Book Review: The Illness Lesson, by Clare Beams

A mysterious flock of red birds has descended over Birch Hill. Recently reinvented, it is now home to an elite and progressive school designed to shape the minds of young women. But Eliza Bell – the most inscrutable and defiant of the students – has been overwhelmed by an inexplicable illness.

One by one, the other girls begin to experience the same peculiar symptoms: rashes, fits, headaches, verbal tics, night wanderings. Soon Caroline – the only woman teaching – begins to suffer too. She tries desperately to hide her symptoms but, with the birds behaving strangely and the girls’ condition worsening, the powers-that-be turn to a sinister physician with grave and dubious methods.


The Illness Lesson takes place in the early 1870s in Massachusetts where Caroline’s father, Samuel Hood, has decided to turn their farm into a school for adolescent girls — a school that will teach them more than how to be housewives with good manners. At the same time, a flock of unusual birds that haven’t been officially “discovered” yet starts making nests on the Hoods’ property. Caroline remembers the last time these birds showed up, because that was when her mother died. When the girls at the Hoods’ school start coming down with weird ailments, Samuel Hood calls in a doctor that ends up treating the girls for “hysteria.” And if you know anything about the history of women’s “hysteria” and how it was treated, well…

I have a number of thoughts about this book, and they might be a bit rambly because it’s been some time since I read this. I’m going to just throw them out there in no particular order…

There *might* be some spoilery details over the next few paragraphs. You have been forewarned.

The cover is made to look like embroidery. It’s gorgeous.

I really liked that this book was set during the time of Transcendentalism in New England, because I am a huge fan of the Transcendentalists (I get a bit swoony about Emerson and Thoreau). Samuel Hood thinks of himself as a feminist and is very into opening this school for girls where they can be taught science and literature and philosophy and such. Samuel was also involved in a (failed) communal living situation at one point, which totally reminded me of the story of the Alcott family and their experience with communal living. But it is obvious by the end of the book that none of the men in the story are feminists. Nope.

The bit about the birds is very interesting. The birds sound gorgeous, the way they are described. I also like that they haven’t been officially discovered by scientists and that they are finally given a scientific name by the end of the book. I will say, though, that the synopsis of the book makes it sound like the birds end up playing a very sinister role in the story, and they don’t. Don’t be fooled. I really thought there was going to be a bit of the supernatural or a bit of…oddness…in this book that wasn’t delivered. The birds are totally innocuous, just doing bird things. And some of those things are kind of creepy in the eyes of humans, yes, but they are totally natural things. You learn that Caroline feels so strangely about the birds because in her mind they are tied up with the death of her mother.

There is a fictional book involved in the story that I kind of wish were real so I could read it. I thoroughly enjoyed that everyone (aside from Samuel) was so into it.

I saw it coming, but the “hysteria” part of the book and what ensues are the hardest parts to read. If you haven’t ever read about how women and their emotions were thought of way back when, or how hysteria was “cured,” then you’re in for a doozy of a surprise. And these are teenage girls we’re talking about.

You know what this book basically said? Even the “good guys” can be total shits. No matter how progressive they are or how much they claim to support of the rights of women, they can still, in reality, be total shits. But we already knew that.

There is also a conversation around whether or not women should be given this kind of agency and education that I found interesting. I mean, in those kinds of conversations, I shoot from the hip. Of course women (even 19th-century women) should be given agency and a good education! Right?

I really enjoyed The Illness Lesson, despite the parts that were difficult to read. Clare Beams is really good at writing with a 19th-century style. I kept forgetting that this book was just published. And again, I love that it takes place in New England with an undertone of Transcendentalism. I hesitate to talk too much about the characters because I tend to describe characters with overused phrases like “well-rounded” or “fleshed-out,” and that annoys me. I will say that I thought I was going to love Caroline and really dislike Sophia, but in the end, it wasn’t that simple.

The only thing that I think wasn’t as developed (or that didn’t live up to the publisher’s synopsis) was the role of the birds. And maybe I missed some kind of metaphor or connection. That’s definitely a possibility.

