The Biggest Killer in History Could Kill Again

The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History

By John M. Barry

Humankind likes to think it is in control and rests comfortable in that thought. When something unknown and uncontrollable strikes, panic ensues. Just that happened when influenza struck the world in 1918, a world already weary of the first total world war, a war that led to a near suspension of democracy in the United States as Woodrow Wilson and his administration prepared to enter the conflict. John Barry not only tells the story of a disease raging rampant across the U.S. and the entire world but how humankind’s own deadly squabbling and compulsion to control, restrict, and distort information contributed to worldwide panic and, probably, millions of unnecessary deaths. His is at once a tale of terror, inspiration, and caution. It’s one that readers should pay particular heed to in light of the demoralizing beating truth and honesty are taking today in American society.

To truly appreciate the 1918 influenza, readers need an understanding of biology, chemistry, public health practices, medical practices, and the political and social milieu of the period. While a lot to ask, what makes Barry’s history so brilliant is how he weaves all these disciplines into the story to the point where you acquire a basic working knowledge of virology and bacteriology, in addition to a greater appreciation of modern medical science.

Barry begins with the state of medical practice and education and scientific research a century before the great influenza attack. Indeed, what a sorry state it was with no standards in sight. Over time, though, and with great skill and insight, dedicated, curious, and exacting people wrought the kind of modern medical world familiar to us today. It arrived just in time to face off with the influenza plague. What will strike you in particular is just how small the research community was, concentrated in a few institutions in the U.S., especially Johns Hopkins and the Rockefeller Institute (now Rockefeller University) and a few men and a woman, among them William Welch, Simon Flexner, Oswald Avery, William Park, Anna Williams, and a handful of others. Little known today, except to those involved in medicine and research, you learn just what giants they were and how they contributed a modern life we take for granted today.

You can’t fathom influenza without understanding something of virology and bacteriology. Barry does an excellent job of explaining and illustrating how viruses and bacteria work and how researchers isolate these organisms and devise methods for combatting them. Concomitant with this knowledge is an understanding of public health policy and techniques, which Barry threads throughout the story.

In many ways, the early part of the 20th century proved a perfect breeding ground and killing field for influenza as the Great War caused great concentrations of soldiers in camps, ports, ships, and battlefields in less than healthful conditions. As readers will learn, the times accounted for an accelerated dissemination of the influenza virus and its mutations. What also contributed to the disease, especially its capacity to strike raw terror into the hearts of people so overpowering and crippling that sister would not help sister or brother brother, is that the American government, from Washington straight down to local districts, lied to the American people about the severity and cause of the health crisis, and enlisted the media of the day to participate, all in the name of patriotism and the drive to focus and marshal resources on entering and fighting the Great War. In other words, something we find ourselves confronted with again, manipulation of our free press. Along with from 50 to 100 million deaths, two other casualties of the Great Influenza were Truth and Trust.

If you have never read this book, there’s never been a better or more important to change that. Needless to say, highly recommended. w/c

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Richard + Bobby, Kisses, Alyce

Richard + Bobby,
Kisses, Alyce

Chapter 10: CREEK FALLS, NEW YORK  (Part 1 and 2)

1

It is Monday, freezing, maybe the coldest December morning in the history of Creek Falls. I am waiting for the Number 13 school bus. If it doesn’t arrive in the next minute I’m certain I’ll freeze to death, rendered an ice statue at the bus stop, along with the half dozen others waiting with me. My problem, I think, is I am a girl, and if I were not a girl I would be dressed sensibility. My mother advocates practical clothing: a bulky sweater, slacks, thick socks, and heavy shoes. But my mother doesn’t appreciate the least bit what it takes to be popular these days. The world has revolved a few times since she attended Creek Falls High. It now requires wearing a reefer and an angora sweater and a cigarette skirt and nylons, and cute flats that reveal the cleavage of my toes. And it mandates sacrifice, the kind that punishes me to the marrow of my bones on the coldest day ever.

