A Paradise Built in Hell

Cover image for A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnitby Rebecca Solnit

ISBN 9781101459010

“The paradises built in hell are improvisational; we make them up as we go along, and in doing so they call on all our strength and creativity and leave us free to invent even as we find ourselves enmeshed in community. These paradises built in hell show us both what we want and what we can be.”

What happens when a disaster disrupts our communities? If you’ve watched any Hollywood depictions, or followed popular media accounts, the images are immediately of panicked crowds, followed by savage competition for scarce resources. But in the field of disaster studies, crowd panic is found to be far less common, and altruistic, prosocial responses much more the norm. In a large scale disaster, you’re more likely to be helped by your neighbour or your coworker than by an emergency responder or relief worker. So why is the popular conception of how people respond to catastrophic events so skewed? In A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit uses six major disasters to examine how the public really responds in a large scale emergency, and how the responses—or lack thereof—by authorities can undermine the altruism, community-building and prosocial behaviour that naturally occur, as well as the role the media can play in perpetuating these misconceptions.

Solnit uses six major disasters, three historical, and three more recent, as her case studies. Working in chronological order, she begins with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, proceeds to the 1917 Halifax explosion, and then turns to the London Blitz. For more recent history, she examines the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the 9/11 attacks on New York, and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Throughout, she blends these historical accounts with information from the academic field of disaster studies, contrasting these studies and theories of behaviour with more popular conceptions and reports. The case studies are a mix of natural disasters and man-made events; the Halifax explosion was an accident, while the Blitz and 9/11 were deliberate acts of human violence. While earthquakes and hurricanes are natural occurrences, Solnit pays particular attention to how the response of authorities after a natural disaster can create second, man-made disaster, and by contrast, how public response and organizing following a disaster can lead to political change.

A key concept in the book is elite panic, a term coined by Caron Chess and Lee Clarke of Rutgers University. Both academics in the field of disaster studies, they noticed that while authorities planning for disaster response were preoccupied with how to control public reaction, in fact it was often the authorities themselves that panicked and over reacted. In the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the acting commander of the Presidio marched the army out in the streets, nominally to provide aid, but in fact essentially instituting martial law in the city without the required approval of Congress. Ordered to shut down saloons and prevent the sale of alcohol, troops went a step further and began breaking into businesses to destroy their stock. Ordered to prevent looting, they shot people who had been invited by business owners to take groceries and supplies before their businesses burned in the fires that followed the earthquake. In fact, the troops were so industrious in the prevention of any possibility of looting, that they also prevented residents from fighting the fires. In each disaster, Solnit demonstrates that the most brutal acts are often committed by those seeking to preserve or restore their authority, not by panicked members of the general public, who are often preoccupied with helping one another.

In several places throughout the book, Solnit takes particular aim at the popular myth of looting in the aftermath of disaster. In a number of the cases cited in the book, including the San Francisco earthquake and Hurricane Katrina, authorities directed police or the military to shoot anyone who tried to take any property, even with permission. Solnit argues that the term looting “conflates the emergency requisitioning of supplies in a crisis without a cash economy with opportunistic stealing.” Taking a television in a flooded city without electricity is theft; taking food, medical supplies, or the means to build shelter or escape drowning is requisitioning. Myths about looting can be particularly harmful because they make people afraid of one another. After Hurricane Katrina, the rumours about looting and violence in New Orleans led authorities in the neighbouring community of Gretna on the other side the Mississippi River to blockade the bridge and refuse to accept any refugees. Solnit also worked with journalist A.C. Thompson on a major story about how white residents of Algiers Point, a suburb of New Orleans, formed vigilante bands to defend their property. Thompson found that this impromptu militia shot at least eleven African-American men in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in the name of preventing looting. When the general public behaves badly in the aftermath of a disaster, it is often a more powerful group acting out against a minority. Some Germans were targeted in Halifax before it was determined the explosion was accident rather than an act of war by the enemy, and after a major earthquake in Japan in 1923, the minority Korean community was accused of committing arson or poisoning wells.