Have you read The Illness Lesson? What did you think?

Library Book Haul and Book Mail!

Who has two thumbs and works in a library? This gal! Who has two thumbs and has to go in to work at that library every other Friday while it’s closed to do administrative stuff? This gal! Who has two thumbs and checks out a ton of books every time she has to go in to work? This gal!

Privilege is real, y’all.

It has gotten to the point that the ILS we use makes me override my checkouts because I have more than the maximum number of books (25) checked out.

When I went in to work yesterday, I decided to see if some of the books I might want to read in May were on the shelves. I have most of the books in ebook format already, and although I love my ereader, I also prefer the feel of reading treebooks. I did find a couple of the books on my list, and of course that got me browsing the shelves and wondering if there were OTHER books that I could possibly add to my May TBR for the Asian Readathon. And of course there were. Of course.

Pictured from top to bottom:

  • The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang
  • The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo
  • Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
  • Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
  • Family Trust by Kathy Wang
  • The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi

I am never going to get to all of the books I’ve picked out for May, but now I’ve given myself some choices just in case any of the books on my original list aren’t what I’m in the mood for. I have never been a person who can stick to a pre-made TBR list.

And I FINALLY received my copy of If It Bleeds by Stephen King. This book was supposed to be released in May. Then the date got moved up to April 21. I pre-ordered this book in March. Originally, Amazon said it would be delivered on April 23. Then the delivery date got pushed back to April 28. And I finally received it yesterday. Sigh. I know that Amazon has this whole “necessities” thing going on, but I have friends who are receiving candy from Amazon within two days. Candy. Definitely a necessity. (Can you feel me rolling my eyes?) The funny thing about me being annoyed by the late date is that I won’t even be reading If It Bleeds any time soon. I have other SK books to catch up on before I even get to the newest one. But candy? Come on.

I didn’t even notice the optical illusion of the cat’s eyes and nose being a rat’s face until I received the book. Cool!

I have all my school work done for the week, so I will be doing nothing but reading this weekend. Next week is going to be kind of busy between conference calls, going in to work a couple of days for specific tasks, and more school work, so I want to get a lot of reading done this weekend. By the time you read this, I should have finished Actress by Anne Enright, so I’ll be starting something new today.

What are your plans for the weekend? What are you reading?

May TBR (Plus Readathons!)

As of right now, I have 10 books I need to write reviews for, and you know what? I just don’t feel like it. It’s not that I don’t have time (I have so much time), or that this whole situation we’re in is keeping me from doing it in some way. It’s just that with all the time I have, I just want to read. I finally have more time to read for pleasure, and I don’t necessarily want to spend that time on a computer, writing reviews. So maybe there will be some mini-reviews. I’ve also been debating doing IGTV or YouTube videos where I talk about the books I’ve read. In all honesty, I have much more fun talking about books than I do writing about them. I don’t know. This is all kind of stream-of-consciousness. We’ll see.


I have so many plans for my reading in March, so I thought I would talk about them here in case any of them sound interesting to you, too! Now I just need to decide where to start…

First, I am still working on reading the Women’s Prize longlist for this year. The awarding of the Prize has been postponed to September, so I have plenty of time to finish. I have read four of the 16 books on the list, and I am almost done with another, so I basically have 10 more books to read on that list (not including Hilary Mantel’s latest book because I haven’t read the other two yet). I will be continuing with that.

Then, May is Asian Heritage Month, and Cindy of readswithcindy is hosting her second annual Asian Readathon, which is a month-long readathon in May that encourages people to read books with Asian characters and/or are written by Asian authors. You can watch her announcement video here, and you can find a wonderful Google doc here that provides loads of information including book recommendations. There is a list of challenges involved, but I’m not going to even attempt to work on the whole list.

In addition to all of that, I found out about the Tome Topple Readathon today, hosted by Adriana of perpetualpages, which takes place May 9 through May 22, and encourages people to finally pick up that 500+ page book they’ve been meaning to read. The only stipulation to joining this readathon is that you read a book that is at least 500 pages long. I can do that. I prefer longer books.

