Category: Non-Fiction

Top 5 Non-Fiction 2020

The year is drawing to a close, and I’ve left it to the very last minute to name my top picks from this year’s reading! These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2020. Click the title for a link to the full review. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year!

From the Ashes

Cover image for From the Ashes by Jesse ThistleFrom the Ashes is the account of an unstable childhood, intergenerational trauma, and a young adulthood lost to the streets. After being abandoned by parents who struggled with their own demons, Jesse Thistle and his two brothers landed in the home of their paternal grandparents, where the boys were expected to work hard, were scolded for eating too much, or for any behaviour that reminded their grandfather of their wayward father. A lacklustre student, Thistle dropped out of high school, and was kicked out of his grandparents’ home when they caught him with drugs, beginning a decade-long downward spiral into homelessness and addiction. From the Ashes recounts his troubled childhood, his lost years on the streets, and his eventual recovery and journey into academia and Indigenous Studies. Thistle’s chapters are often short and somewhat fractured, an accurate reflection of a disjointed life punctuated by black outs. It is a chronicle of poor choices informed by pain, loneliness, and heartbreak. Occasional interludes are more like poems, including a disturbing section in which Thistle envisions turning into a wendigo who then cannibalizes himself.

Categories: Canadian, Memoir

The Golden Spruce

Cover image for The Golden Spruce by John VaillantSometime around the year 1700, a spruce seed took root in the fertile soil of the Yakoun River valley on Haida Gwaii, off the west coast of what would become British Columbia, Canada. Despite a rare mutation that caused its needles to be yellow rather than green—a flaw that should have impeded its ability to photosynthesize—the tree that became known as K’iid K’iyaas or the golden spruce, grew to be a giant that stood on the banks of the river until 1997, when it was deliberately felled as a protest again the logging industry. In The Golden Spruce, John Vaillant documents the history of tree, the troubled life of the man who destroyed it, and the impact of this act on the community that was its home. The Golden Spruce is part history of the logging industry, and part post-mortem of the murder of a culturally significant icon of the Haida people. The early part of the book is dedicated to the history of the Haida, and the North American logging industry, as well as a brief foray into the fur trade that preceded it. Vaillant treats this all as necessary context before introducing Grant Hadwin, the man who destroyed the tree in the dark hours of January 20, 1997. The Golden Spruce is a sad and disturbing story of destruction, ignorance, and waste. According to Vaillant, “left in peace, the golden spruce could have lived until the twenty-sixth century.”

Categories: Canadian

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground

Cover image for A Mind Spread Out on the GroundAlicia Elliot grew up largely on the Six Nations Reserve, home of her father’s people, with a gaggle of younger siblings. Her mother lived with them only intermittently; whenever her bipolar disorder became too pronounced, Elliott’s father would shuttle her mother across the New York border, and have her involuntarily committed. Her childhood was shaped by poverty, intergenerational trauma, and mental illness, all of which she reflects on in a series of essays. The collection opens with the award-winning titular essay, which is a rough English translation of the Mohawk word for depression or mental illness. This proves a central theme of the collection, as many of Elliot’s stories are about her mother’s bipolar disorder, and how it shaped and warped their family life for most of her childhood. A Mind Spread Out on the Ground blends the personal and the critical into incisive essays that cut to the heart of colonialism, and its effects on identity, community, and Canada’s conception of itself.

Categories: Canadian, Essays

Spillover

Cover image for Spillover by David QuammenZoonoses are diseases that originate in animals, usually harboured by a reservoir—a species that chronically carries the bacteria or virus but is not sickened by it—and are transmissible to humans. When the right set of circumstances occur, when the fragile ecological balance of the world is disrupted in a new way, a pathogen can spill over from animals to humans. Author David Quammen is a journalist with a long history of covering zoonosis, with the consequent experience in translating a highly technical subject for a lay audience. I read a variety of pandemic books this year, but if you’re only going to read one book about epidemics, this one combines multiple outbreaks into a single volume, highlights trends and commonalties, and provides a good basic understanding of the relationship between virology, ecology, and epidemiology. You’ll emerge from Spillover with a much better contextual understanding of our current situation, armed with many of the essential concepts for understanding the virology and epidemiology underpinning the ongoing public health conversations that have been dominating our discourse over the past year, and will no doubt continue into 2021.

