Despite being played by two of the most charismatic and likable actors you’re ever going to see in a show like this, the characters are both flat and dry as Saltine crackers. And speaking of Saltine crackers, I have no idea whose idea it was to practically lead off the pilot with a truly disgusting sequence centered around the bursting of (very full) airsick bags, but when you have yet to earn anyone’s respect with actual jokes, it’s much too soon to resort to bags of vomit for comedy.

But life is never entirely simple, and neither is Selfie. After the disastrous flight during which she utterly humiliated herself, and after a few other experiences that convince her that her life needs a do-over, Eliza asks Henry to coach her, to improve her personality, and for some reason (blah blah blah, put your fingers in your ears and pretend it makes sense), he agrees to help. And darn it, there begin to be moments of real fun and goofy satire, as when Eliza can’t find anyone to give her advice because “all the girls I knew were either drunk or at SoulCycle.”

It is one of the fundamental tensions in romantic comedy that it’s not a lot of fun to follow one where one of the characters is stupid, but you can do very well where one of the characters is, for lack of a better word, daffy. It’s hard to swallow that Henry actually has to teach her to ask other people how they’re doing, but when Gillan wraps her voice around “How are you?” in the particular way she does, I will admit: it raises a smile.

This is not a good pilot, but it should be a good show. It really should be. The leads are funny and charming, they have great chemistry, and creator Emily Kapnek also made Suburgatory, a weird, warm little comedy that blended satire and good nature the way she’s trying to do here. Inside of this, there is a good show that (1) can be found and (2) wants to exist. But to get out, they need a lot less speechifying about social media, a lot less barf, and a lot more of these two characters talking to each other outside the context of her being lectured for stupidity. That better show, I am telling you, is in there.

As the hashtag would say, #freeselfie.

‘Gone Girl,’ Take Two: The Very, Very Spoiled Edition


Rosamund Pike plays Amy Dunne, whose mysterious disappearance turns her husband into a murder suspect.i
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Rosamund Pike plays Amy Dunne, whose mysterious disappearance turns her husband into a murder suspect.

Merrick Morton/Twentieth Century Fox


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Rosamund Pike plays Amy Dunne, whose mysterious disappearance turns her husband into a murder suspect.

Rosamund Pike plays Amy Dunne, whose mysterious disappearance turns her husband into a murder suspect.

Merrick Morton/Twentieth Century Fox

Please understand that this post contains information about the plot of Gone Girl that has the capacity to rob it of many of its best and most delicious surprises for anyone not already aware of them. It’s most appropriate for people who have already either read the book or seen the film, or for people who don’t plan to read the book or see the film, or for people who don’t like to be surprised, or for people who read the Wikipedia summary of a mystery before they watch it, or for people who hate having a good time.

You have been warned.

Are you still here? I’m telling you. You’ve been warned.

There is a moment most of the way through David Fincher’s adaptation of Gone Girl in which Amy (Rosamund Pike) watches her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) on television as he both tries to manipulate the public into seeing him more kindly and tries to manipulate her into coming home, since he has realized that her disappearance is something she engineered to frame him. He knows what she’s done, and she knows he knows. But she also knows that unless she comes home, he stands a decent chance of being executed for her murder. She has all the power, and they both know it, and he is ready to submit.

And so she sits there on the couch beside Desi (Neil Patrick Harris) — poor, doomed Desi — and gradually, she becomes transfixed by Nick’s performance. In the book, this reawakens in Amy some of her affection, such as it is, for her husband. She tells us that she and Nick “fit together,” and ends the section, “I need to get home to him.”

But the film, because it cannot rely entirely on the language of the book, does not give you that. Instead, it gives you Rosamund Pike’s face as she leans forward and watches. The expression on her face contains everything: her shock that he is calling her out, her satisfaction that he now knows she’s beaten him, her fascination with the game he’s playing, and most of all, her sudden hunger for him.

Playing Amy Dunne is an extraordinary challenge, simply because she is a murdering, ice-blooded psychopath who must be that person from the beginning but must not seem to be that person until the halfway point. When she reveals herself, when she greets the audience in her true form and explains how she’s duped them — along with the police — with her diary, there must be a certain plausibility to it.

People who write about gender politics have wildly differing opinions on Amy: Some see her as a blisteringly alive, sickly fascinating character who’s both a monstrous manipulator and a brilliant commentator, particularly on gender politics in relationships. Others see her as, by the end, a cartoon, living down to every silly idea about women as naturally devious shrews who arrange pregnancies to get their own way and pretend they have been abused when they have not been.

