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Short Takes

‘Fever,’ ‘Lean In,’ and ‘Rest in Pieces’

Fever

By Mary Beth Keane

Scribner, 306 pp., $26

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Typhoid Mary was a real person: Mary Mallon, an Irish immigrant who found work cooking for New York’s richest Gilded Age families. After outbreaks of typhoid followed her employment at several households, public health officials identified her as an asymptomatic carrier and quarantined her on an island in the East River. Released after three years confined there, Mallon promised to submit to frequent testing of her urine and stool and never to cook again — it was through her meals that she transmitted the disease. Perhaps inevitably, she broke her promise.

In Mary Beth Keane’s wholly absorbing, deeply moving new novel, Mallon emerges as a woman of fierce intelligence and wrongheaded conviction. She fights her imprisonment, as the papers point out, with “a man’s rage . . . an animal’s rage, an immigrant’s rage” — a side effect of the passionate intensity that attracts her longtime lover. Their romance, a blend of hot and cold, sits at the heart of the book. Transforming a lived past into riveting fiction, Keane gives us a novel that thrums with life, and a heroine whose regrets, though entirely specific, feel utterly familiar: “All I can say is that I thought I was doing the right thing, but I was doing the wrong thing, and it was a theme that repeated itself often.”

Lean In:

Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

By Sheryl Sandberg

Knopf, 240 pp., $24.95

Even before Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s book came out, critics lambasted its perceived sins: In encouraging women to pursue their career dreams after having children, she was denigrating mothers who work part time; in giving advice to women for navigating male-dominated workplaces, she was condoning the misogyny they face; in suggesting women’s choices sometimes reflect internalized sexism, she was blaming the victims. Sandberg’s book coincided with her former colleague Marissa Mayer’s high-profile decision as new CEO (and new mother) to ban telecommuting for Yahoo employees, widely seen as an anti-working mother policy. These criticisms seem, upon reading the book, almost entirely unfair. Sandberg’s goal is to foster a conversation — about the factors suppressing women in leadership roles in business, to offer strategies based on her personal experiences at Google and Facebook, and to propose changes in how both women and men think about work and parenting — that is both important and necessary. “Talking can transform minds, which can transform behaviors, which can transform institutions,” Sandberg argues, and her book represents a useful start.

Women are held back by old-boy networks, by biases against female ambition, by governmental and business policies that make parenting nearly impossible at many workplaces. The more women there are in leadership roles, Sandberg argues, the sooner these external barriers will fall; in this book, she focuses on the internal obstacles women must overcome, the internalized messages that inhibit success, the “self-fulfilling prophecies” (a phrase that appears throughout the book) about work-life balance that can steer a woman away from her aspirations. We may not be able to immediately achieve paid parental leave or affordable child care, she seems to imply, but “[w]e can reignite the revolution by internalizing the revolution.” Once or twice, Sandberg seems to imply that women really should contort themselves to avoid unfair prejudices (suggesting that a female manager might “be better received if she asserts, ‘We had a great year,’ as opposed to, ‘I had a great year’”). Overall, though, Sandberg comes across as a pragmatic feminist. “Social gains are never handed out,” she writes. “They must be seized.”

Rest in Pieces:

The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses

By Bess Lovejoy

Simon & Schuster, 329 pp., $22

What really happened to D. H. Lawrence’s ashes? Various stories suggested they were scattered at sea to avoid difficulty getting them through American customs; sprinkled into tea each morning by a lesser writer, who hoped thereby to absorb his friend’s genius; or mixed with concrete to form a slab in a small adobe temple in New Mexico. As Bess Lovejoy writes in this entertaining survey of posthumous adventures, we may never be certain.

Conversational and lively, Lovejoy’s chronicles range from the macabre to the erotic — there are multiple cases of famous deceased genitalia, including Rasputin’s preserved penis, sold at auction in London, and the Holy Prepuce, reportedly given to Pope Leo II by Charlemagne. Although none of these stories would be funny if they happened to your relative, Lovejoy’s dry wit makes for amusing reading. Of Boston’s own cryogenics pioneer, she writes that “at the end of his life, Ted Williams got caught up in that other famous American pastime — the quest for immortality.”

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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