In contrast to the elite panic is the general behaviour of the public. Solnit argues that “the prevalent human nature in disaster is resilient, resourceful, generous, empathetic, and brave,” and she is able to back this up with ample evidence from academic disaster studies, and her various case studies. In the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake, the community set up camps and impromptu food kitchens in the city’s parks. After Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of boat owners crowded into the city to rescue the stranded even while authorities argued that it was too dangerous to enter the city. In the Twin Towers, occupants began an orderly staircase evacuation, even when the Port Authority directed residents of the South Tower to stay inside after first plane struck. The accounts from that day include a disabled man who was carried down in a relay by his colleagues. The urge to help one another is powerful, and so many people felt the need to do something, anything, to be of use to the evacuation and rescue operation. Volunteer services available to the victims and rescue workers included everything from food to counselling to massage therapy. This is mutual aid, which means that “every participant is both giver and recipient in acts of care that bind them together, as distinct from the one way street of charity.”

In addition to altruism and community, Solnit examines the opportunities for political change that can be provided by the upheaval of disaster. She argues that “disasters open up societies to change, accelerate change that was under way, or break the hold of whatever was preventing change.” She is quick to note however that change and progress are not necessarily equivalent. Nevertheless, an opportunity arises. In her account of the Mexico City earthquake, Solnit follows the story of the city’s seamstresses, many of whom worked in sweatshops that were destroyed by the quake. Their employers prioritized saving equipment over saving people, and in many cases disappeared without paying outstanding wages or severance. This led to the unionization of the seamstresses. A housing rights movement also grew out of the disaster, because many homes were destroyed due to the shoddy construction that had been overlooked by corrupt government officials and inspectors. The contrasting cases of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina are particularly interesting here, because they both happened under the Bush administration. Whereas the first was used to consolidate power and curtail freedoms in the name of patriotism and safety, the latter opened up the administration to unprecedented criticism and opposition.

I picked up A Paradise Built in Hell following reading Songs for the End of the World by Saleema Nawaz, which I reviewed last week. Nawaz cites the book in her acknowledgements as an important source that informed how she wrote her characters’ response to disaster, opting against the more usual depictions of panic. Solnit doesn’t use any pandemics as examples, and indeed a pandemic would seem, by the very nature of contagion, to prevent such altruism and community-building, but Nawaz’s book, despite being written before COVID-19, proved to be a very accurate description of what life has actually been like since the pandemic began. And certainly we now know that the disruption of our ability to gather as families and communities has been one of the most difficult consequences of the pandemic. While it can be uncomfortable to try to think about positive outcomes of horrifying disasters in which people lose their lives, it can also be uplifting to be offered a more positive portrait of human nature in the face of disaster, especially in the midst of one.

You might also like Palaces for the People by Eric Klinenberg

Songs for the End of the World

Cover image for Songs for the End of the World by Saleema Nawazby Saleema Nawaz

ISBN 9780771072574

“He should have known better. How quickly he’d forgotten a fundamental truth: the closer you get to the heart of calamity, the more resilience there was to be found.”

In the summer of 2020, New York City police officer Elliot Howe finds himself in quarantine after he learns that he was exposed to a novel coronavirus brought to the United States by a visiting teacher at his martial arts gym. As Elliot watches from his window, New York is gripped by ARAMIS—Acute Respiratory and Muscular Inflammatory Syndrome—and the hunt for ARAMIS Girl, a young Asian woman falsely believed to be patient zero for the outbreak. Songs for the End of the World also follows Owen Grant, a writer who is reluctantly drawn into the spotlight because he wrote a novel that seemed to predict the ARAMIS outbreak, and Emma Aslet, a singer-songwriter who is planning an ARAMIS relief fundraiser while she is expecting her first child. Weaving back and forth in time, and following a cast of loosely connected characters, Songs for the End of the World explores family and human connection in pandemic times.

Canadian novelist Saleema Nawaz wrote and then revised this book, her second novel, between 2013 and 2019. Looking to the past, she based her research on SARS, MERS, Ebola, and the 1918 influenza pandemic. Originally scheduled for publication in August 2020—the same month the events of the novel begin—it was published digital-first in April 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the globe. The print edition was released as scheduled on August 25, 2020 in Canada by McClelland & Stewart. As of this writing, the novel does not have an American publisher or US publication date.

The novel is set mainly over a five month period from August to December 2020, but with flashbacks to periods between 1999 and 2016. Most of the flashbacks happen in the first half of the book, delaying the sense of settling into the pandemic with interludes of normalcy. In the flashbacks, we see Owen beginning to write his pandemic novel just as his marriage starts to fall apart, follow Stu Jenkins beginning his career as a musician, and accompany the Aslet family as they circumnavigate the globe on their sailboat while Y2K draws closer, and join Elliot’s sister Sarah as she reveals to their parents that she has chosen to have a baby by herself.