What has always kept Amy from troubling me in this particular sense is that she does the things she does not because they are in her nature as a woman, but because they are in her nature as a psychopath. One of the problems with the relative paucity of interesting female characters is that they become responsible for representing all women, for speaking to What Women Are Like. The more scantly represented any demographic group is, the more each person seems to reflect upon everyone. But here, it has always been perfectly clear that Amy is an aberration. She is a woman, but she is not only a woman. She is also a monster, and the second half of Fincher’s film is, in many ways, a horror movie about the great difficulty — and eventually the impossibility — of defeating her. She is the rare monster in a monster movie who wins at the end. Whatever she has to do, however offensive, however distasteful, however horrifying. Whatever.

It is in Amy’s specific, defined character that she will do anything. She is that smart, that angry and that unfettered by conscience. It would not be realistic to suggest that she, given the person she is made out to be, would not do these things, would not think of these things. It is not her lack of conscience or her ruthlessness that is gendered; it is the way she expresses those things as a result of her very much gendered life. Amy’s pathology plays out in the fields of marriage and childbirth because that is where she sees herself having a chance to attain power. That’s where the high stakes are, and a person as angry and intelligent as Amy knows how to locate the highest possible stakes.

I have heard people say they feel let down by the second half of the book, because the first half is so subtle and complicated, and the second half is Crazy Amy versus Poor Poor Nick. But it’s not really, is it? Don’t we believe that while Nick is being set up for this, he is not only an unfaithful husband but also an inconsiderate, shallow fool who married a woman who is at the very least much smarter than he is? Isn’t Nick kind of overmatched by Amy in lots and lots of ways, some of which are merit-based, even though she is a dangerous criminal?

That’s why Pike’s performance in the film is so strong and so correct: She commits completely to both Amy’s complete amorality and her insightful intelligence. It’s hard not to think, at least sometimes, “If she were wired to have empathy rather than to have none and to murder people, she’d probably be fun to be friends with.” While the famous Cool Girl passage in the book is pared down, it does appear, and even in its shortened form, it remains an incisive analysis of some very real patterns that Amy is articulate enough to call out as well as smart enough to notice.

Affleck, too, makes Nick both sympathetic and kind of gross. His interactions with the student he’s been sleeping with make him look callous, thoughtless and almost as capable as Amy of jettisoning inconvenient people. Furthermore, when his sister Go (played beautifully by Carrie Coon) despairingly tells him that deep down, he wants Amy in spite of everything, it’s believable. Affleck submits to Nick’s fundamental weakness as a person, to the easily accessible flaws that Amy has been studying until she knew exactly how to manipulate them. The movie commits less than the book to the idea that Nick accepts his own desire to return to his horror show of a marriage, but the sense of mutual addiction to this relationship still seeps from the almost intolerably bleak ending.

There were rumors early on that Flynn might change the ending in adapting the screenplay, which I know I personally interpreted through a lens of fear that the movie would step back from that bleakness. Part of me wondered even as I watched the film whether it might end differently — whether it would turn out like Fatal Attraction, with domestic order restored after the elimination of the Inconvenient Terrible Woman. But rest assured: The film is true to the book, including its controversial, not entirely satisfying ending, which dangles its feet over the edge of ridiculousness even if you believe it does not go over that edge.

It’s the film the book deserved, I think: carefully directed with respect for its mystery and suspense/horror elements, led by a fine cast, and able to take advantage of the fact that because a film must elide certain things that are made explicit in a character-narration-driven novel, the ambiguity in people may even increase. We know less about Nick here than we do in the novel, because he tells us less. Because he’s so much more opaque, he can be that much more surprising. It seemed almost impossible that the structure of the book could be followed and made into a good, satisfying movie, but that’s what they did.

Book News: First-Ever Kirkus Prize Picks 18 Finalists


The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

Clear some space at this season’s awards festivities: It’s time to make room for 18 more writers. This morning, Kirkus Reviews shared with NPR the finalists for its first annual writing award, the Kirkus Prize — six writers each in fiction, nonfiction and young readers’ literature.

A laurel wreathi
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A laurel wreath

Among the finalists in fiction, Ethiopian-American writer — and former MacArthur fellow — Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names joins Welsh author Sarah Waters, whose novel The Paying Guests is “one of the most sensual you will ever read,” according to NPR reviewer Julia Keller. Meanwhile, on the nonfiction side, finalists include Thomas Piketty, whose debate-stirring Capital in the Twenty-First Century has long stayed on the best-seller charts, and Roz Chast’s illustrated memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

The books recognized for achievement in young readers’ literature range from picture books such as Kate Samworth’s gorgeous and sardonic Aviary Wonders to Don Mitchell’s civil rights history The Freedom Summer Murders.

Into a crowded awards season, Kirkus Reviews has tossed the heft of its 81-year history — and perhaps more notably, the weight of its wallet. With a purse of $50,000 for the winner of each category, the award joins the ranks of the Man Booker Prize and the Folio Fiction Prize — itself a recent arrival on the awards scene — as one of the richest literary prizes available to English-language writers.

