In the spring of 1981, four young gay male patients were referred to Dr. Michael Gottlieb, a young assistant professor at UCLA specializing in immunology, with a series of opportunistic infections. Author Bruce J. Hillman, MD charts the course that Dr. Gottlieb took that would lead to the discovery of AIDS and the dissolution of his academic career in A Plague on All Our Houses.
After contacting the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), an action that had to be suggested by the editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) owning to Gottlieb’s professional naivety, he confirmed an additional case via autopsy. Gottlieb and his colleagues collected their data and he drafted what is now considered one of the most notable medical publications of the century. As the lead author of the NEJM article which described a new disease, Gottlieb was pulled in many directions: academic researcher, clinician, spokesperson, grant writer and fundraiser. As the doctor who discovered a new undetectable infectious disease, Gottlieb attracted many patients, most of whom were gay. At the same time, UCLA was trying to brand itself as a transplant center. A mixture of fear and homophobia began to build in earnest. Jealousy joined the mix when Gottlieb drew additional attention as the specialist who cared for Rock Hudson. When Elizabeth Taylor decided to dedicate herself to finding a cure after the death of her friend and a relative, she turned to Gottlieb for counsel, and the mixture neared the boiling point.
If you enjoyed Rebecca Skloot’s work examining the health and societal impact of the HeLa cells juxtaposed against the lives of her children deprived of their mother in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, this medical story is for you.
Short stories are usually read in a single sitting. Pick up either of these new collections, This House Is Not for Sale by E. C. Osondu or Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood, and find that sitting stretching out as one story leads to the next.
This House Is Not for Sale is set in a nameless African village. The main character of each story lives in Grandpa’s grand family house and so falls under his powerful, and perhaps corrupt, domain. Some of the stories feature ordinary problems, like Abule and his serially cheating wife or Uncle Currency’s workplace embezzlement. Other problems are more closely tied to African folklore, such as the soul-stealer who prevents Tata from carrying pregnancies to term. Conflicts are illuminated by anonymous villagers’ gossipy commentary reminiscent of a fragmented Greek chorus, and when necessary, the godfather-like Grandpa steps in to deliver a final judgment. Esondu, winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, captures both the joy and pain of everyday life in these thoughtful vignettes.
Bitingly irreverent wit, an unsentimental use of aging protagonists and unpredictable plots mark the wonderful Stone Mattress. The first three stories form a sort of trilogy. In “Alphinland,” widowed Constance, author of a cult classic fantasy series, is guided through a blizzard by the blow-by-blow verbal instructions issued by her dead husband. At the same time, she is also remembering her first love, the pompous and ever-randy poet Gavin, who betrayed Constance with another woman. “Revenent” features Gavin, now an impotent curmudgeon married to his third, much younger wife who is heavily invested in preserving Gavin’s legacy, if not necessarily Gavin himself. Finally, in “Dark Lady,” all the players — including the “other woman” — meet again. Other stories revisit the friends from “The Robber Bride,” find a predatory widow meeting up with her rapist prom date of 50 years ago or track a one-trick pony author determined to snuff out old friends living off his royalties. Atwood is a master wordsmith and excels when revealing her characters’ internal dialogue. The only disappointment here is that by their nature, these stories are short so the pleasure of reading them ends too quickly.
How are houseguests like fish? They both start to stink after three days, or so the joke goes. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters and The Quick by Laura Owen, both set in London, are stories involving some houseguests that have truly gone bad.
In The Paying Guests, Francis Wray and her mother live alone in their upper crust dignified home, struggling to keep up appearances. Francis’ father died and her brothers were killed in the War, leaving mother and daughter penniless. To make ends meet, they decide to take in lodgers, euphemistically known as “paying guests.” Young newlyweds Lilian and Leonard Barber make the not-yet-30-year-old Francis feel like life has passed her by, until she begins a surreptitious love affair with one of the Barbers, which ends in tragedy and the courtroom. Waters, a frequent flyer on British writing prize lists, pens a literary thriller that examines the consequences of the societal and moral strictures placed on women in early 20th century England.