Songs for the End of the World is a pandemic novel, but not a post-apocalyptic one. Certain parallels can definitely be drawn to the work of fellow Canadian novelist Emily St. John Mandel; Station Eleven came out in 2014 and was a pandemic novel that also featured a large cast of characters and employed a complex timeline. However, Songs for the End of the World does not destroy our society before offering the hope of rebuilding, but instead considers resilience in place. In this novel, it is those who try the hardest to isolate and escape who pay the heaviest price, while those families that turn towards one another find the capacity to heal old wounds and build new bonds as they grapple with the strange new world they suddenly find themselves living in.

As omniscient as Songs for the End of the World seems, it does differ from our current circumstances in important ways. Family is a key theme of the novel, one that Nawaz strikes at by having children be extremely susceptible to ARAMIS, and at the greatest risk of dying from the new disease. Elliot’s sister Sarah is desperate to protect her young son Noah—so desperate that she agrees to join Owen on his recently purchased sailboat to ride out the pandemic in isolation. Emma gives birth to her first child in the midst of the pandemic, as does Elliot’s ex-wife’s new partner, Julia. Another character faces the fact that the child she chose to have by herself would be alone if something happened to her during the pandemic, and another discovers offspring he was previously unaware of. Each in their way faces the question of what it means to bring new life into this world, with all its flaws and dangers.

Although Nawaz wrote this novel in a world where COVID-19 was not a reality, none of us will ever be able to read the book from that perspective. For better or for worse, my reading of this story is inevitably coloured by the reality of living through a real pandemic while reading about a fictional one. Although I’ve read a number of non-fiction pandemic books this year, Songs for the End of the World marks my first foray into fictional pandemics since COVID-19 began. As such, I was struck by the accuracy of Nawaz’s research, and the myriad ways that her ARAMIS outbreak mirrors our current circumstances down to the very smallest details of social distancing and public reaction and controversy. At times the meta-ness of the book was almost too much to bear—a fault of the world, not the writer. Like Owen, Nawaz has unexpectedly found herself the author of a pandemic novel that has suddenly come true. But unlike Owen, Nawaz sees connection and hope. “We may need to isolate at home, but it is not a time for isolationism,” she warns in the interview included at the ended of the book; “we need to come together in solidarity.”

You might also like Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz

Austen Years

Cover image for Austen Years by Rachel Cohenby Rachel Cohen

ISBN 9780374720827

“She is always, and still, reading Persuasion. She loves Persuasion. It is not the most brilliant or elegant or formally demanding, but it seems to know her, and all of them, so well. It has the depth of dreams, and like dreams it is incomplete, and she cannot really understand it.

In 2012, Rachel Cohen was pregnant with her first child, and her father was dying of cancer. As these two major changes fundamentally upended her life, she found herself reading almost nothing but Jane Austen, an author she had first gone through as a senior in high school, but then never returned to. Slowly, she also found herself warming to memoir, a genre she had previously avoided despite being a teacher of creative non-fiction. As a dying wish, her father had charged her with publishing a letter he had written to a colleague, which had begun to shape what might have been the next phase of his career as an organizational psychologist. While her children grow, and her memories of her father inevitably begin to fade, Cohen struggles to find a way to fulfill her promise, while also grappling with the ways in which she has used Austen to order and interpret this season of her life.

Austen Years is a book about grief and change, and many of the most touching and emotional parts of the book relate to Cohen’s memories of her father, the sadness of slowly losing him even while he was still alive, and her responsibility for his legacy and memory after he has passed. I kept wondering when we would get to read the letter which is often referenced, but it is not included in the main body of the text, but rather attached as an appendix. I’d recommend flipping to the back and reading it the first time it is mentioned, and then continuing from there, as Cohen repeatedly picks up on many of its themes, including the references to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and works with them throughout the book.

You can only read a book for the first time once, though the impression it leaves may be hazy or crystal clear; Cohen has some of both in her memories of Austen. But reading a book about a book, or books, that you have read, is sometimes perhaps the closest thing to reading a book again for the first time. Seeing a familiar story through someone else’s eyes, through someone else’s life, defamiliarizes it just enough to render it fresh again. At the same time you hold it alongside your own impressions and memories, comparing and contrasting the two. It is also fascinating to see how different people can be as readers and rereaders. Like Cohen, I first read Austen in high school, and I revisit the novels often—most recently Emma—and often find comfort in them at times when I can focus on reading little else. But unlike the author, I always reread them in whole, beginning to end. Cohen in dips into parts, rereading only the final third of Sense and Sensibility for months at time, or lingering over the scene in which Darcy and Elizabeth walk together at the end of Pride and Prejudice and finally come to an understanding.

