Dr. Janet Gilsdorf's novel "Fever" charts a mysterious illness and a researcher's race to discover the bacteria causing it

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Janet Gilsdorf and her book Fever

On a getaway with a colleague to visit family in Brazil, Dr. Sidonie Royal instead finds herself in a race to save children falling ill with a mysterious disease—and she experiences grief when they do not make it. Janet Gilsdorf's novel Fever tracks Sid’s subsequent research attempts back in Michigan to find out what is causing the deaths.

As a professor emerita of epidemiology and pediatrics at the University of Michigan, Gilsdorf is the right person to write a novel on this topic. Her work involves studying pathogenic factors, molecular genetics, and the epidemiology of Haemophilus influenzae, a bacterium that causes invasive and respiratory infections in children and adults. It is this bacterium that Sid, the character in her novel, is trying to understand.

Many hurdles appear along the way for Sid. One problem consists of her belligerent lab mate, Eliot, who always seems ready with criticism. At one point, he informs Sid:

Shannon McLeod’s Short Story Collection “Nature Trail Stories” Provides Natural Spaces for People to Reflect and Integrate Their Past and Present Selves

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Author Shannon McLeod and the cover of "Nature Trail Stories"

Via sharp observations and attempts at connection, the characters in Shannon McLeod’s Nature Trail Stories offer insights on their surroundings and the people around them. As one woman reflects, “Any place can be scenic, depending upon the scenes in your head.” This mindset could be expanded to all the short stories in the collection, as they reveal the world through the characters’ varied outlooks, from an art gallery employee awaiting the next person to walk in to a woman coping with heartbreak.

In the same story from which the above quote originated, titled “Human Song,” the narrator and their boyfriend receive advice to go see the snails and sing to them to lure them out of their shells. At the beach: 

I sing George Michael, then Spice Girls, then the Beatles.
“If they’re not coming out for Ringo, there’s nothing that’ll do it,” says Caleb. I’ve begun to feel this way about him, too. That nothing I can possibly do will bring him back to me.

Maybe the snails are more accessible than fellow humans. Nature becomes an antidote to the failings of relationships and to the desire for a bond. 

The loneliness and longing that envelop these characters even as they engage with other people—friends, strangers, coworkers, family members, and significant others—thread throughout the collection and are almost inextricable from the dialogue and settings. The story, “After Leaving,” dives into the grim, though in this case necessary, moments following a breakup in which memories flash through the narrator’s mind wherever she goes. While seeking something for dinner, she observes that: 

Downtown, the trees lining the streets are turning orange. There’s a sweet scent of decay in the air. I’ve always liked autumn best. He used to say it’s because I’m a melancholy woman. The same reason I find sad songs the most beautiful.

“Crying in H Mart”: Michelle Zauner’s Memoir Helps Me Process the Loss of My Mother

WRITTEN WORD PULP LIFE REVIEW

Lori Stratton and Carolyn Barnard at Lori's high school graduation in June 1994.

Lori Stratton with her mother Carolyn Barnard at her high school graduation in June 1994.

Each year, I look forward to the summer solstice. There’s something magical about the longest day of the year and the maximum amount of daylight that it brings.

But by June 20, 2020, at the age of 44, my outlook on the summer solstice changed unexpectedly. I awoke early that morning to sunlight streaming through my windows and felt excited about the day ahead.

My husband Brian and I were getting ready to visit my in-laws and celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary with the rest of the family. We were just about the leave the house when we heard an expected knock on our door at 8 am.

I opened the door and saw my father on the front porch looking ragged and exhausted. There was an unrecognizable sadness on his face when he said, “L, Your mother passed away last night.”

Those words punched me right in the gut, and it took me a moment to process what he had just said. My father explained that my mother had a heart attack the night before; she had collapsed instantly and then died.

He tried to revive her before the paramedics came, but it was too late. I was surprised that a heart attack had taken my mother’s life at 75 instead of Alzheimer’s. She had been battling that disease for nearly a decade, and I had prepared myself for that outcome gradually.