I know everybody at the bus stop, though I don’t count any as close friends. My close friends are Angie Tessaro and Rosemary Campelli, and they live on the other side of town. They ride the Number 24 bus to school. I’ve taken the Number 24 when I’ve slept over with them at Angie’s. I prefer their bus to mine, because I, well, envy them. Angie and Rosemary live in larger houses than mine. Their parents are among the most successful in Creek Falls. Angie’s father is a loan officer at the Creek Falls Bank and Trust. Rosemary’s father owns the fuel company, Campelli Oil, Inc. My father owns his own business, too, but we aren’t nearly as prosperous as the Tessaros and the Campellis. My father’s business is a news service. He sells magazines and newspapers. These arrive on the early morning bus from New York City. I think I would be happier if I were a Tessaro or a Campelli.

Everybody and everything at the bus stop is always the same. Nothing has changed in the year and a half I’ve been taking Number 13. Next year, I’ll be a junior and still nothing will have changed. Reflecting on this always depresses me.

However, arriving at the bus stop this morning, I notice, miracle of miracles, the world has revolved again, for standing bareheaded, revealing lustrous raven hair, is a new person, a new boy. He’s tall, six foot, and slim. I stare at him with awe and admiration, but I find myself a bit troubled about to his apparently deficient intelligence. For on the coldest day of December in recorded Creek Falls weather history, he stands among us with glistening palmate and artfully combed hair. And it’s permanently locked in place, as it is frozen, and probably has been since he stepped from his house. Yet, he appears not the least bothered by his situation. And when he notices me staring at him, he smiles and pats his hair.

He says, “I love the winter, you know. You never have to worry about it moving around.”

I understand completely. My head is bare in agreement and empathy, though it is perfectly dry. I point to it anyway and his smile broadens to where the arc of it is almost ridiculous and maybe a little devilish, too. He introduces himself as Richard DeSantis and I blurt my name, Alyce Migliano—and I’m embarrassed at how it flies from my mouth on a wave of excitement. But I recover and think it’s nice he’s Italian and probably Catholic. I am years ahead of myself, calculating how this will save much angst in the future, given my parents’ traditional view of things. It’s not long, perhaps a minute, before I’ve dressed him, like a cutout doll, in a black tux. A very handsome picture, I think.

Number 13 arrives, big, blue, and cranky. I’ve ridden it and busses like it a thousand days since I began school; and, yet, this morning Number 13 strikes me as … wrong is the only way I can put it; Number 13 doesn’t seem to fit in my world today.  Maybe it has to do with Richard; that he beguiles me; that he might find me interesting; that he has knocked my regular, familiar, dull world off it axis.

We file onto Number 13 and Richard gestures me ahead of him. He is such a gentleman, another check in his favor. I settle in my usual seat, five back from the front on the right side, the safe side according to my mother in the event a careless lunatic rams the bus on the street side; my mother is a worrier who sees accidents and horrors lurking everywhere, especially on the roads. Richard passes by me and I turn, casually, as if I’m about to speak to the person sitting across the aisle. I watch him drop onto the seat in the very back, the bench certain boys favor. He’s a new but he commences talking to the others as if all have known each other since first grade.

2

After homeroom and math, I arrive at study hall. Angie and Rosemary are in my study hall. I’ve been debating whether to tell them about Richard. I’d like to relate how Richard and I connected, and if they agree that what transpired between us might be the start of a something. I value their opinions as both have more experience with boys than I have. Well, I rate Angie’s higher than Rosemary’s for she’s renounced boys and is contemplating becoming a nun after graduation. Angie goes steady with a football player, a junior. Angie talks constantly about him. She worries a member of the cheerleading squad might be coming between them. I decide it is too early to mention Richard and will wait until, I hope, something more develops.

I see Richard again in sixth period. It’s English, Mr. Berkowirc’s class. He introduces Richard, and I learn Richard has transferred from New York City; the news excites me. New York City is a two-hour drive south of Creek Falls, but, actually, it is in another dimension. Richard is, in addition to the numerous wonderful qualities I’m imbuing him with—I can barely think the word—exotic.

