Category: Pandemic

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

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

Canada Reads Along: Radicalized

Cover image for Radicalized by Cory Doctorowby Cory Doctorow

ISBN 978-1-250-22858-1

Content Warnings: Racism, xenophobia, medical horror, police brutality.

 “They’re kids. If they understood risks, they wouldn’t join uprisings and march in the streets and the world would be a simpler place. Not a better one, of course. But simpler.”

Radicalized is a collection of four novellas by author, editor, and technology activist Cory Doctorow, a Canadian-born writer who lives in the United States. His fiction is typically set in the U.S. and deals with issues through an American lens, but with nods and references to Canada. The featured works deal with issues including the circumvention of copyright controls, racial bias in predictive policing software, healthcare insurance loopholes, and survivalist billionaires with more money than they know what to do with. That last story takes on a particular new resonance in the age of COVID-19.

The first novella, “Unauthorized Bread” is an Internet-of-Things horror story about a young immigrant who finds herself on the wrong side of copyright law after jailbreaking her internet-connected toaster, which will only toast bread made by authorized bakeries. This story can be read online for free at Ars Technica if you want to get a taste of Radicalized, and is currently under development as both a graphic novel and a television show. It is a story about the small inconveniences and humiliations of poverty, and being controlled by the technology we supposedly own.

Although these are works of fiction, Doctorow’s subjects generally find their inspiration in real life. The most speculative of the stories is “Model Minority,” a sort of Superman fan fiction about a super hero known as the American Eagle. He has a billionaire playboy defense contractor frenemy named Bruce, and an investigative reporter paramour named Lois. However, the story gets very real when the American Eagle decides to take a stand against a group of racist cops who give a Black man a paralyzing beating, enabled by the justification of predictive policing software. An alien among humans, the Eagle is forced to confront human xenophobia, and consider what price he is willing to pay if he draws this line in the sand.

The darkest story in the collection might be the titular Radicalized, which follows a career man named Joe who learns that his wife is dying of cancer on his 36th birthday. He becomes angry and sullen, especially when their insurance refuses to pay for a treatment the company deems too experimental. Soon he finds an internet message board full of other angry men who have lost wives and children despite being insured. Doctorow’s stories typically feature citizens using privacy technologies to empower themselves against overreaching corporations and governments, but this story follows a plotline whereby the Tor privacy browser and the dark web enable aggrieved citizens to plan acts of terrorism under the cloak of anonymity.

The collection closes with “The Masque of the Red Death,” a post-apocalyptic dystopian short about a billionaire who builds a doomsday bunker in the wilds of Arizona for his chosen few. The central character is Martin, a decidedly unlikeable protagonist who comes to hold the power of life and death over the people he has taken under his dubious protection when a pandemic strikes. Unwilling to contribute to rebuilding, Martin instead focuses on hoarding and protecting resources, fancying that this makes him a good leader. When I read this story in early February, I had little idea how relevant it would soon feel. The tagline of the collection, “Dystopia is now” could hardly be more accurate.

Overall, the stories are less than subtle, and often fairly didactic. For example, in “Unauthorized Bread,” Wye gives Salima an impromptu two page tutorial on public-key cryptography while the two women are riding the train. This is a pet issue of Doctorow’s that also feature prominently in his YA novel Little Brother, and if you want to contact him securely, you can find his public key in his Twitter bio.  In “Model Minority,” Lois delivers a two and a half page diatribe about racial bias in predictive policing, which the author even has her acknowledge as such in the text. The only justification for this is that, while didactic, there are certainly people who will find it more palatable to learn these concepts via fiction, which they might not otherwise seek out or consider. However, many science fiction fans will already be thinking about these issues.

After being postponed in March due to COVID-19, the Canada Reads debates began today in a near-empty Toronto studio with host Ali Hassan and defenders Akil Augustine, Kaniehtiio Horn, and Amanda Brugel on-site, while George Canyon and Alayna Fender joined via video link from their homes in Calgary and Vancouver respectively. Radicalized was defended on Canada Reads 2020 by host and producer Akil Augustine, who is known for his work with the Toronto Raptors.

Radicalized was unique at the table in being a collection of novellas, facing off against two memoirs and two novels. Augustine seemed to anticipate that this might be an issue for his book, arguing in his opening statement that one singular story cannot tie together all the many necessary perspectives in the way that a collection can. However, this did not prove to be the focus of his opponent’s arguments. Actor Amanda Brugel brought the first critique, pointing out that three of the four stories in Radicalized were told through the perspectives of angry men, while the one woman of colour protagonist seemed less central to her own story than the toaster (see “Unauthorized Bread”). Indeed, the issue of gender became a flashpoint in the debate, with Augustine arguing that the men in Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club were not well-written and felt flat to him.

The theme for Canada Reads 2020 is “One book to bring Canada into focus,” and host Ali Hassan’s Day One questions focused on asking the defenders how well their books exemplified that theme, and which book at the table was least successful in their opinion. Once again, the debate quickly homed in on Radicalized and Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, while the other three books were much less the center of discussion. Skating under the radar on Day One and avoiding an early elimination can be just as critical as a successful defense. Unsurprisingly, the question of whether Radicalized was sufficiently Canadian came up, a common critique in past Canada Reads debates. While Augustine argued that his book helped us to see how the issues we are facing in Canada are part of broader global issues to which we are connected in the modern world, both Alayna Fender and Kaniehtiio Horn argued that the book was not successful at bringing Canada into focus.

When the time came to cast the ballots, the panel split along gender lines, with Akil Augustine and George Canyon voting against Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, while Alayna Fender, Kaniehtiio Horn, and Amanda Brugel voted together against Radicalized, making it the first book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2020. Akil Augustine remains at the table as this year’s first free agent. 