Categories: Pandemic, Science

We Have Always Been Here

Cover image for We Have Always Been Here by Samra HabibSamra Habib’s family came to Canada from Pakistan in 1991, seeking freedom from the oppression they faced as members of the minority Ahmadi sect of Muslims. Along with her immediate family, they were accompanied by her first cousin, a young man about ten years her senior. When she was thirteen, she learned that her mother intended for her to marry her cousin when she turned eighteen. However, the marriage eventually took place when Habib was only sixteen years of age. For years, Habib lived a double life, secretly married to her cousin while still attending high school like an average Canadian teenager. We Have Always Been Here chronicles the complicated journey to reconciling her Muslim beliefs with her queer identity, and coming to terms with the choices her family made for her. In this memoir about the intersection of family, religion, and sexual identity, Habib shows an extremely touching thoughtfulness about her relationship with her parents. She stands firm in both her acknowledgment of the wrong they did her, and her ability to try to understand the circumstances that made them into the kind of people who would take such a step.

Categories: Canadian, Memoir, LGBTQ+

What were your top non-fiction reads this year? Did you read any pandemic books, or did you avoid the subject like the plague?

Know My Name

Cover image for Know My Name by Chanel Millerby Chanel Miller

ISBN 9780735223714

Content Warnings: Sexual assault, depression, suicide, mass shooting.

“The rules of court would not necessarily protect me; swearing under oath was just a made up promise. Honesty was for children. Brock would say and do what he needed, unabashedly, self-righteous. He had given himself permission to enter me again, this time stuffing words into my mouth. He made me his real-life ventriloquist doll, put his hands inside me and made me speak.”

When her victim impact statement was released to the world by Buzz Feed in June 2016, the young woman who had been sexually assaulted on the Stanford campus by Brock Turner was known to readers only as Emily Doe. In Know My Name, Chanel Miller reclaims her identity, shedding the scant protection of anonymity in order to more fully tell her story and advocate for systems that better serve and protect victims. In doing so, she reintegrates Emily Doe with Chanel Miller, breaking down the wall of separation she built between the two in order to protect herself as she tried to continue some semblance of her life while also navigating the court system in search of something like justice.

On the night she was assaulted, Miller was no longer a college student herself. Having graduated with a degree in literature form the University of California Santa Barbara, she was back home working her first job in a start-up when she attended the fateful party with her sister and her sister’s friend. Many memoirs begin with the inciting incident that is the book’s promotional hook, and then flash back to the subject’s childhood. However, Miller takes a more integrated approach, telling stories about her family, childhood, and education as they fit into the larger context of her experiences as a victim of sexual assault. As a result, they are more uniformly dispersed throughout the book and the early part of her narrative dives right into her memories of the night of her assault before her black out, and the aftermath as she wakes up in the hospital. The trial concludes near the middle of the book, and the latter half is given over to dealing with the sentencing and appeal, as well as the broader #MeToo movement, and the recall campaign to unseat the judge who sentenced Turner, as well as Miller’s fraught relationship with Stanford in the aftermath of what took place on their campus.

Know My Name is filled with visceral details that make it a difficult read. This includes not just Miller’s own assault, but several friends who were also victims of sexual violence, as well as accounts of a rash of student suicides at her high school, and the death of a friend’s roommate while she was at college in Isla Vista, in a mass shooting motivated by misogyny. However, sometimes the biggest impact is in the smallest details, such as Miller’s description of the moment that she realized her underwear was gone when she woke up in the hospital, or her heartbreaking account of the guilt she felt for taking a long shower to wash off the assault, because California was experiencing a drought. Miller articulates clearly that she is writing more for victims than for the general public in making these narrative choices: “As a survivor, I feel a duty to provide a realistic view of the complexity of recovery. I am not here to rebrand the mess he made on campus. It is not my responsibility to alchemize what he did into healing words society can digest.”

Nevertheless, there are a few small bright spots in Miller’s account, as she returns repeatedly to the two Swedish graduate students who were riding by on their bicycles when they witnessed her assault, interrupted her attacker, and chased him down when he tried to run away. Miller looked to both their actions and their testimony as evidence of the better side of human nature. She explicitly acknowledges Peter Jonsson and Carl Arndt, saying, “May the world be full of more Carls and Peters.” For months, she slept under a small drawing of two cyclists, guardians watching over her troubled rest. Miller’s relationship with her family, and her sister in particular, also stands out. In moments where she could hardly fend for herself, Miller nevertheless fought for her sister’s sake, fiercely protective of her since Tiffany’s identity, unlike Chanel’s, was not protected by the legal proceedings.