Mr. Berkowirc, who seats us alphabetically, assigns Richard a desk in the back of the room near the window, home to the low letters of the alphabet. I’m practically across the classroom and toward the front. If I wish to gaze on Richard DeSantis, which I do, I will have to crane my neck and aim right and back. Mr. Berkowirc, strict about English and class discipline, won’t tolerate it. And how mortified I would be if Richard discovered I was admiring him, with only hatless heads and Number 13 in common. What a sad circumstance, in the same class but just as well in different schools. 

I’m not able to talk to Richard again until school ends. I linger at the door of Number 13. Usually I board immediately. But having walked the length of the bus and peered up and into the windows, I know Richard is not on board. I’m waiting for him, praying he will remember me and invite me to sit with him.

He shows up a minute or two before departure. He sees me and says hello. “Hello girl from the morning,” is how he addresses me. I remind him, “Alyce.” I climb on board and, as I do, I sense he isn’t behind me. I stop, turn back, and see him talking to the notorious Bobby McFarlane. Bobby is marginally a student, not quite a hood, not anything really, just a grimy, disheveled mess of a boy.

The driver impatiently commands me to get on board, accusing me of inconveniencing everybody and making him late.

“Richard,” I yell, “the bus is leaving.”

“I’ve got a ride,” he calls back, waving.

Uncharacteristically, I sit on the backbench seat, which I have sanctified in my mind as Richard’s Spot. I would never accept a ride home in a car, not even with a friend, a girlfriend. Of course, neither Angie nor Rosemary own cars, though I’m certain their parents could afford cars for them. And here is Richard on his first day driving off in Bobby’s car. I wonder about Richard, but then settle on the notion his action is evidence that New York City instills a brand of daring and adventure completely absent and inconceivable in Creek Falls. I cannot reconcile that my town and New York are in the same state.

Bake Your Way to Fulfillment

Sourdough

By Robin Sloan

Sloan’s novel is about discovering yourself and about making really good sourdough bread. It’s a wry look at a woman finding herself amid the geeky world of high tech and food snobbery, at undercover baking and skunkworks food experimentation, at capitalism and personal fulfillment. In many ways it is a fantasy grounded in the real world of overarching ambition where a person can shed their past, cast everything aside, and be like Candide (who comes up in the novel), finding contentment by tending your own garden. It reads and feels as airy as a good loaf of sourdough.

Lois Clary leads a life as drab as her appearance, living in a small apartment in San Francisco, working at a company promising to change the world with robotic arms taught to take over human tasks. She begins discovering herself when she discovers a pair of brothers who run an illegal takeout restaurant from their second-story apartment. She tries and then thrives on their spicy soup and delicious sourdough bread. When they have to leave the country, they give their number one eater some of their sourdough starter. Soon, Lois learns how to feed it, then use it to make her own sourdough. It becomes a hit at her company and she begins turning her baking into a small business. That she enjoys it is revelatory to her.

She pursues her baking vigorously, even building her own oven in the apartment building’s backyard. All the while, she relates to the sourdough starter almost as a person, talking to it, playing music for it, nurturing it, and being rewarded not only with terrific bread, but with a friend of sorts that sings and delights her with light shows.

Confident, she seeks a spot in one of San Francisco’s markets, but ends up in Alameda at an experimental food emporium slash lab, where folks practice food alchemy in search of culinary perfection by merging food development with technology. She adapts one of her company’s robotic arms to the task of baking sourdough and stands on the cusp of success. Then avaricious capitalism intrudes and a major catastrophe results, the good kind that makes everybody rich who wants to be. Lois, however, has another type of dream. And this involves the brothers from whom she received the sourdough starter and a new life.