Cohen moves through five of Austen’s major works, beginning with Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice, graduating to Mansfield Park and Emma, and always circling back again and again to her favourite, Persuasion. She omits Northanger Abbey entirely, and briefly addresses the fragment known as Sanditon. She writes of Persuasion’s heroine as if she were a real acquaintance, beginning “when I first knew Anne Elliot,” and continuing from there. Having married late to a friend she had known for twenty years, Cohen relates deeply to Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth’s second chance romance, as well as the echoes of the loss of her mother that reverberate through Anne’s story. I admit I’ve also been secretly fond of steadfast Anne, Austen’s oldest heroine, who is no longer pretty, but gets her second chance at love anyway.

At turns touching and introspective, Austen Years is fragmentary, struggling after but never quite achieving cohesion. Cohen is trying to string almost too much together, and it shows even in her sentences, which are flighty and rife with commas trying and failing to do the work of more robust punctuation.  The author is grasping after some kind of sense in the wake of loss, but seems unable to get the disparate parts to coalesce. Life and death are not always neat and orderly in that way, and so we roam from memoir to biography to literary criticism, and back again, as Cohen ranges over her marriage, her father’s life and career, Austen’s life and career, family, mortality, legacy, community, theatre, history, literary biography and more in a quest to understand why these works consumed her for so many years.

You might also like My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

Vampires Never Get Old

Cpver image for Vampires Never Get Old edited by Zoraida Cordova and Natalie C. ParkerEdited by Zoraida Córdova and Natalie C. Parker

ISBN 9781250230003

“There is no one way to write the vampire. After all, a being with the power to shape-shift should wear many faces and tell many tales.”

Vampires Never Get Old brings together a variety of stars from the world of young adult fiction to provide fresh takes on the vampire story, with a particular focus on diversity and inclusion. The collection consists of eleven short stories, each with their own spin on the vampire mythology. To each story the editors add a quick note on the aspects of the vampire tradition used, transformed, or subverted in that tale. The stories include a wide variety of LGBTQ+ and BIPOC protagonists, as well as a fat slayer and a vampire with a disability.

For unique form and dark and creepy vibes, I want to call out “Mirrors, Windows & Selfies” by Mark Oshiro. The story is written in the form of an online diary or blog, but the commenters perceive it as a work of ongoing fiction, which gains in popularity over time. The writer is a young vampire who was born, not made, and although I really hate this trope, I still enjoyed Oshiro’s execution. Cisco has been moved around the country his entire life by his vampire parents, but as he nears adulthood, he begins to question the secrecy and the rules, and wonders why exactly his parents have been keeping him hidden and isolated from vampire society.

Perhaps the most chilling tale is “In Kind” by Kayla Whaley, a dark revenge fantasy in which a disabled teenage girl is murdered by her father, an act which the press dubs a “mercy killing.” Grace then faces the choice about whether to use her new powers to punish her father for what he has done. The story is also notable in that while becoming a vampire makes Grace stronger and more powerful in many ways, it is not able to restore her ability to walk. Her vampirism is empowering, without being a miracle cure for her disability, which is a core part of her identity.

The funniest story belongs to Samira Ahmed, who contributes “A Guidebook for the Newly Sired Desi Vampire.” A brand new vampire wakes up alone in a dark warehouse, and has to undergo Vampire Orientation 101 by Vampersand, a newly minted vampire tech start up for young Indian vampires who have been unexpectedly turned by careless British vampire tourists. Filled with snark and anticolonial bite, this was the only story that made me laugh out loud.

Most of the stories stand alone well, but several had strong potential as novel starters. In particular, I would definitely read a f/f novel with a vampire and a slayer, something that Julie Murphy explores in “Senior Year Sucks,” and which Victoria Schwab also features in her tale, “First Kill.” However, the stand out in this regard was absolutely “The House of Black Sapphires” by Dhonielle Clayton, in which the Turner women return to New Orleans’ Eternal Ward after centuries away. Descended from vampires, but distinct, Eternals can only be killed by Shadow Barons, but none of the Turner girls have ever met one until they return to their mother’s home in New Orleans, and discover that their mother was once in love with a Shadow Baron herself. This story had atmosphere and world-building potential galore, and I would dearly love to read an entire novel set in this world.