Then finally, Simon of Savidge Reads and Melanie Sykes held their Sykes & Savidge Book Club discussion for Girl, Woman, Other today and announced that their book club pick for May is The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley, so I will definitely be reading that.

With all of that said, here is the list of books that I would like to get to (at least in part) in May:

  • Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara
  • Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
  • Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie
  • A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
  • How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee
  • The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo
  • Girl by Edna O’ Brien
  • Hamnet by Maggie O’ Farrell
  • The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
  • Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
  • Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
  • The Dragon Republic by R.F. Quang
  • The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley

And I think that’s it for now. At least two or three of those books fit both readathons AND were books that I had already planned on reading, so yay!

I know I won’t get to all of those books in May, but I’d like to get to the majority of them. Obviously I will be making sure to read the books that I chose for the readathons and that I want to read for the book club. I’m really looking forward to reading all of them eventually.

What’s on your May TBR? Have you read any of these? Will you be reading anything in particular for Asian Heritage Month? Let me know in the comments!

Dewey’s Readathon Wrap-up

Yesterday was Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon and I did pretty well! I finished one book, started another, and read some more of my bedtime book. I ended up reading a total of 368 pages. Go, me!

I posted about my progress in my Instagram stories, then made sure to save those posts to my “Readathons” highlights on Instagram, so they’re always available if you’re interested and missed them the first time around.

I started reading at 9am. (I tried to get my butt out of bed earlier so I could start at 8am, but when my alarm when off at 7am, my body and my mind were all, ‘NO, MA’AM. It is Saturday. We don’t want to get up yet.’) So I forced myself out of bed around 7:30, but then had to wait for Eric to get ready for work before I could shower and stuff.

Anyway. This is how my day went, by hour, with pics…

9am – 10am: 58 pages read
10am – 11am: 49 pages read, breakfast eaten
11am – 12pm: 48 pages read, and I was in need of a nap
12pm – 2pm: 26 pages read, nap taken
2pm – 3pm: 23 pages read, had some interuptions
3pm – 4pm: 60 pages read, finished Dominicana, started Actress, had a snack
4pm – 5pm: 19 pages read, had dinner
5pm – 6pm: 35 pages read, Actress moving slower than Dominicana, so taking longer to read in the same amount of time
6pm – 7pm: 8 pages read, had to make a phone call

7pm – 10:30pm: TV time with Eric and a friend, watched some Mythic Quest (fantastic comedy about the gaming world), and some Parks and Recreation (this is my first time watching)

10:45pm – 12am: 42 pages read (The Path of Daggers, which is book #8 in the Wheel of Time series, and what I’m using as my bedtime book), went to bed

Rascal was my furry reading buddy for most of the day, so many of my update photos included him. Here are just a few if you didn’t see them on Instagram…

I would call that a very successful day. I had a lot of fun, got a ton of reading done, got all the Rascal-snuggles, and had a lovely nap.

If you participated, how did you do?

Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon

Tomorrow, April 25, I’ll be joining a load of other readers for Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon. If you’re unfamiliar with this readathon, you can learn all about it here.

I know that I’m late to the game on this one, but now that I have more time on my hands, I’m finally starting to read the books on the Women’s Prize longlist. I’d already read three of the books without knowing they were on the list. Then I watched Simon of Savidge Reads and his mum discuss the entire longlist, and all of the books sound so good. I started Dominicana yesterday, so I’ll be finishing that and at least starting another during the readathon.

I think I’ll be posting updates during the readathon in my Instagram stories (now that I’m finally utilizing that part of IG). I might also post updates on Twitter. I will have a wrap-up post here after the readathon has ended.

I do have a little bit of school work left for the week, but I should be able to get that finished today so that I can do nothing but read tomorrow (with small breaks for food and laundry).

Are you joining the readathon? Do you have a list of books prepared, or are you just winging it?