BACKYARD BRAINS' GREG GAGE AND TIM MARZULLO HELP PEOPLE EXPLORE NEUROSCIENCE IN THEIR NEW BOOK, "How Your Brain Works"

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

The "How Your Brain Works" book cover on the left with authors Tim Marzullo on the top right and Greg Gage on the bottom right.

How Your Brain Works makes neuroscience available to everyone. Authors Tim Marzullo (top) and Greg Gage offer humor alongside science via illustrative drawings. Artwork by Cristina Mezuk.

Have you ever wondered how sleep can improve memory? Or considered how your eyes perceive color? It turns out that you do not have to be a degreed scientist or even work in a lab to find out! 

These questions all pertain to neuroscience, and it is possible to research them yourself by conducting the experiments in neuroscientists Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo’s new book, How Your Brain Works. Gage and Marzullo, the founders of Backyard Brains in Ann Arbor, make neuroscience available to everyone via more than 45 at-home tests outlined in their manual. The chapters keep the reader on the edge of their seat with the questions that the authors ask and the methods through which they answer them. As the two neuroscientists write, “Scientific discoveries can happen anywhere.” Plus, it is not only science – Gage and Marzullo offer humor alongside the science via illustrative drawings.

Neuroscience has long been an expensive endeavor, but tools that appeared in the early 2000s changed the landscape and brought neuroscience out of institutions and into anyone’s hands, Gage and Marzullo write. The premise of How Your Brain Works hinges on these technologies: 

Stephanie Heit's New Hybrid Memoir Poem "Psych Murders" Examines Shock Treatment, The Aftermath, and How Time and Memory Move in Unexpected Ways

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

The title, Psych Murders, appears vertically in large charcoal caps running up and down the page. In the center is a charcoal bipolar neuron with synapses. The nucleus is a black circle with an open mouth and chasm throat in red, perhaps screaming, with pointed white teeth like a shark. On top is the silhouette of a man with a fedora wielding a scythe at the neuron. Stephanie Heit is written in red ballpoint cursive on the lower left. Headshot of  Stephanie Heit, a white queer disabled cis woman smiling, wearing a purple wrap, with brown wavy hair in a bob. She is on (perhaps in, feet dangling) the Huron River with background muted green of tree leaves, and dappled light before dusk.

Book cover design by Lindsey Cleworth, "What have I learned (Bipolar Neuron)" artwork by Chanika Svetvilas, and photo by Tamara Wade.

What do you do when the brain “acts more colander than container?” 

Poet Stephanie Heit tests out an answer: “Strengthen your faith in electricity.” Her hybrid memoir poem, Psych Murders, reports on the decision to experience and recover from electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) as a treatment for bipolar disorder. Psych Murders contains a number of sections, often titled with questions such as “What brings you pleasure?” and “Are you safe?”

This journey with shock therapy and other attempted remedies takes the poet to a point where: 

…you forget

                       How to swim. 

Forget

           your tokens. 

                       Lose any sense

of direction. 

This path also later reaches a place where, “Hope became a location.” The poet expresses some bitterness that, “I thought they’d figure out the code. No lack of rigor. But my body didn’t respond the way the data predicted.” Still, the side effects like memory loss and frustrations do not fully define the process for Heit. Instead, Heit concludes with the poem, “Testament,” which consists of a series of “I am” statements that embrace all parts of her identity. 

Shortly after the start of the book, the Murderer appears, often described in third person, but always menacing and forming his own character, as the poet observes, “…I’m not alone. I have Murderer stalking my every move.” In a distressful twist in the poem, “The Murderer: Primetime,” he gets a chance to speak and shares his goal to reach her because he states of the poet that, “She haunts me—the one who slow danced in my grip. I’ll wait.” Despite his persistence, the Murderer’s interest in suicide nevertheless does not come to fruition, a victory for the poet and us readers. 