Vampires Never Get Olds marks a delightful return to the mythology of vampires, filled with unique tales and fun little extra nuggets. Read through the author bios to find out each contributor’s favourite vampire, and check out the copyright page for a vampire-themed book curse! If like me you’ve been missing vampires, this collection might just quench your thirst, at least for a while.

For more vampires, you might also like:

Urban Fantasy Vampires

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

Certain Dark Things 

I Kissed Alice

Cover image for I Kissed Alice by Anna Birchby Anna Birch

Illustrated by Victoria Ying

ISBN 978125021986-2

“The fact that life is just throwing us together should feel like fate, but instead all I have is an impending sense of doom.”

Friends. Lovers. Competitors. Rhodes, Sarah, and Iliana are all students at the Alabama Conservatory of the Arts and Technology, a speciality high school. Rhodes is the award-winning model student, and Sarah is her roommate. Sarah and Iliana have been best friends since childhood, and they transferred to the Conservatory together, even though they don’t share the privileged background of most of the school’s students. But their friendships are challenged by one complicated fact; Rhodes and Iliana hate one another, and they are in fierce competition for the Capstone Award, which includes a scholarship to the local college of art and design. Hard-working Iliana is furious that rich, talented Rhodes might snatch the scholarship she so desperately needs. What she doesn’t know is that Rhodes is battling depression, and a creative block that is threatening to destroy her academic career and her future. Unbeknownst to them both, they share a secret online life on Slash/Spot, a fanfiction site where Curious-in-Cheshire and I-Kissed-Alice are co-creators of an Alice in Wonderland-inspired comic. But their feelings for one another might go beyond creative collaboration, if they were ever to meet in real life…

I Kissed Alice is told in alternating first person chapters, switching perspectives between Rhodes and Iliana. The chapters occasionally conclude with a comic by Victoria Ying, capturing the story of Alice and the Red Queen that Iliana and Rhodes are unknowingly collaborating on. The comics were amazing, and would have loved to see more of them included in the book, preferably in colour! Birch also uses, chat, the Slash/Spot comments, and text messages to flesh out the story. I enjoyed the fandom aspect of the book, and the intense connection Rhodes and Iliana both feel to Alice in Wonderland, as well as their f/f take on it in their comic.

The tone of this book was a little bit heavier than what I expected from the publisher’s summary and the cover art, all of which suggested a light enemies-to-lovers romp. However, the book deals with complex themes including unhealthy relationships of various types, and a protagonist who is battling with significant depression. Rhodes is wealthy and seems to have everything Iliana wants, but beneath the well-polished surface, she is dealing with a mother who is a functioning alcoholic determined to control her future, and stifling a depression that has choked off her ability to create any art other than her comic with Curious-in-Cheshire. She is drowning in the expectations of others. Meanwhile, Iliana has lost out on one scholarship after getting into trouble with Rhodes and Sarah, making for a bitter competition for the Capstone Award, which she desperately needs to afford college. Both Iliana and Sarah work part-time at a diner in addition to their studies, struggling to purchase the necessary art supplies for all their classes. Studying art at college seems even further out of reach.

Although I Kissed Alice is an enemies-to-lovers story, it is lacking in sizzle, tension, and banter. Iliana and Rhodes mostly make themselves, and Sarah, miserable with their bickering and in-fighting. The narration alternates between Iliana and Rhodes, but the perspective I felt was really missing was Sarah, who is the real life bridge between the two, and often caught in the crossfire of their arguments. Given the significant role she plays in the story, I really wanted to understand her point-of-view better, particularly towards the end of the book. Friendship is just as important to this book as romance, so Sarah not having a voice in the narrative somewhat limits that exploration.

Urban Fantasy Vampires

Ever since discovering the work of Anne Rice when I was about fifteen, I’ve been more or less obsessed with vampires, which tend to rise and fall in the trends of speculative fiction literature in a somewhat cyclical fashion. They’ve been having a bit of a quiescence since the hype of Twilight settled down, but I’ve recently been craving a return to this obsession that never dies. I’m impatiently awaiting the publication of Vampires Never Get Old next week, a short story anthology that brings together authors like Zoraida Córdova, Dhonielle Clayton, and Julie Murphy with fresh takes on an old favourite. While I was waiting, I decided to revisit some classics from the vampire urban fantasy oeuvre, and see how they held up. (Fellow UNBC alum: Yes, these were all on the syllabus from Dr. Stan Beeler’s English 486 Literature of the Fantastic course!)