To be considered, shortlisters first had to receive a starred review from one of Kirkus’ reviewers, at which point the books were automatically brought before three separate groups of judges — judges such as author Sloane Crosley, who served on the nonfiction panel.

In an email exchange with NPR, Crosley explained that in the award’s inaugural year, it was the judges’ responsibility to “set the tenor” of what the annual prize would become.

“We looked for topical variety and stellar writing, books that were wall-to-wall with research, often groundbreaking research, that told their stories in a fascinating way,” she said. “Or books that were heartfelt and human but also filled with all the information needed to make us feel like we got the fullest story and the best possible delivery of that story.”

In addition to Mengestu and Waters, the full list of fiction finalists includes Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, Lily King’s Euphoria, Brian Morton’s Florence Gordon and Bill Roorbach’s The Remedy for Love.

Beyond Piketty and Chast, the nonfiction list also recognizes Leo Damrosch’s biography Jonathan Swift, Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy and Amanda Marie Leroi’s The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science.

And joining Samworth and Mitchell are young readers’ literature finalists Cece Bell’s El Deafo, Jack Gantos’ The Key that Swallowed Joey Pigza, Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet’s The Right Word and E.K. Johnston’s The Story of Owen, Dragon Slayer of Trondheim.

Winners will be announced at a ceremony on Oct. 23, just before the start of the Texas Book Festival in Austin.

Remember These Folks? Well, we have a winner of the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize: Shawn Vestal’s collection Godforsaken Idaho, which you can hear him reading here.

A Farewell In Wales: Welsh poet and novelist Dannie Abse died Sunday at the age of 91. In a remembrance in The Guardian, Vernon Scannell writes of Abse’s poetry: “It offers entertainment, deep feeling and thought, and its own quirky and memorable music.” And in The Telegraph, Charlotte Runcie reminds us of some of Abse’s best-known lines. This, from “Anniversary,” appears particularly fitting:

“What happens to a flame blown out?

What perishes? Only the view,

never my magnified hand in yours”

In A Desolate Montana, ‘The Ploughmen’ Unearths Dark Truths


Valentine Millimaki, a sheriff’s deputy in central Montana, is the officer who’s called upon whenever someone goes missing. In the past, he has found people either safe or clinging to life, if barely. But for over a year, he’s only found corpses, dead of exposure or suicide or murder. “Valentine Millimaki did not bring back angels,” writes novelist Kim Zupan in The Ploughmen, “No, I did not, he thought. Souls did not aspire on his watch to safety or heaven but came trestled roughly from the dark woods, trapped in the alabaster statuary of rigid flesh.”

Millimaki’s job is coming close to costing him his sanity and his marriage, and it gets worse when he’s assigned to a new detail: the night shift at the jail, where a hardened killer named John Gload is being held during his trial. “Gload seemed capable of kindness, but it may have been just a kind of vestigial feature,” writes Zupan. But he’s something like kind to Millimaki, and the deputy and the murderer forge an uneasy relationship, approaching warmth, even as snow blankets the whole county, producing even more bodies, unable to escape the freeze.

The Ploughmen isn’t an easy book to read. That’s not because of Zupan’s prose, which is self-assured and beautiful. It’s because it explores the line between good and evil in a manner that’s as honest as it is unsettling.

Zupan’s novel begins with a scene from Millimaki’s childhood. He sees a note in his family’s kitchen, written by his mother and intended for his father. “Darling — Come alone to the shed,” it reads. The young boy, frightened and confused, finds his mother hanging from a noose. Later, Gload will confide in the deputy that he also lost his father at a young age; he was caught in a snowstorm, frozen to death before he could find help.

Both men suffer from insomnia, both have troubled relationships. But there aren’t many other similarities between the two. While Millimaki dedicates his life to saving the living, or when he can’t, recovering their bodies, Gload has dedicated his to murder, killing people and selling their belongings. When Gload starts engaging Millimaki in long conversations at night, the killer in his cell and the deputy outside, Millimaki is too enervated to resist.

The Ploughmen is a remarkable novel, beautifully executed and dark as pitch. It’s almost hard to believe that it’s a debut — Zupan is a carpentry teacher who’s previously worked as a fisherman and rodeo rider. He grew up in central Montana, and it’s clear he knows the landscape well. His descriptions of the country are stunning: “It was dark among the trees … the snow lay deep and untrammeled, lit softly blue from the quarter moon and the stars swarming in the cloudless vault above the peaks.”

He’s equally gifted at considering the uneasy relationship that lies at the novel’s core. There’s no logical reason that a young strait-laced sheriff’s deputy and an elderly killer would confide in each other, develop something approaching a friendship. Unless there is: In a sparse, barely-populated part of the country, maybe there aren’t many other options. “It’s hard to be alone,” thinks Millimaki at one point. “In this country, it’s just hard to be alone.”