No baking or programming skills or interest needed to enjoy this quirky novel, just a liking for the quirky. w/c

Live the Big Life in Singapore

Crazy Rich Asians

By Kevin Kwan

You know you are in a completely different world when you hear a character, Francesca, tell another character, Isabel, why she can’t marry the man she loves, a fellow just made a senior vice president at a large bank. Sure, there’s the issue of his low-ranking family. Even more to the point, Francesca and the other young women agree that he simply earns too little, and that poor Isabel will live life as a pauper, a shunned one at that. His income? As Francesca puts it, “… a measly eight hundred thousand a year.”

It’s a world familiar to none of us, assuming you readers are not in the top one percent. And then there are the cultural differences, very well highlighted and explained by Kevin Kwan, who grew up well-off in Singapore, the setting for most of the novel. Crazy Rich Asians reads like any of the Housewives shows on the most potent steroid imaginable. It’s possibly one of the most gossipy novels you’ll read. And it’s being turned into a movie, and what an eye-popping dazzler it will be if it translates even a quarter of the novel’s settings and fashions on to film.

The overarching story is simple. Rachel Chu, an accomplished woman living in New York, has been in love and living with the equally accomplished and super handsome Nick Young. When Nick becomes his best friend’s groom, Colin Khoo, he decides it’s time to take Rachel to meet the folks in Singapore. Rachel, however, has no idea who Nick and his family are (just the most powerful, influential, and richest of the rich) and the rough ride she’s in for. She meets literally an opera’s worth of people who variously regard her as a rival, a gold digger, and an invader. And they subject her to torments throughout the novel, most petty, mean spirited, and a couple soul crushing. It’s Mean Girls, though, again, on powerful steroids.

Kwan’s writing is serviceable to the task. But what he excels at, and what makes the novel a really delight to read, is how he immerses you in Singapore, from the wealth, to the sights, to the food, and to the customs. Where necessary, he uses footnotes to expand upon concepts and to translate the local lingo. So, what you get is a diversion and something of an education, too. We can only hope the movie is a good as the book. w/c

Richard + Bobby, Kisses, Alyce

Richard + Bobby,
Kisses, Alyce

Chapter 9: STATEN ISLAND, NEW YORK  (Part 8)

8

I let myself in and go up to my room unobtrusively to avoid my parents. I don’t yet know how much of Richard’s story I want to reveal to them. Hearing Richard’s father is a gangster, well it will not sit well with them. But the only other story I have is Richard’s fabrication. It’s bad, too.

I lie on my bed and grab a book from my nightstand. Three pages later I can’t recall a word of what I’ve read. I toss it aside in favor of a textbook, algebra. I figure a subject requiring my full attention will allow me to concentrate on something other than Richard and his parents. I’ve worked through several problems, when my mother yells there is a phone call for me. I close the book and go downstairs to where the phone is, in the hallway. My mother is waving the phone. “It’s Richard.” I can’t determine if her tone is anger or irritation; it is not pleasure. I don’t think she is upset with Richard, or that Richard is phoning me. She’s unhappy with me, displeased I haven’t told her about my afternoon with the DeSantis family. I take the phone, put it to my ear, and wait for her to leave.

“Richard,” I say.

“What you doing, Babe?” he asks.

“Algebra.”

“Why not take a break? I got Bobby’s car. Let’s cruise.”

I am resentful of Bobby, of Richard’s friendship with him, that Bobby can do things for Richard I can’t. But I want to see Richard. I want to talk about our afternoon. I know he’ll be resistant, but he’ll concede to me. Maybe I’ll feel better afterwards.

“Sure,” I say.

He says he’ll meet me in front of my house in five minutes, but I tell him to pick me up around the corner in fifteen. I hang up and dial Angie. Her mother answers. Angie comes on the line a minute later. I speak softly, filling her in on my lunch with the DeSantis clan. I skirt the details and leave it that we had a pleasant lunch, that Richard’s mother is a remarkable cook, that Richard’s parents are charming. All true. I explain Richard and I want to drive around for a while. I ask her to phone me in a couple of minutes. She understands. I hang up and nosily trot upstairs. I want my mother to know I am back in my room. I solve an algebra problem before the phone rings and my mother yells, “Angie.”