Blood Price

Cover image for Blood Price by Tanya HuffOriginally published in 1991, Blood Price by Canadian SFF writer Tanya Huff is probably the oldest book I’ve read that could classed as urban fantasy. Vicki Nelson has recently retired from the Toronto police force at the ripe old age of 31, due to her rapidly deteriorating vision caused by retinitis pigmentosa. A former rising star within the department, Vicki still feels like she has a lot to prove, and she’s set up shop as a private investigator. In Blood Price, she is hired by a wealthy college student to investigate the murder of her boyfriend. As the killings continue, the local press begins speculating about vampires, as all the victims have been drained of blood. While she tries to keep an open mind, what Vicki never expected was to run into a real vampire who is trying to solve the murders himself, before the press draws too much attention to the potential existence of his kind. Part of the great fun of this series in the vampire himself, Henry Fitzroy, who is the bastard son of King Henry VIII. In 1990s Toronto, he is making a living as a romance novelist, penning historical bodice rippers under the nom de plume Elizabeth Fitzroy.

This was a fun reread that has held up in many respects, but aged markedly in others. The human villain of this installment is an angry young, white, male college student who feels he hasn’t received everything to which he is entitled, something that still rings so true as to almost be too on the nose. When this novel was published, the École Polytechnique massacre of 1989 would have been a still fresh event, and not much has changed since. A lot of the plot turns on answering machines, and people waiting for phone calls, something I didn’t notice when I first read this book in 2008 with a flip phone in my purse, but which is glaringly obvious in 2020 with everyone glued to their smartphones. I’m also less interested in police protagonists, and cringed really hard when Vicki’s former partner, Mike, made a joke about police brutality.

Guilty Pleasures

Cover image for Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. HamiltonPublished in 1993, this still ongoing series is often cited among the influences of urban fantasy writers, though my 2002 paperback edition describes it as “a heady mix of romance and horror,” and the cover blurbs are mostly from mystery rather than SFF writers. Guilty Pleasures introduces Anita Blake, zombie raiser and vampire hunter. Although her primary job is raising the dead, Anita sidelines in killing rogue vampires, and in this first installment of what is now a 27 book series, she is hired to investigate the murders of four vampires. Pressured into undertaking the investigation against her better judgement, Anita finds herself pulled into vampire politics, squaring off against the terrifying Master of the City of St. Louis, and upending the balance of power in a way that will inevitably bind her to the supernatural world, and to the handsome and alluring vampire Jean-Claude.

Urban fantasy is split into those series in which the supernatural world is secret and those in which it is openly acknowledged—sometimes with a transition in which the supernatural world is unveiled. This series begins two years after vampires become legally recognized in the United States, and one thing I find interesting about this book is the world-building that explores the consequences of such a ruling. Vampires can use their abilities for commerce—as we see at the vampire strip club Guilty Pleasures—or to found their own religions, as with the Church of Eternal Life, a vampire church being a truly fascinating concept in a world Laurell K. Hamilton also chooses to have holy objects repel her vampires. This series has transformed and reincarnated itself several times over the nearly thirty years it has been running, and I haven’t read a new installment in over a decade, but it was nevertheless illuminating to revisit. Even if the plot also heavily figured answering machines. Go figure.

Dead Until Dark

Cover image for Dead Until Dark by Charlaine HarrisBetter known for its 2008 television adaptation True Blood, Dead Until Dark was originally published in 2001. Set in rural northern Louisiana, it follows the adventures of Sookie Stackhouse, the psychic waitress. Like the Anita Blake series, these books take place about two years after vampires have “come out of the coffin,” and the book opens with Sookie meeting her first vampire, Bill Compton, who has returned Bon Temps to reclaim his family’s property there now that vampires have been legally recognized. Regarded as somewhat crazy by her neighbours, who don’t really want to believe in her psychic abilities, Sookie has faced a lot of social rejection before Bill rolls into town, but she is surprised to find that—unlike humans—she can’t hear vampire thoughts. She quickly falls into a romance with Bill, but this attachment is complicated by local suspicions about the newcomer, a series of murders of young women known to have associated with vampires, and the fact the vampires would very much like to put Sookie’s psychic talents to their own uses.