Instead, Heit describes learning to live with the circumstances. The poem, “Chronic,” shows a begrudging acceptance that:

Chronic sounds like forever. Persistent forever. With a twang to the way the “ic” sticks in the throat. Almost guttural. Starts out ok. Chron, like chronological, that domino effect, out of control falling because gravity exists. But the ending turns. I am stuck with Chronic the rest of my life. Better than Terminal unless it refers to airports. Though at least with Terminal there is beginning, middle, end. Chronic is middle with no way out.

The poet shows us how, on the one hand, Chronic comes with its downsides, but on the other hand, Chronic means being alive. 

Heit is a queer disabled poet, dancer, teacher, and codirector of Turtle Disco, a somatic writing space, based in Ypsilanti. We spoke to Heit about her writing, teaching, latest book, and next project. 

Award-winning poet and writer Naomi Shihab Nye set her latest middle-grade-fiction novel, "The Turtle of Michigan," in Ann Arbor

WRITTEN WORD REVIEW

Author Naomi Shihab Nye and her book The Turtle of Michigan

Naomi Shihab Nye is best known for her poetry—she was chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2010-15, and the Poetry Foundation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate from 2019-21.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that her newest novel for young readers, 2022's The Turtle of Michigan, is built from subtle, sharply observed moments more than a page-turning plot. (It was recently named a 2023 Michigan Notable Book and will be out in paperback on March 14.)

Set in Ann Arbor—where Nye has taught writing—Turtle begins with eight-year-old Aref (pronounced “R-F”) and his mother taking off in a plane from their homeland, Oman. Aref’s father, having flown to Michigan a few weeks earlier, reunites with them at the Detroit airport, then drives his family to their new, small apartment in Ann Arbor. 

Courtney Faye Taylor explores racial injustices and the killing of Latasha Harlins in her debut poetry collection

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Courtney Faye Taylor and her book Concentrate. Photo by Lucas Carpenter.

Author photo by Lucas Carpenter.

Poetry becomes both memorial and voice in Courtney Faye Taylor's first book, Concentrate, winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. The University of Michigan alum's poems honor, research, bristle, and circle back to the life and killing of Latasha Harlins, a Black girl gunned down by a Korean store owner, Soon Ja Du, in Los Angeles.

“In any black sentence, you’d love nothing more than to had made         no mistake.” The opening prose poem that ends with this sentence mourns and fortifies Black womanhood. As Aunt Notrie says in the next poem, “The Talk,” it “Ain’t about trying, it’s about doing.” These lines do not let injustices lie but instead, “The poet wades into an uneasy ocean of interrogations that do not permit her any distance from what she has witnessed her entire life,” writes Rachel Eliza Griffiths in the introduction.  

Some of the poems revisit history, like March 16, 1991, when Harlins lost her life. The poet starts another prose poem to outline how: 

A timeline details a seriousness of events. As a diagram of occurrence, a timeline’s chief objective is to show how passed happenings caution and contaminate our contemporary sense of momentum. A professor may author timelines to teach what precedes and what follows genocide. On the overhead, Rwanda is a centipede with its head in Belgium and tail on stage of the ’05 Oscars. 

The past remains with us as warning and blemish, and Taylor writes, “So I’m drawing a line.” 

Other poems fashioned like Yelp reviews make stark the differences in treatment and standards among people. One of them gives two stars for “BLACK OWNED BUT HOURS WRONG ONLINE.” Such an offense garners a bolded complaint and strong consequence that “I will find a Korean store.” The loss of business for incorrect hours reinforces inequity and harshness. 

Eventually, the poet goes to Los Angeles and visits the site of Harlin’s murder, “But there are no signs of murder, memorial, or resistance when I arrive. The ground is like any ground. Normalcy devastates. Stillness lies to me about history.” Taylor’s poems teach us that what is not visible is still present. 

Early on, Aunt Notrie defines the word "concentrate" as “A strong, hard focus.” Taylor takes on that focus to scrutinize history through the poems. Later, Concentrate is a call to action, as in “Concentrate. We have decisions to make.        Fire is that decision to make.” The word “we” leaves no one out. It is all of us who have responsibility. 