I run down and take the phone from her. I shoo her away, and commence whispering secret girl talk to which no one, not even loving, caring mothers, may listen.

“Thanks, Angie,” I say.

“Share with me when you’re done,” Angie says.

I promise I will.

I’m on the phone for less than a minute. I pop into the kitchen, where my mother mops an already immaculate floor. She works constantly, labors like Penelope keeping house, hearth, and family hail and together. She tires my father, who cannot bear to watch her and usually retreats to the living room, to his chair, to contemplate the landscape on the backs of his eyelids.

“Mom, can I go out with Angie? She has to tell me something.” I speak with studied and practiced frenzy.

She stops swirling the mop. “What were you just doing with Angie?”

“This is private talk,” I plead. “You know, prying ears.”

“Hmm,” is the sum total of her comment, deeply cynical, mistrustful, challenging, a declaration she’s no fool.

“Ears, eyes, whatever. It’s a little too spicy for the house.”

“Spicy,” she exclaims. “I hope you girls aren’t doing anything you’ll be sorry for.”

“Oh, it’s nothing like what you’re thinking,” I say. “You certainly have a tendency to imagine the worst.”

“Maybe it’s because I’ve seen the worse,” she retorts, probably conjuring images of the dastardly Uncle Phil, long banished from the family portrait, but not forgotten.

“Angie has a new boyfriend and she wants to fill me in. That’s all.”

“You tell Angie to mind herself, and be back in an hour. Tomorrow’s a school day.”

I walk quickly away from my house, down the street to the corner. As I make the turn, I see Bobby’s car. I despise the car. It’s like Bobby himself, a crude and rude machine. Richard is behind the wheel and when he sees me he raises a hand. He’s parked toward the middle of the block on the opposite side. It’s an old Chevy Belair two-door, two very large and heavy doors. I have to strain to open and close those doors. The thing is a sickening color, two-tone blue, sky and sea. It’s dented all over, as if Bobby banged little pockmarks in for a reason known only to him. And it’s loud. Not pleasant loud, or expensive loud like some sports cars, but sloppy loud, neglected loud, poverty loud, angry loud, as it needs a new muffler, a tune-up, a complete overall, or more mercifully, a trip to the junkyard. All very odd, oxymoronic, considering Bobby’s one skill. Worse, it smells of Bobby, the rank foulness of somebody who lives his life under a layer of crud.

I acknowledge Richard, and shutter at the car, and walk quickly to the middle of the block. I look both ways. It’s a quiet street, the typical Creek Falls street, narrow and empty. Except today it isn’t empty. At the end of the street, I see a car, an odd blue car, monotone blue the shade of bright sky and weirdly familiar, a grotesque doppelganger of Bobby’s. It’s lumbering, drifting toward the middle. I judge I can easily stroll across the street and seat myself beside Richard before it passes the Belair.

I’m halfway across when I sense something isn’t right. There’s a roar in the air, a fire-breathing explosion of hell let loose. I turn in the direction of the onslaught of screeching rubber, thumping metal, billowing exhaust, and I see the lethargic car now transformed into a malevolent monster of motion, charging me. I want to move. I need to move. But I’m frozen.

Above the approaching racket, Richard’s voice rings through and I turn and focus on him. Strangely, he’s thrusting himself through the door window of Bobby’s junk heap, draping over the door, a giant slab the size and weight of a vault door that I struggle to open and wish I were battling with this very moment. Richard is smiling at me, dazzling me with bright teeth, brighter than human teeth could possibly be in the real world. Maybe I am in another world, a different dimension, where bright blue cars materialize on small town streets to harass young women like me. Richard gestures at me, encouraging in the most lackadaisical manner to come on over, put a move on it lazy bones so we can putter away. Why, I wonder, isn’t he rushing to me, snatching me into his arms, and racing me away from harm?