Although a very personal account, much of the book is about systemic effects and experiences, and the process that Miller did not fully understand she was undertaking when she told the police that she would agree to press charges. Miller rips back that curtain for the reader, taking us inside the grueling legal process, and the still more fraught mental and emotional recovery that followed. The court case is over, but the latter is clearly ongoing. Know My Name marks Miller’s effort to finally break out of that system, with all its failures and constraints, to tell her story on her own terms, as a fully fleshed-out person rather than a nameless victim.

You might also like We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib

The Heroine’s Journey

Cover image for The Heroine's Journey by Gail Carrigerby Gail Carriger

ISBN 9781944751500

“I like it when things end happily, and most of the time that means, to me, together. I enjoy it when characters end up in solidarity, friends or family, lovers or platonic. That’s what I hunt for…connection.”

The Heroine’s Journey is a story structure book mapped to three goddess myths, including Demeter, Isis, and Ishtar.  Gail Carriger delineates three main stages, including The Descent, The Search, and The Ascent, and highlights key beats such as the breaking of the familial network in act one, the appeal to, or creation of, found family in act two, and the negotiation for reunification in act three. Each of these beats emphasizes the importance of relationships, casts asking for help as a strength, and points out that the heroine is weakest when she tries to go it alone. While the Heroine’s Journey can be turned tragic, the heroine is more likely to get a happy ending surrounded by friends and family. Carriger provides examples from a number of well-known pop culture works, relying particularly on Harry Potter and Twilight due to their common currency, and also talking about how she has employed the ideas in her own novels.

Carriger is the author of a variety of steampunk and urban fantasy fiction titles, including the young adult Finishing School series, and the Parasol Protectorate books. The Heroine’s Journey is her first non-fiction title, but her voice is still distinctly recognizable. She employs humour and short chapters with a chatty tone, but her insights are sharp if not always perfectly organized in her first foray into non-fiction. Her fiction books feature casts of cooperating characters building relationships and finding their place in the world, so it is no surprise that The Heroine’s Journey deals in precisely the types of stories Carriger likes to read and write. These are stories of connection, romantic, platonic, familial, and everything in between. Carriger was an anthropologist in a previous career, and describes The Heroine’s Journey as a social, anthropological approach to story with a grounding in the classics, and decidedly not a Jungian or psychoanalytic approach derivative of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

Although she emphasizes that the Heroine’s Journey is not derivative of the Hero’s Journey, Carriger does frequently cast the two in contrast to one another, using our familiarity with the Hero’s Journey to illuminate the key differences between these structures. She summarizes the Hero’s Journey in one pithy sentence as: “Increasingly isolated protagonist stomps around prodding evil with pointy bits, eventually fatally prods baddie, gains glory and honor.” By contrast, the Heroine’s Journey rendered in one pithy sentence is: “Increasingly networked protagonist strides around with good friends, prodding them and others to victory together.” The sections in which she examines what happens when a hero enters a Heroine’s Journey, or a heroine enters a Hero’s Journey are particularly interesting as a result of these conflicts and differences.

Carriger weaves an important caveat throughout the book, stating it explicitly up front, but then reiterating it throughout the text. Although it is called the Heroine’s Journey, it can be undertaken by a person of any gender, just as the Hero’s Journey can. She underscores this point by using the 2017 Wonder Woman movie as a prime example of the Hero’s Journey structure, and then arguing that Harry Potter is in fact a Heroine’s Journey, clearly hitting the beats of broken familial network, found family, and the importance of belong, love, and working together. This is key to her point that “biological sex characteristics are irrelevant to whether a main character is a hero or a heroine. In other words, women, female-identified, and non-binary characters can be heroes. Men, male-identified, and non-binary characters can be heroines.”

With National Novel Writing Novel upon us, I’d recommend this book for anyone writing a story that doesn’t map easily to something like the Hero’s Journey or other common plotting structures due to its emphasis on interpersonal relationships or emotional rather than action outcomes. Fans of mythology and those who enjoy looking for patterns and structures in their stories may also find The Heroine’s Journey to be an interesting exploration of story types and structures that are wildly popular with many readers but don’t fit well into other models.

How the Post Office Created America

Cover image for How the Post Office Created America by Winifred Gallagherby Winifred Gallagher

ISBN 9780399564031

“As radical an experiment as America itself, the post was the incubator of our uniquely lively disputatious culture of innovative ideas and uncensored opinions. With astonishing speed, it established the United States as the world’s information and communications super power.”