Urban fantasies commonly feature working class protagonists, but Sookie is notable for her pride in her job as a waitress, and her defensiveness about anyone who tries to put her down for being low class or air-headed because of her lack of education or her choice of employment. Much of the action centers on her interactions with patrons at Merlotte’s, the local watering hole. Dead Until Dark has one of the most rural settings of any urban fantasy series I’ve read, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms, but Harris turns small town life to good effect, even as she pulls in wider vampire politics with Sookie becoming enmeshed in the supernatural community. The big cringe here might be when Sookie’s grandmother invites Bill over to talk to her about the Civil War, and she seems fascinated and delighted when he is able to tell her that her husband’s family owned two slaves. And yes, in case you were wondering, there were several plot points featuring answering machines. So let that be a lesson to you writers out there; vampires may never get old, but the technology you include in your stories will!

Have you got favourite vampire reading recommendations? Hit me in the comments!

More Vampire Reads:

Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

The Great Influenza

Cover image for The Great Influenza by John M. Barryby John M. Barry

ISBN 9781101200971

“It seemed now as if there had never been life before the epidemic. The disease informed every action of every person in the city.”

On the heels of The Great War—now better known as World War I—a much more rapacious killer swept the globe, leaving a death toll that dwarfed the war in its invisible wake. As the influenza pandemic raged, medical scientists practically took up residence in their laboratories, seeking the elusive pathogen that was piling up bodies on their doorsteps. Wave after wave broke over the globe, but still the cause, a treatment, a vaccine, remained just beyond grasp. Recently modernized, American medical science clashed with nature and fell short, despite the concerted efforts of investigators such as Paul A. Lewis, Oswald Avery, and the team of William H. Park and Anna Wessel Williams. John M. Barry combines war, disease, and history of medicine in this account of 1918 flu pandemic, which remains one of the deadliest in human history.

The Great Influenza is broadly interested in the history of medicine, and specifically the evolution of the American medical tradition, and how it came to be transformed and modernized, finally becoming a scientific endeavour. Barry goes so far back as the Hippocratic and Galenic medical traditions, tracing progress through Paracelsus and Vesalius before discussing the stagnation of medical progress, and America’s late arrival to the scientific medical revolution. He spends significant time on the establishment of Johns Hopkins in 1876, the first modern medical laboratory in the United States to be modeled after state of the art institutions in Europe. The hospital and medical school would be added later, and for the first time prospective doctors in the United States would be required to have a college degree, as well as be fluent in French and German for admission. The establishment and contributions of the Rockefeller Institute also receive significant attention, if not quite as much detail as Johns Hopkins. This contextualization takes up about the first quarter of the book before Barry turns his attention to the pandemic proper.

Barry begins in Kansas in January and February of 1918, following Dr. Loring Miner, who observed an unusually violent influenza among his rural patients that winter which may have been the forerunner of what is now thought of as the first spring wave of a pandemic that would ultimately take as many as 100 million lives. He then turns his attention to Camp Funston, also located in Kansas. Although he briefly acknowledges that the exact origin of the outbreak is not proven, he considers this the most likely, and proceeds from there. From army camp to laboratory to naval shipyard to community spread, Barry follows the pathogen, and the people who were trying to identify it, and create a treatment or vaccine. Barry’s account of the pandemic is largely Amerocentric. (For a book with a slightly more global perspective, I would recommend Pale Rider by Laura Spinney.) Late in the book Barry makes a brief circuit of the globe, with cursory accounts of the death tolls in various locales, but this is not the focus of the book. On the home front, he uses Philadelphia as a particular case study. The city was home to a naval shipyard, and held the Liberty Loan Parade to raise money for war bonds in late September of 1918, just as the deadly second wave was breaking upon the city. The results were catastrophic, almost apocalyptic.

At times Barry seems to wish he was writing a biography, with figures such as William Henry Welch, Paul A. Lewis, and—to a lesser degree—Oswald Avery occupying large amounts of his attention, even taking time to detail lulls in their careers when they were not making significant contributions. Welch, though not much of a laboratory scientist himself, was a key player in the transformation of the American medical establishment, and an important mentor and power broker in the field. Both Lewis and Avery spent the war and the years that followed in the laboratory investigating influenza, but neither would identify the virus, and their most signal scientific accomplishments would be in other areas. Lewis would be remembered largely for his work on polio, and Avery for his ground breaking discoveries regarding DNA. Both the war and the pandemic would pass, and it would be the 1930s before the virus was at last discovered. This receives only cursory attention in the final section.