I have to get going. I turn and see the bright blue car is nearly on me. I have to get going. I’m thinking this when the car suddenly dips under me, launches me skyward. I summersault onto the hood, where I slide up to the windshield and come face to face with the driver. He’s dressed completely in blue to match his car—blue fedora, blue shirt. The fedora, brim snapped over the eyes, nearly touching the bridge of his noise, obscures his face. But as I crack the windshield and fly up and over it and bounce once on the roof, once on the trunk lid, and land on the pavement, I am convinced the man is Fred, the betrayer. Maybe he fears I will reveal his true identity. And Richard, why didn’t you help me? “Why?” I ask, my last word as my eyelids close.

In New Orleans’ Underbelly

Airline Highway

By Lisa D’Amour

Lisa D’Amour’s play introduces us to people tossed aside by life but who have found something resembling family at the Hummingbird Hotel, a wreck of a place that early on we know is doomed, as the area is undergoing gentrification witnessed by the building of a new Costco nearby. It features a large cast of failures, from the affable hotel manager, to the down and out prostitute, to the transgender performer, the burned out poet, the guy who got out (with the best name, Bait Boy), and the matriarch of the place, the dying former burlesque queen, Miss Ruby.

The play progresses through a day and it’s a monumental one as Hummingbird occupants, in love and gratitude to Ruby, are granting her wish and putting on a funeral party (Act II) for her, as she wanted in advance of her death while she could enjoy it (though she is enfeebled to the point of confinement to a concocted wheelchair and the ravages of dementia).

The dialogue overlaps and spins around the set, giving the production a built-in fast pace, but which requires audiences to pay close attention. Often it’s raw, as you would expect from folks kicked around by life and dumped on the road to the airport, and funny, too. But it also mines quite a bit of sentimentality, more sympathy for the characters, less empathy.

While it is definitely fun and colorful to watch, especially an immersive black box production, it may leave you feeling a bit less than fulfilled or with any more insight into the condition of marginal society, other than that people can create and need community even in the most awful circumstances. w/c

The Unforgettable Couple: Nick and Nora

The Thin Man

By Dashiell Hammett

Here’s one of the best, if not the very best, comic private detective mysteries you’ll ever read. Nick and Nora Charles, and their dog Asta, visit New York City for the Christmas and New York  holidays at the close of 1932, also the last days of the ill-fated temperance experiment, Prohibition (December 18, 1917 – March 22, 1933, ratification of the 18th and 21st Amendments, respectively). They are there to party, and as Nick likes to say, drink. However, the disappearance of an old client, Clyde Wynant, an eccentric and erratic millionaire inventor, followed by multiple murders, sets them off on finding Wynant and the killer in their midsts. Along the way, they run into an assortment of odd characters, including Wynant family members and a Runyon-esque gallery of rogues.

As with most mysteries, it’s less about the mystery itself than it is about the characters and the telling. What distinguishes The Thin Man is Hammett’s sharp wit, as expressed by Nick and Nora. What’s more is the copious amounts of alcohol consumed by Nick and Nora. On nearly every page, they busy themselves preparing cocktails, regardless of the time of day. Nick frequently imbibes upon waking before taking his breakfast. Of course, Hammett himself was an alcoholic, a disease that he led to his death.

Such a popular novel gave birth to an equally popular film adaptation. While the film departed from the novel in places, it did capture the essence of Nick and Nora, and gave personality to Asta. Once you’ve seen the 1934 film, you’ll find it hard to picture and hear Nick and Nora any differently from William Powell and Myrna Loy. As a matter of fact, it’s probably safe to say that most people will think of Nick himself as the thin man. In fact, the real thin man is Clyde Wynant, but such is the power of the visual association of trim Powell and the film’s title.

If you have never read the novel, it comes to you highly recommended, to be followed by a viewing of the 1934 film adaptation. And the best way to watch the film, of course, is with a shaker of Martinis at hand.

Here for your viewing pleasure is the film’s trailer and a compilation of Nick and Nora’s drinking exchanges. One thing you’ll notice almost immediately: the serving size of drinks is considerably smaller than what you see today. And everybody dresses to the T. How things have changed in the past eighty years. w/c