In 1774, an enterprising revolutionary called William Goddard established the Constitutional Post, a service that illegally competed with the Crown mail, and provided the movement for American independence with a secure means to transport mail that would have been considered seditious by the British government. In 1775, the Continental Congress officially adopted the service, with Benjamin Franklin appointed as the first postmaster general, and the post office was born. Author Winifred Gallagher argues that this first institution of the federal government, which predates the Declaration of Independence, was essential to connecting and unifying the disparate colonies, and developing a country with a shared identity, as well as an emphasis on literacy and freedom of information. Gallagher focuses on high level developments and broad social impacts, with occasional anecdotes about the experiences of a few individual postal workers of America’s oldest public service.

I picked up this book as a means to contextualize recent debates about the US postal service in light of increased use of mail in ballots for the 2020 Presidential election, and claims about the nature and duty of the post office under the American constitution. I quickly learned that the exact nature of postal service was contentious even under Crown rule, when there was debate about whether postage constituted a fee for service, or a form of taxation without representation. However, the theme of what exactly the post office should be and do arises throughout the book, faced again in each new era as the post continued to change and evolve. Based on Gallagher’s account, there is far from any historical consensus about whether the post office should support itself, or be able to run a deficit with additional support from tax payers and the Treasury. Both Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and the first postmaster general, Benjamin Franklin, were restrictionists who believed the post should support itself or even turn a profit. Early postal advocate and founding father Benjamin Rush and President George Washington were anti-restrictionists who regarded the circulation of information as essential regardless of the cost. However, the question of funding has been revisited and revised repeatedly over the course of the country’s history, and has to be hashed out again every generation or two.

A theme that arises frequently throughout the first half of the book is the issue of States’ Rights, which is prominent in American history generally, but had a surprising amount of influence on the operation of something as mundane as the post. While most citizens wanted to be connected to the post, and would petition their congressional representatives for service, the establishment of a federal outpost in a community was not necessarily without controversy. Of particular contention were postal roads, which were essential to mail service. The post office was nominally responsible for establishing them, but lacked the authority to actually build roads, a matter which states did not want to cede to the federal government. The post therefore had to work creatively, subsidizing the nascent transportation industry, and encouraging local creation and maintenance of roads in order to have postal service established. This push-pull desire for both the benefits of confederation, and also the independence of statehood seems particularly illustrative of early America, and I learned as much about the country as the post from this book.

Another theme that weaves through Gallagher’s history of the post is the subsidization of the developing transportation industry as the United States grew, and expanded steadily westward, pushing out Native peoples, and swallowing up territories once claimed by other empires. Gallagher spends considerable time on stagecoaches and railroads, as well as the fledgling airline industry, all of which were underwritten by lucrative contracts to carry the mail in addition to their passengers and other freight. In 1857, the federal government offered $600,000 for any company that could carry the mail overland from Mississippi to San Francisco in twenty-five days or less. I was also fascinated to learn that mail was often sorted in transit aboard moving trains in a special post office car, by some of the service’s best clerks, who had to memorize extensive maps and timetables, reroute mail for missed connections on the fly, and sort with extreme precision and speed, all without succumbing to motion sickness.

The latter half of the book is less detailed than the first, and we get a much more cursory account of the post-World War II post office, which was beginning to buckle under the strain of austerity imposed by two wars and a recession. Here Gallagher accounts for how financial constraints and corporate lobbying combined to ensure the post office failed to modernize for the electronic age; whereas it had been on the cutting edge of steam power and aviation, it did not bring the same energy or attention to facsimile, internet, or email, which would have seemed like logical extensions to earlier postmasters general who argued for the involvement of the post in anything that helped connect Americans to information. Instead, the post office came to a point of crisis, and transitioned from being a fully-fledged federal department to being an “independent establishment of the executive branch,” or basically a non-profit business under Richard Nixon.

Although How the Post Office Created America was published in 2016 and could have come quite up to date, I finished with a more historical than current understanding of the USPS, as Gallagher does not get much into modern operations, though she does mention the legislation that financially burdened the post office by requiring it to prefund health benefits for its workers far into the future. I would also have been interested to learn more about the experiences and direct accounts of postal workers, as well as the history of government censorship of the mail, which is only briefly covered through the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Postal Obscenity Act of 1873, better known as the Comstock Law. However, these are perhaps stories for other books, as there is clearly too much rich history here to fit all into one volume. What is entirely clear is the historical importance of the post office in providing equitable access to information for all Americans, regardless of cost, a truly community enterprise that is no less necessary today.