A significant cautionary note that emerges from The Great Influenza is the danger of government misinformation and inaction. Because of the war, information about influenza was tightly repressed, as it was believed to have a negative influence on morale. As Barry puts it, “What officials and the press said bore no relationship to what people saw and touched and smelled and endured.”  In practice, the cognitive dissonance of seeing friends and neighbours dying all around while the press and government continued to print reassurances that there was nothing to be concerned about proved significantly more destructive to the social fabric. Trust eroded, and in the absence of reliable information, people simply had to fend for themselves. Read in the current circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, this makes The Great Influenza a chilling combination of reassurance and despair. It—which is to say the disease itself—could be so much worse, and yet more than a hundred years later, we are still making so many of the same mistakes.

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The Dutch House

Cover image for The Dutch House by Ann Patchettby Ann Patchett

ISBN 9780062963673

“We pretended that what we had lost was the house, not our mother, not our father. We pretended that what we had lost had been taken from us by the person who still lived inside.”

Danny and Maeve Conroy grew up in the Dutch House, a unique and magnificent home in the suburbs of Philadelphia, which their father purchased for their mother with the hard earnings of his own self-made real estate empire, built up in the aftermath of WWII. But the house undoes Cyril Conroy’s first marriage, leaving Maeve to raise Danny with the help of Sandy and Jocelyn, two sisters who work in the kitchen and manage the household. It is their father’s remarriage to the despised Andrea that truly sets the chain of events in motion that will define their lives as orphans who have only one another to rely on. As drawn to the Dutch House as Elna Conroy was repulsed by it, Andrea becomes the villain, the wicked stepmother who dispossesses and exiles her stepchildren. Her choice will reverberate through all their lives over the course of the coming decades.

Although Danny is the narrator of this tale, he is probably the least interesting character in the book. He is also not the most insightful, though there is enough detail that is observed but not understood for the reader to pick up the things that he is missing. I personally would have been more interested in Maeve’s perspective, but as Ann Patchett herself put it in an interview on the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast, Maeve is not the sort of person who would ever think her own story is worth telling. She is not as self-effacing as her mother, but nor can she countenance being at the center of attention. So we are left with Danny, who is surrounded by a cast of fascinating women, all of whom are holding him up, always ensuring that the fifteen year old boy who lost his father and his home finds his way, continuing long after he is grown. Even flipping to the perspective of Andrea might be fascinating, because she is the character into whom we get the least insight, seeing her always through Danny’s eyes and grievances.

Another intriguing character is Fiona, who also grew up in the Dutch House before Danny and Maeve, because her parents were the caretakers for the previous owners, the VanHoebeeks, whose possessions still decorate the Dutch House like some sort of museum to the past. Like Danny and Maeve, Fiona is exiled from the Dutch House, fired by Mr. Conroy after she strikes four year old Danny, an event he can barely remember. When Fiona finally resurfaces late in the book, she serves as contrast to Elna Conroy, the mother who abandoned her children in order to serve those she felt needed her more. Danny is able to forgive Fiona quite readily, something he is not so easily able to extend to his own mother when he is finally forced to reckon with some of the shades of his past.

The Dutch House is permeated by a strong sense of two people who are not living entirely in the present moment, but are in constant state of reaction to the hurts of their past. This is echoed in some ways by Patchett’s choice to set the book in the near past, perhaps not far enough to really be considered historical fiction, but not present either. The loss of their parents and their home is a wound that Danny and Maeve can’t seem to help reopening again and again, every time they park in front of the Dutch House, unable to go inside, but unable to stop watching it from afar. This is paired with the more obviously destructive metaphor of their smoking habit, something a doctor and a diabetic should surely know better than to engage in, yet can’t quite seem to kick. Maeve has pushed Danny through a rigorous education, including an elite private boarding school and a top medical school, even though he had no desire to be a doctor, all in service of taking the only thing they can access from their stepmother; money from the shared educational trust established for Danny and for Andrea’s two daughters. Unable to go back to school herself, Maeve sets Danny to fulfilling her missed opportunities.

As Maeve and Danny grow up, echoes of their parents’ lives haunt them, and an omnipresent past hovers overhead, certainly not dead, and not even really past so long as it is kept alive by the living, constantly turned over and reimagined until it is finally worn smooth.

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