The Ploughmen is an intensely Western novel, though not in the Zane Grey/Louis L’Amour sense of the word. There are no white and black hats, no good guys chasing bad guys on horseback. It’s a portrait of the West as a sometimes desolate and cold place, full of possibility, maybe, but also full of danger from every corner. It’s a modern West, caught between the romance of the frontier and the mundane, harsh realities of living in the present day United States.

And it’s absolutely beautiful, from its tragic opening scene to its tough, necessary end. Zupan is an unsparing writer, but also a generous, deeply compassionate one, and the relationship between Millimaki and Gload is one of the most troubling, truest ones in recent American fiction. The Ploughmen is, finally, a novel about the fine line between fight and surrender — which is sometimes the same line between life and death.

‘Gone Girl': A Missing Wife And A Cloud Of Suspicion


Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) finds himself the chief suspect behind the shocking disappearance of his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike), on their fifth anniversary.i
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Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) finds himself the chief suspect behind the shocking disappearance of his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike), on their fifth anniversary.

Merrick Morton/Twentieth Century Fox


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Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) finds himself the chief suspect behind the shocking disappearance of his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike), on their fifth anniversary.

Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) finds himself the chief suspect behind the shocking disappearance of his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike), on their fifth anniversary.

Merrick Morton/Twentieth Century Fox

At the opening of Gone Girl, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) is literally a man on the street. Standing by his trashcans in the half-light of an early morning at his gorgeous Missouri home in a T-shirt and sweatpants, he is what might be mistaken for “comfortable,” but he is painfully, powerfully ordinary. And in keeping with the title, he is about to learn that his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), is missing. Suspicious to both the authorities and the audience, Nick has lost his wife to either an act of violence he committed or an act of violence he did not commit. He is no longer ordinary; he is either a monster or a misunderstood victim of circumstance.

The story proceeds as a pair of alternating narratives: we follow Nick in the present as he describes to the investigating officers a challenging but basically good marriage, while Amy recounts in her diary, in parallel, a blissful courtship followed by increasingly dark flashes of trouble. We watch Nick tell the police and his sister things we know from peeking at Amy’s diary are not true. It begins to dawn, in fits and starts, that the Nick we saw standing in the street was not the entire Nick.

It seemed almost impossible that director David Fincher and original novelist Gillian Flynn, who wrote the adapted screenplay herself, could hang on to the 2012 book’s uncommon and disorienting structure, but they do. Seeing the film feels much like reading the book: they achieve the same gasps, the same moments of sudden and giddy understanding. They solve the problem inherent in every mystery: that it will be solved, but it cannot be until the final page, because once it is, the tension will slacken irreparably absent a series of false endings. In the film, as in the book, the opposite happens. Information is gained, sometimes in sudden gulps, but when it is, there is no deflation; only an exhilarating newness.

The story calls for such unrelenting work with mood, though, that there are times when it feels in danger of stalling to gaze at its own blue-gray color palette. Fincher loves his Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross scores, too, and while the dreamlike, woozy music in the first part of the film has just the right unnerving constancy, it seems at times to admit too little silence.

But if the production is slightly too atmospheric, the performances are bracingly specific, led by Affleck, whose task is complex. What drives any effective portrayal of Nick is that you must be able to believe that he could be a malevolent sort of pent-up guy, or he could be a middle-of-the-road lousy-husband guy, or he could be a truly put-upon and largely blameless guy. You must, no matter how hard you peer at him, find it hard to tell. You must be unable to choose an answer even after you know the answer. He has to have an almost existentially untrustworthy quality, so much so that you don’t even trust any instinct you may have that he’s not to be trusted. He has to be, to Amy, both charismatic and disappointing, and he has to be, to us, maybe innocent and maybe guilty but naggingly unseemly either way. It is the greasy sheen on Nick’s personality, combined with something sympathetic in his insistence that he’s innocent, that makes the movie run.

And that is where Ben Affleck’s sweet spot is. Like Hugh Grant, he flounders dully when people try to get him to play anybody too unambiguously nice; he leans on his grin and his ingratiating shrug, and he gives off a generous whiff of distasteful entitlement. But allowed a bit of early-middle-age moping and resentment that’s built into the character, allowed to play a more questionable person, he’s more human. His work here is taut and controlled, and he beautifully translates details from the book like Nick’s tendency to smile at cameras even while surrounded by the theater of tragedy – a tendency that’s either an unfortunate disadvantage that makes him seem guilty or a crucial tell that he is guilty. (Seeing this kind of detail on screen – the kind that’s tough to understand until you see a living person do it – goes a long way to justify the film adaptation’s existence.)