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The Book Thieves by Anders Rydell

On Paper by Nicholas Basbanes

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

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

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.

You might also like Spillover by David Quammen

The American Plague

Cover image for The American Plague by Molly Caldwell Crosbyby Molly Caldwell Crosby

ISBN 9781440620461

“Nature had found the perfect place to hide the yellow fever virus. It seeded itself in the blood, blooming yellow and running red.”

Long before the idea that mosquitoes could spread disease was scientifically proven and medically accepted, diseases like malaria and yellow fever were wreaking havoc, spreading from West Africa to the Caribbean and up the Mississippi River Valley on the gossamer wings of aedes aegypti. People who had never been in contact with anyone who was ill mysteriously succumbed, as if the disease was in the very air. In The American Plague, journalist Molly Caldwell Crosby chronicles how yellow fever arrived in North America, the devastating effects of an outbreak, the efforts to uncover how the disease was spread, and finally the journey to a vaccine.

The American Plague has two main subjects; the 1878 yellow fever outbreak in Memphis, Tennessee, and the work of Walter Reed, James Carroll, Jesse Lazear, and Aristides Agramonte on the Yellow Fever Board in Havana during the Spanish-American War. A Memphian herself, Crosby begins with the Memphis outbreak, a devastating event that killed at least 5000 people, in a city with a population of only 40, 000—half of whom fled at the onset of the epidemic. There were not enough doctors and nurses to care for the sick, and medical volunteers arriving in Memphis were often stricken by yellow fever within days of arrival, adding to the burden. With deep access to the local history, Crosby pulls out fascinating details, such as the caretaker’s daughter who kept the cemetery’s record book, writing down each name and ringing the bell for the dead, until she succumbed to yellow fever herself.

Economic imperatives and subsequent devastation surround this narrative, beginning with the slave trade, which was the vehicle that brought yellow fever from West Africa to the Americas, satisfying the thirst for free labour at the cost of human life. Crosby recounts how yellow fever would typically arrive in New Orleans via the Caribbean, and then make its way up the Mississippi River Valley. Port cities were caught between the desire to prevent disease and the economic benefits of not quarantining incoming ships. Cargoes such as fruit from the Caribbean could be destroyed by a quarantine. The Memphis Board of Health voted against a quarantine in 1878, only to have the city economically destroyed anyway; the outbreak was so severe that the city was bankrupted, and its charter revoked. I found this particularly striking in the midst of the fraught economic debates currently surrounding COVID-19 containment measures.

After illustrating the devastating effects of yellow fever on both human life and the American economy, Crosby shifts her attention to the efforts to discover the cause of yellow fever, and create a vaccine against it. When the Yellow Fever Board was assembled in Havana in 1900, they were building on the work of Dr. Juan Carlos Finlay, a Cuban doctor who had proposed the mosquito as the vector for yellow fever two decades earlier, to much ridicule. What is most interesting here, however, is the various controversies surrounding the work. Members of the board experimented upon themselves, and on army volunteers, but also carefully recruited and groomed new Spanish immigrants to Cuba, using large financial incentives to get them to consent to participating in the experiments. Army doctor Jesse Lazear, who was the head of the mosquito work, died of yellow fever which is now suspected to have been self-inflicted, but was covered up at the time. James Carroll eventually died in 1907 of the lasting complications of yellow fever contracted in the course of his work in Havana. From there Crosby goes on to the work of Max Theiler, who invented a vaccine for yellow fever, infecting thousands of American soldiers with hepatitis in the process—although to be fair to Theiler, he expressed his concerns about the widespread use of this vaccine and was overruled in favour of ensuring that American soldiers deploying for World War II were inoculated.

Although Crosby dedicates a significant amount of the book to medical investigations, I would describe this account of yellow fever as more cultural than epidemiological. She doesn’t delve deeply into any of the virology or the nitty gritty scientific details. Although she briefly mentions that the difficulty in proving the mosquito hypothesis was a matter of the timing of the reproductive cycle of the virus, she never does get around to fully explaining the viremic window for infection between mosquitoes and humans, or a more than cursory exploration of the zoonotic origins of the disease. Nevertheless, The American Plague is an interesting look at how one tiny virus significantly shaped the course of American history, and I would recommend it for those more interested in the human impacts of pandemic than the science surrounding it.

More pandemic reads:

Spillover by David Quammen

Pale Rider by Laura Spinney

China Syndrome by Karl Taro Greenfeld