Author Owen’s debut novel The Quick opens with motherless siblings Charlotte and James exploring their moldering country estate home. As they grow, James heads off to boarding school and then to Victorian London, leaving Charlotte to a quiet country life with an elderly aunt. James becomes a paying guest at the home of a city widow, sharing lodgings and passion with a former schoolmate. What starts as dreamy period piece takes a sharp turn when James and his lover are attacked by a supernatural being and Charlotte leaves her narrow settled existence to become a vampire hunter. From the elite members-only Aegolius club to the Dickensian working poor, Owen’s vampire world is richly and eerily imagined. Fans of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus or John Harwood’s The Asylum should give The Quick a try.
Who’s the fairest of them all? Is it Snow, with her fair skin and hazel eyes? Maybe it is Bird, with her cap of dark curls and golden skin. Nigerian-born Helen Oyeyemi’s latest novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, takes classic fairy tale themes of beauty, stepmothers and sibling rivalry and reworks them around a 1950s New England town and a family’s secrets.
Eighteen-year-old Boy Novak lives in New York City with her sadistic father who works as a rat catcher, using blinded rats as bait. To escape her father’s abuse, she buys a train ticket for the far-away stop of Flax Hill, Massachusetts. The fine-boned, flaxen-haired Boy meets and marries Arturo Whitman, local professor-turned-jeweler, widower, and father of Snow. Boy slides right into her role of benevolent stepmother and daughter-in-law until she and Arturo have their own baby, Bird, who is “born with a suntan.” Unbeknownst to Boy, her new husband and his family are African-American passing for white. Bird’s arrival pulls back the curtain on their carefully constructed public lives.
What is fair, either in beauty or in deeds? Arturo’s mother wants to send the darker-skinned Bird away to live with relatives; Boy views stepdaughter Snow as the interloper who needs to go. Oyeyemi uses a conversational writing style and alternates characters’ narration, including letters sent between the sisters, to explore issues of identity relative to race and gender. Boy, Snow, Bird warns us of the danger in allowing our reflection, whether in the mirror or eyes of the beholder, dictate who we are.
John Brown: abolitionist, Harper’s Ferry raider, failure. Dry high school American history text material, forgotten right after the test…or not, especially if presented by author James McBride in his bawdy and raucous new novel, The Good Lord Bird.
Henry is 10 years old. He helps out in the rural Kansas barbershop in which his father works. Both Henry and his father are slaves, owned by Dutch. Henry’s father is barbering the scripture-quoting Old Man when Dutch walks in; an exchange with the Old Man gets heated and after guns blaze, Dutch is wounded, Henry’s father is dead and the Old Man is unmasked as the despised John Brown. Brown rescues Henry, though he mistakes him for a girl and calls him “Henrietta.” “She” is incorporated into his motley band of family and stragglers embarked on a mission to free the slaves.
McBride presents this story as 103-year-old Henry’s recollections, recorded by a fellow church member. Written in the coarse lexicon of the times, the rich and illustrative language can result in a comedy of errors. Henry is biracial and becomes adept as passing for a girl, and sometimes as white, to ensure his safety. As he travels through the states, alone or with Brown, he offers an out-of-the-mouth-of-babes razor-edged skewering of blacks and whites, slaves and owners, and country and city folk. The Good Lord Bird is historical fiction and McBride freely molds icons like Frederick Douglas and Brown into his own flawed characters. This book is not a choice for the easily offended.
Only in the hands of a talented writer like McBride could subjects like slavery and emancipation manage to entertain and amuse while also inform and illuminate. Despite the irreverent approach, ultimately the reader is left with Henry’s observation on slavery and its poisonous legacy when he says “the web of slavery is a sticky business. And at the end of the day, ain’t nobody clear of it.”