Rosamund Pike’s performance is much harder to talk about, because she’s the co-lead of the film despite the fact that Amy is gone. It is Amy who must come into focus gradually, and it is Amy whose disappearance must eventually be solved, and whose story will have to be closed from there. It is adequate to say that playing Amy in the dual narratives that she and Nick offer is an enormous challenge. It’s not quite the pop-culture staple of Rashomon, but reconciling Amy from Nick’s telling and Amy from the diary – and the two Nicks with whom those Amys live – becomes key to understanding what happened to Amy and whether she will or will not ever be found.

I think it is not spoiling too much to say that there are really two movies curled around each other in Gone Girl: one part built on the tropes of mystery and one part drawn from the traditions of suspense and horror. There is more subtlety in the first, more focus on the fine points of how marriages bend lovingly and warp dangerously. The second story is more an unsheathed weapon, wielded extravagantly, in which whatever is wrong, whatever made Amy be gone, must be confronted, whether it’s internal or external to her husband. Fincher’s handling of both is appropriately creepy and nicely paced – the movie is two and a half hours long and never drags.

While this is largely a two-person dance (of people spending much of their time apart), supporting performers, including the fabulous Carrie Coon as Nick’s fretting twin sister and a surprisingly relaxed turn from Tyler Perry as Nick’s attorney, put in good work. Neil Patrick Harris as a former boyfriend of Amy’s makes for an offbeat piece of casting given the other roles he’s played, and while it’s an almost impenetrable performance, it seems intentionally so.

But ultimately, Gone Girl runs on the diabolical, inventive, sometimes unhinged genius of its story. It is constantly pressing on the edges of tropes until they show weakness – the tough detective, the dirty lawyer, the sweet wife and worried husband – and then cramming sticks of dynamite into the cracks and lighting them for kicks. Fincher being Fincher, it’s a fine-looking, carefully crafted, meticulous piece of filmmaking full of shots that beg to be admired until they are almost but not quite ostentatious, including the very first one of the film, in which the back of Amy’s head is obliquely referenced as a thing to be cradled, struck, and ultimately dismantled – the better to understand it, of course.

It is fine filmmaking. It is fine acting. But this is, in the end, a story-driven movie, and what makes it work is that Flynn and Fincher together have told the ever-loving heck out of this scary, weird tale, with respect for the pitch-black (really, really pitch-black) humor that occasionally oozes from its pores. They are acting here as social commentators on the topics of gender and marriage and media (it’s just hard to explore that without giving too much away), but they’re also acting as campfire legend-spinners. This one time, there was this man, and he called the police and said that his wife was missing.

Vaccine Controversies Are As Social As They Are Medical


Daniela Chavarriaga holds her daughter Emma as Dr. Jose Rosa-Olivares administers a measles vaccination at Miami Children's Hospital.i
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Daniela Chavarriaga holds her daughter Emma as Dr. Jose Rosa-Olivares administers a measles vaccination at Miami Children’s Hospital.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images


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Daniela Chavarriaga holds her daughter Emma as Dr. Jose Rosa-Olivares administers a measles vaccination at Miami Children's Hospital.

Daniela Chavarriaga holds her daughter Emma as Dr. Jose Rosa-Olivares administers a measles vaccination at Miami Children’s Hospital.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

When essayist Eula Biss was pregnant with her son, she decided she wanted to do just a bit of research into vaccination. “I thought I would do a small amount of research to answer some questions that had come up for me,” she tells NPR’s Audie Cornish. “And the questions just got bigger the more I learned and the more I read.”

In the U.S., vaccination rates are high; for measles, mumps and rubella, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 90 percent of infants receive vaccinations. The vaccination of children born between 1994 and 2013 will prevent 322 million illnesses, according to the CDC.

But resistance to vaccination has existed nearly as long as vaccination itself. And Biss found that questions about vaccination were also questions about environmentalism, citizenship and trust in the government. Biss traces some of this history in a series of essays called On Immunity: An Inoculation.

Interview Highlights

On finding “middle ground” in a highly politicized issue

In writing this book, I became very wary of the idea of a middle ground. What I saw when I was doing research is that in pursuit of a middle ground, people will kind of split the difference between the two extremes that they’re hearing. And I think what’s problematic is that people are seeing vaccinating on schedule, on time as an extreme position. So they’re splitting the difference between that and the other extreme — which is not vaccinating at all — and doing partial or spaced-out vaccinations. And I’m not actually convinced that that’s a viable middle ground.

On “splitting the difference between information and misinformation”

There’s a great blog, Science-Based Medicine — and one of the writers on that blog pointed out that when you split the difference between information and misinformation, you still end up with misinformation. So I think there are situations where a middle ground is not desirable. Though I’m the kind of thinker who’s very drawn to compromises and to nuances, I think in this particular area, the position that is sometimes seen as extreme — which is vaccinating a child fully and on time — I’ve come to believe is not an extreme position. I think that protecting children at the age where they’re most vulnerable against diseases that are highly contagious is prudent.

