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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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

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

That Old Time Religion Explained

Pentecostalism in America

By R. G. Robins

Faith healing (deliverance), speaking in tongues (glossolalia), end time predictions (Revelation), God working full-time on the planet, what is this stuff and who are these people who embrace these, and more, as pure gospel? They are believers who pretty much, with variations, accept Jesus Christ as Savior, as Baptizer in partnership with the Holy Spirit; that Christ is healer and that He is returning as King. They have produced interesting, colorful, and to more rational minds, outrageous preachers and leaders, such as Aimee Semple McPherson, Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, and many others whose names aren’t nearly as well known, as least not to the population at large. Additionally, they comprise a substantial group in their various iterations, approaching 15 million in number. And while historically concentrating their efforts on spiritual and salvationist affairs, since the 1960s, they have and are asserting themselves in the secular social, economic, and political world. Reasons enough to become familiar with their history and belief systems.

Robins makes some cogent observations regarding this throughout, but non clearer of what is happening currently than this in the latter portion of the study: “Americans of more liberal persuasion … welcomed the sweep of post-civil rights changes as the arc of progress, a vital widening of participatory democracy, personal liberty, and social justice. But conservatives responded with outrage and alarm. Taken together, these trends introduced a new source of conservation solidarity: the conviction that an unholy alliance subsumed under the general heading of secular humanism has laid siege to Christian America, placing the spiritual and political foundation of the nation, indeed, the very fabric of society, at risk.”

In this monograph, Robins, himself raised among what some used to call (perhaps still do in certain quarters) shouters, introduces readers to Pentecostal origins, beliefs, branching, organizations, and entry into secular society as warriors against the humanistic ideas of modernity. In other words, worthwhile reading for “nonbelievers.” As an extra inducement, Robins prefaces the study with a personal introduction that recounts his young years most will find unexpected and entertaining. w/c

Review: 2017 National Book Award Winner

Sing, Unburied, Sing

By Jesmyn Ward

National Book Award for Fiction and recent MacArthur Genius Award winner Jesmyn Ward explores family bonds and racial prejudice and oppression in Sing, Unburied, Sing. Racism permeates the patch traversed by Jojo and his sister Kayla, his grandfather Pop and dying mother Mam, and his self-absorbed mother Leonie and his white father Michael, the pair not much older than children, and brings forth his murdered uncle Given, and another thirteen-year-old boy Richie, killed on the prison farm of Parchman (Mississippi State Penitentiary). Both Given and Richie, visible to Jojo, seek but can never find the release of justice, both stark and brutal reminders that post-racial America exists merely as a rhetorical phrase fronting a myth. As grim as this sounds, and as shocking as the family’s odyssey proves, Ward does find hope in the familial bonds of Jojo, Kayla, and Pop.

The story is about two journeys, one in real time and the other through recent history. Leonie solicits her white friend Misty, who has an imprisoned black boyfriend, to retrieve Michael from Parchman with her, where he has finished his term for cooking and selling meth. She thinks it’s a good idea to bring along her children, Kayla, a toddler, and Jojo, thirteen. As readers learn, she isn’t much of a mother, so bad and absent that her children can’t call her mom. She works but her passions are Michael, longing for Michael, and getting high. The burden of caring for the children fall to Pop and Mam, who now lies in bed, wracked by pain as she dies of cancer. Fortunately for Kayla and Jojo, Pop knows how to care for his family. As Jojo and Kayla share a special bond, so do Jojo and Pop. Pop teaches him how to live on the farm, the secrets of the woods and the animals, and of survival. He’s a man who has seen and experienced much pain in his life, including having served a term as a teen in Parchman. Slowly, over time, he tells Jojo the story of Richie, which is the tale of black oppression summed up in the short, brutal life of a thirteen-year-old boy. It’s a story Pop can barely finish, because, as readers will eventually learn, the ending is so horrifying.

Needless to say, the auto trip proves excruciating for the four, partly because Kayla becomes sick during it and nobody but Jojo seems to care or know how to comfort and help the child. When they eventually pick up Michael, the return trip devolves into something even more harrowing. Before getting Micheal, Leonie and Misty stop over at their lawyer’s house, Al. When you are dirt poor, as these people are, you get the Als of the world, representation by a drug addled wasted white man. He sends them off with crystal meth, and wouldn’t you know it, only hours out of prison, a cop pulls them over. Leonie, out love perhaps, desperation for certain, swallows the meth and what results nearly costs the travelers their freedom, and Jojo his life. It’s a scene straight out of a worst nightmare.

As if this wasn’t enough, Leonie possesses the ability envied by her mother, of seeing the dead. Perhaps this is supernatural, but it’s more likely the pain of losing her brother Given to murder. Suffice to say here that against all good advice, star athlete Given thought his white teammates regarded him as he regarded him, as brothers. In the end, his trust and misreading of race killed him as surely as the bullet. Let’s leave it for readers to discover the circumstances on their own. Leonie believes she sees him, voiceless, observing all her bad deeds. Jojo possesses this ability as well. It manifests when they pick up Michael from Parchman and Richie hitches a ride to find his old benefactor, Pop, whom he knows as River. What is little, perpetually a child Ritchie seeking? He’s wants the one person he felt ever acknowledged and cared about him. There’s much sadness here, but none sadder than Ritchie and what he represents.

While many will think, no, this isn’t a book for me, it, in fact, probably is a book for you, and especially for people who will never know about it. Because it is a story that needs telling and feeling on a visceral level, with the right among of openness to receive and acknowledge it. Strongly recommended. w/c