Taylor is a writer and visual artist who earned her MFA from the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Prize in Poetry. We spoke about Taylor's time in Ann Arbor, her poetry, and Concentrate.

It’s All Relative: Ann Arbor Author Jim Ottaviani Examines Albert Einstein’s Complexity in “Einstein” Graphic Biography

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

The "Einstein" graphic biography cover and author Jim Ottaviani

When longtime Ann Arborite Jim Ottaviani decided to write a graphic novel about Albert Einstein with artist Jerel Dye, his first concern was doing the research and trying not to drown in it.

“Deadlines are your pal in this regard, in that, there comes a time when I just have to start writing,” said Ottaviani, author of Einstein and a former nuclear engineer and librarian who previously worked at the University of Michigan.

“I cannot put it off one more day, one more minute. Now, this doesn’t stop me from sometimes thinking, ‘I should just read this one other thing.’ But then you quickly realize there’s a hundred more things you could read, too.”

Ottaviani speaks from experience, having already published similar graphic novels focused on science giants like Stephen Hawking and Richard Feynman. The amount of content available on those icons initially gave him some pause, too, but the resulting books’ success made a convincing case for a project focused on Einstein.

“Everybody knows the name Einstein, and they know that he’s associated with relativity, but few people know why it’s important or what it is,” said Ottaviani. “The hope is that after reading this book, people will at least know what it is and why it’s important to physics. Yes, there are equations in the book, and they’re accurate, but they’re mostly there as set dressing.”

U-M Professor Kiley Reid’s Novel “Such a Fun Age” Is the 2023 Washtenaw Read Book

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Author Kiley Reid and the cover of her book, "Such a Fun Age"

The 2023 Washtenaw Read is Such a Fun Age by University of Michigan professor Kiley Reid, whose plot-driven novel details what happens and how people feel amidst misunderstandings and omissions around a recent run-in and past hurts. 

Reid is having a talk, reading, and Q&A session at the Downtown Library February 5 at 4 pm.

The lives of characters Emira Tucker and Alix Chamberlain very quickly intertwine in ways beyond their relationship as babysitter and mother of a toddler, respectively. From the description on the book jacket, readers know going into the book that Emira, who is a Black woman, is confronted for having Alix’s white child, Briar, at a food market late in the evening. This unexpected and unfair confrontation leads to connections, coincidences, and consequences that unfold throughout the rest of the book. The ensuing events are best experienced page by page as one reads. 

Reid develops each of the main characters with their own flaws. The characters’ actions raise dilemmas based on how much they know and what their position is in each situation. Perhaps one lesson is that one’s intentions do not always make things right. Mrs. Chamberlain illustrates this in an overbearing statement to Emira: 

“You might be too young to understand this right now, but we have always had your best interests at heart. Emira, we, we love you.” Mrs. Chamberlain threw her hands up in surrender as she said this, as if loving Emira was despite her family’s other best interests.

Poet and EMU Lecturer Andre F. Peltier Imagines New Contexts for Pop Culture Icons in Recent Chapbook, “Poplandia”

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

The "Poplandia" chapbook and poet Andre Peltier

Part tribute, part humor, and part elegy, the new chapbook Poplandia by Andre F. Peltier centers on epic moments, including epic scenes in movies like the "Yub Nub" Ewok celebration to epic memories like recalling the purchase of a new record when it was released. The poet lives partially in this world and partially in others by reviving late 20th century childhood longings, such as to live in the Star Wars galaxy, among others.

One such dream deals directly with poetry itself: 

Choose a poem from your
Intro to Poetry anthology.
Dial up a poem on
poetry.org.
Go to open mic poetry nights
or listen to slams in coffee houses.
Find a poem
that won’t be improved by adding
Godzilla…
It can’t be done.

In Peltier’s perspective, life, literature, films, shows, and music should be interchangeable and allow humans and characters to cross boundaries between worlds or break through the fourth wall.