On whether the medical community has done enough to educate the public and counter misinformation

I think they’re working very hard and I think there are some great minds going at it. But I think that sometimes what the medical community is doing is too limited. And I don’t think that’s necessarily their fault. They’re often addressing medical questions. And I don’t think that this debate is always a medical debate — I think it’s actually often not a medical debate. I think it’s often a social debate. And I think that people’s resistance to vaccination isn’t going to disappear until we address some of the non-medical reasons for that resistance and people’s discomfort and distrust of the government. That’s bigger than what most medical professionals can handle.

Eula Biss is also the author of Notes From No Man's Land and The Balloonists.i
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Eula Biss is also the author of Notes From No Man’s Land and The Balloonists.

Graywolf Press


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Graywolf Press

Eula Biss is also the author of Notes From No Man's Land and The Balloonists.

Eula Biss is also the author of Notes From No Man’s Land and The Balloonists.

Graywolf Press

On the way distrust of the government affects the way parents view vaccination

Yeah, and this isn’t the only country where you see that causing a problem. There are countries where it’s a much bigger problem, and those tend to be countries where the political situation is much worse than it is here. Nigeria and Pakistan are two countries that have had a lot of trouble with polio. And part of the reason is that there’s a lot of political unrest and people really distrust what the government is doing. That has an effect on people’s health and it has an effect on the health of children. And so, this is one more reason for us to be invested in good political systems, because it’s a public health concern.

On how to understand the modern anti-vaccination movement

There are so many different reasons people don’t vaccinate that I’m not even sure it can be looked at as a cohesive movement. Some people have concerns that are really health-based and some people are resisting capitalism when they resist vaccination. Some people are resisting what they feel is the corrupt pharmaceutical system and corrupt medical system. So there are all kinds of different angles here and I do think I came to understand all of them better through this research. And I also came to understand my own reservations better.

On making choices for her own son

Really, the project of this book — it’s a social critique, but it started out as a self-critique. I was curious about why I, myself, was reluctant to vaccinate my son. And that did give me some insight into why other people aren’t vaccinating. I would prefer for my son to have as little medical care as possible, as little contact with the medical system as possible. I think vaccination is actually one way to try to help ensure that — making sure that he doesn’t get something like pneumonia that might mean a hospital stay, where things will be done to him that will make me uncomfortable or that he will be treated in a way that might feel excessive to me. I think the best way for me to keep him out of that system is to engage in this highly effective preventative medicine.

Novelist Caitlin Moran Wryly Shows ‘How To Build A Girl’


Caitlin Moran’s weekly column for The Times, has gained fans all across the U.K. With humor and a wry, self-deprecating wit, she writes on a wide range of topics that include government, technology, beauty and pop culture — all of which become, under her feisty gaze, feminist issues. “I rant about the welfare state, library closures and poverty,” she explains on her website, “like a s – – – Dickens or Orwell, but with tits.” And this irreverent summary, casually smutty, very funny, and barely disguising a serious intent, is the perfect introduction to her novel, How to Build a Girl.

The story opens in 1990 in Wolverhampton, a city in the English West Midlands. Johanna Morrigan is 14 years old and knows there has to be more to life than her small existence now offers. Her father is an unemployed would-be rock star, her mother is suffering from depression and young Johanna has more childcare duties (she has two brothers and there are twin babies to care for, too) and financial worries than a teenager should have to take on. She also has dreams of finding a way out.

Johanna’s concerns are, in some ways, those of any teenager longing for popularity, love, fame and recognition of their hidden talents. But living in a working class family, in a deprived neighbourhood with few prospects, she’s not quite sure how to go about fulfilling those dreams. Meanwhile, she tells us early on, “Today, like every other day, I’m going to go to bed still a fat virgin who writes her diary in a series of imaginary letters to sexy Gilbert Blythe from Anne of Green Gables.”

Due to her family’s economic hardship, Johanna decides that it is up to her to find a way to make some money. A very public humiliation that results from her initial efforts spurs her to reinvent herself, to become the person she is sure she was meant to be. “I want to be a self-made woman. I want to conjure myself out of every sparkling, fast-moving thing I can see,” she declares, “I want to be the creator of me. I’m gonna begat myself.” First, she’ll change her name. This, then, is how to build a girl: find a cause; identify your image; let nothing stand in your way.

Moran is also the author of the bestselling memoir How to Be a Woman. This new book reads very much like Moran’s own autobiography, exaggerated for effect. Dolly Wilde — as Johanna christens herself — lands a job as a freelance music journalist, travels to London, has lots of sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a fast-paced tale of a working class girl whose brains and way with words, and her sheer grit, ensure her escape and her success.

Moran never loses touch with what seemed to me an authentic and believably teenage voice — from the self-obsessed navel gazing nature of Dolly’s reflections to the exaggerated emotional responses and flights of fancy. At times, the tone does become a little too breathless and over-excited. But, as any mother who has despaired of the sharp intake of breath and “OMG!” exhalation that accompanies the most banal of observations by an adolescent girl could tell you, this too is probably true to life. Moran manages to poke fun at her young alter ego just as she elicits the reader’s sympathy.

The joy of this easy-read novel is not just the scrappy protagonist. As Dolly navigates her new life going to gigs and parties in London, and as we are reminded of the fate of her family back in Wolverhampton, Moran makes strong statements about social inequality and gender throughout. In one particularly moving — and uncharacteristically restrained — moment, Dolly tells the reader: “my biggest secret of all — the one I would rather die than tell, the one I wouldn’t even put in my diary — is that I really, truly, in my heart, want to be beautiful. I want to be beautiful so much — because it will keep me safe, and keep me lucky, and it’s too exhausting not to be.” Even as she finds her way into womanhood, Dolly is beset by self-doubt and consumed by a negative body image. She may be living the feminist creed, but building yourself is never going to be an easy task.

How to Build a Girl is, in essence, a very British story about class and social privilege. American readers may have to work a little to get the sly social references and regional English. But it’s well worth the effort. Dolly quits school at 16 — she’s making enough money now and can’t see any benefit to an education that seems designed to constrain rather than inspire — and the daily drama of her life with her parents, two brothers and the infant twins, trundles on. There are real moments of tenderness in her relationship with her brothers, Krissi and Lupin, and in the relentless optimism of her failed-musician father.

Dolly makes a name for herself writing destructive, acerbic reviews and by the end of the book (several reckless adventures, broken relationships and a wild tour of the music of the early ’90s later), she is on the way to reinventing herself again as she moves to London permanently. This is — thank goodness — no tidy happily-ever-after. Instead Moran leaves the reader with the sense that once a girl takes responsibility for building herself there is always more to learn, the job is never done. She is a glorious work in progress.

Ellah Allfrey is an editor and critic. She lives in London.

Book Review: ‘All The Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid’


Copyright © 2014 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In May 1987, Sen. Gary Hart stepped up to a microphone and pulled out of the race for president. Hart spoke not only about his decision, but about a sea change he perceived in how the media covered national politics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARY HART: I guess I’ve become some kind of a rare bird – some extraordinary creature that has to be dissected by those who analyze politics to find out what makes them tick.

SIEGEL: That that sort of dissection of candidates is no longer rare. NPR commentator and former Nightline anchor Ted Koppel has this review of a new book that tells the story of Gary Hart’s downfall and how it resonates today.

TED KOPPEL, BYLINE: It’s hard to remember now, but there was a time when the issue of a candidate’s marital infidelity simply didn’t come up in a political campaign and – believe it or not – wasn’t addressed by the media. Times have changed. And Matt Bai, who is an experienced political reporter, believes he can pinpoint almost precisely when that change took place. It was 1987, and the odds on favorite to win the nomination of the Democratic Party as its candidate for president was Gary Hart.

Hart, for those of you too young to remember, was the tall, lean, handsome, super smart senator from Colorado. Hart was way ahead in the polls until reports of adultery surfaced. Later, the National Enquirer published a happy snapshot of the senator with an attractive young women on his lap. Sen. Hart was married, but not to the woman on his lap. It didn’t help that the two of them had just taken an overnight cruise on a boat called Monkey Business.

Prior to 1987, the establishment media didn’t touch that kind of story. This time, for reasons that Matt Bai covers in great detail, was different. Even before the photographs surfaced, Hart withdrew from the campaign. Bai clearly likes and admires Hart. His book resonates for regret for what might’ve been and disdain for what has happened to the world of politics and journalism.

Three and a half months after shutting down his presidential run, Sen. Hart reconsidered and appeared with me on Nightline prior to re-entering the campaign. Although the issue of adultery had forced Hart out of the race, he had never addressed it directly. This time, he did. In response to my question, Hart conceded cheating on his wife.

He would not, he said, get into specifics. I have been made to make a declaration here that I think is unprecedented in American political history, he said, and I regret it. That question should never have been asked, and I shouldn’t have to answer it. I don’t believe that Sen. Hart intended that as a personal reproach. He was simply observing that the floodgates were now open, for good or ill issues that had previously been treated as private family matters were now fair game for the world at large.

Matt Bai has written an important and compassionate book about the downfall of a gifted and fundamentally decent politician. All of us have reason to regret the cheapening and coarsening of the American political process and the journalism that reports on it. A politician’s personal behavior is certainly a relevant factor to consider. But if, as is often the case these days, it obscures all other important issues, it’ll drive legions of highly competent men and women out of politics. Matt Bai reminds us that the loss of people like Gary Hart is a high price to pay.

SIEGEL: The book by Matt Bai is called “All The Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid.” Our review was by NPR commentator Ted Koppel.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR’s prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Novelist Caitlin Moran Wryly Shows ‘How To Build A Girl’


Caitlin Moran’s weekly column for The Times, has gained fans all across the U.K. With humor and a wry, self-deprecating wit, she writes on a wide range of topics that include government, technology, beauty and pop culture — all of which become, under her feisty gaze, feminist issues. “I rant about the welfare state, library closures and poverty,” she explains on her website, “like a s – – – Dickens or Orwell, but with tits.” And this irreverent summary, casually smutty, very funny, and barely disguising a serious intent, is the perfect introduction to her novel, How to Build a Girl.

The story opens in 1990 in Wolverhampton, a city in the English West Midlands. Johanna Morrigan is 14 years old and knows there has to be more to life than her small existence now offers. Her father is an unemployed would-be rock star, her mother is suffering from depression and young Johanna has more childcare duties (she has two brothers and there are twin babies to care for, too) and financial worries than a teenager should have to take on. She also has dreams of finding a way out.

Johanna’s concerns are, in some ways, those of any teenager longing for popularity, love, fame and recognition of their hidden talents. But living in a working class family, in a deprived neighbourhood with few prospects, she’s not quite sure how to go about fulfilling those dreams. Meanwhile, she tells us early on, “Today, like every other day, I’m going to go to bed still a fat virgin who writes her diary in a series of imaginary letters to sexy Gilbert Blythe from Anne of Green Gables.”

Due to her family’s economic hardship, Johanna decides that it is up to her to find a way to make some money. A very public humiliation that results from her initial efforts spurs her to reinvent herself, to become the person she is sure she was meant to be. “I want to be a self-made woman. I want to conjure myself out of every sparkling, fast-moving thing I can see,” she declares, “I want to be the creator of me. I’m gonna begat myself.” First, she’ll change her name. This, then, is how to build a girl: find a cause; identify your image; let nothing stand in your way.

Moran is also the author of the bestselling memoir How to Be a Woman. This new book reads very much like Moran’s own autobiography, exaggerated for effect. Dolly Wilde — as Johanna christens herself — lands a job as a freelance music journalist, travels to London, has lots of sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a fast-paced tale of a working class girl whose brains and way with words, and her sheer grit, ensure her escape and her success.

Moran never loses touch with what seemed to me an authentic and believably teenage voice — from the self-obsessed navel gazing nature of Dolly’s reflections to the exaggerated emotional responses and flights of fancy. At times, the tone does become a little too breathless and over-excited. But, as any mother who has despaired of the sharp intake of breath and “OMG!” exhalation that accompanies the most banal of observations by an adolescent girl could tell you, this too is probably true to life. Moran manages to poke fun at her young alter ego just as she elicits the reader’s sympathy.

The joy of this easy-read novel is not just the scrappy protagonist. As Dolly navigates her new life going to gigs and parties in London, and as we are reminded of the fate of her family back in Wolverhampton, Moran makes strong statements about social inequality and gender throughout. In one particularly moving — and uncharacteristically restrained — moment, Dolly tells the reader: “my biggest secret of all — the one I would rather die than tell, the one I wouldn’t even put in my diary — is that I really, truly, in my heart, want to be beautiful. I want to be beautiful so much — because it will keep me safe, and keep me lucky, and it’s too exhausting not to be.” Even as she finds her way into womanhood, Dolly is beset by self-doubt and consumed by a negative body image. She may be living the feminist creed, but building yourself is never going to be an easy task.

How to Build a Girl is, in essence, a very British story about class and social privilege. American readers may have to work a little to get the sly social references and regional English. But it’s well worth the effort. Dolly quits school at 16 — she’s making enough money now and can’t see any benefit to an education that seems designed to constrain rather than inspire — and the daily drama of her life with her parents, two brothers and the infant twins, trundles on. There are real moments of tenderness in her relationship with her brothers, Krissi and Lupin, and in the relentless optimism of her failed-musician father.

Dolly makes a name for herself writing destructive, acerbic reviews and by the end of the book (several reckless adventures, broken relationships and a wild tour of the music of the early ’90s later), she is on the way to reinventing herself again as she moves to London permanently. This is — thank goodness — no tidy happily-ever-after. Instead Moran leaves the reader with the sense that once a girl takes responsibility for building herself there is always more to learn, the job is never done. She is a glorious work in progress.

Ellah Allfrey is an editor and critic. She lives in London.