Spillover

Cover image for Spillover by David Quammenby David Quammen

ISBN 978-0-393-23922-5

“Make no mistake, they are connected, these disease outbreaks coming one after another. And they are not simply happening to us: they represent the unintended results of things we are doing.”

I picked up this book because my last couple of pandemic reads had left me particularly curious about the phenomenon of zoonosis. Zoonoses 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. Sometimes, that spillover is a dead end; the circumstances are so unique that they may never occur again. Or the virus can be transmitted to humans, but not between people: game over. But the thing that keeps virologists up at night is the pathogen spillovers that are not only virulent—highly deadly to humans—but also highly transmissible between humans once the species boundary has been breached. With the possibility of the Next Big One always looming, David Quammen takes the reader through famous outbreaks of zoonotic illnesses, with sections on Hendra, Ebola, malaria, SARS, Lyme, Nipah and HIV.

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. As detailed in the book, his field journalism has taken him on several expeditions with top scientists working to trace the origins of various zoonoses, from Africa to Asia, following bats, gorillas, and chimpanzees. He interviews people as world famous as Jane Goodall, and specialists who are only rockstars to those who pay close attention to the world of virology. Spillover was published in 2013, and presages not only the 2014 Ebola outbreak, but the current COVID-19 situation as well. That isn’t to say that Quammen or his experts explicitly predicted it; in fact, the final chapter of the book focuses on influenza in particular, and the possibility of avian influenza (H5N1) achieving human-to-human transmission. But COVID-19 is, like influenza, an RNA virus with all the rapid mutation that entails. The broad point is not predicting any specific spillover, which would be virtually impossible, but rather illuminating the circumstances that make these types of events all but inevitable.

One very interesting trend that emerges is bats, which have been implicated as the reservoir host for a variety of spillover viruses. Nipah and Hendra, for example, are confirmed to originate with bats. In his 2006 book China Syndrome, Karl Taro Greenfeld followed the trail of SARS to palm civets in southeastern China’s wild animal markets. But in Spillover, Quammen takes the reader through more recent evidence that palm civets were actually an amplifier or transitional host that enabled the virus to reach humans from bats. Although the reservoir for Ebola remains unconfirmed, virologists are looking at bats with great interest. Unfortunately, Quammen’s reporting reveals that the significance of bats in all this is still poorly understood. It could just be that there are so many bats; at 1116 species, they account for one quarter of all mammal varieties. The fact that they live in large roosts conducive to spreading the virus within their communities, combined with their mobility and range could also be significant. But until bat immunology is better understood, the answer to why so many spillover events seem to originate with bats cannot be more than speculative.

I also found the section on HIV/AIDS particularly interesting because most of the books I have read on the subject focus on the cultural history, specifically the impact on the gay community. None of those books have tended to look further back than the Canadian flight attendant who become known as Patient Zero in a study that focused on a North American outbreak cluster in the early 1980s. Quammen’s interest is more epidemiological, and the story of HIV is particularly fascinating because the science suggests that the spillover event took place much earlier than one might have expected—perhaps as early as 1908. However, this section does get a bit bogged down with a long, imaginative tangent where Quammen uses the little available evidence to extrapolate a narrative sequence about a hunter who ultimately brings HIV out of the forest. The true Patient Zero for HIV will never be known, and while Quammen’s imagining isn’t implausible based on the available evidence, it nevertheless feels out of place in this otherwise very factual book.

Spillover is on the long side—the print edition comes in at nearly 600 pages—and a bit technical at times, 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. The chapter on Lyme disease is particularly apt in its illustration of how important the ecosystem is to prevalence of a disease. If you’re not up for the full volume, Quammen has published Ebola and The Chimp and the River, both short extracts from this larger book focusing on Ebola and HIV respectively. If, like me, information is your coping mechanism of choice at the moment, 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 conversation that will be dominating our discourse for the foreseeable future.

You might also like Pale Rider by Laura Spinney

China Syndrome

Cover image for China Syndrome by Karl Taro Greenfeld by Karl Taro Greenfeld

ISBN 978-0-06-185153-7

“The season of SARS could be viewed as either an anachronism or a harbinger.”

Over the winter, a new virus emerged, sickening its victims with a severe respiratory illness that manifested with a high fever and a hacking cough. For an unlucky few, the illness degenerated into total respiratory failure as the lungs filled with fluid, and the organs shut down from lack of oxygen. As Lunar New Year approached, the Chinese government continued to insist that the situation was under control, even as cases began to spread. The story is eerily familiar, because we have all been living it. But Karl Taro Greenfeld’s 2006 book China Syndrome is a chronicle not of COVID-19, but of the SARS epidemic caused by a similar novel coronavirus that jumped the species barrier and sickened thousands in 2003 to 2004. At the time, Greenfeld was the managing editor of Time Asia, and based in Hong Kong, the first place outside of mainland China to be affected by the epidemic. The big news story of the year was expected to be the American invasion of Iraq. Instead, Greenfeld and his staff found themselves on the frontlines of reporting on the twenty-first century’s first major epidemic.

Each chapter is headed with the location and date, as well as the number of people estimated to have been infected or dead of SARS. The death rate in these estimates hovers around a chilling ten percent, and also grows in increasing contrast to the Chinese government’s public refusal to adjust their official numbers upward even as people continued to sicken and die. The book is insightful about the cultural conditions that lead to the denial and cover up. Greenfeld highlights the unprecedented transition of power that was occurring in Beijing at the time, as well as the emphasis on saving face and avoiding blame. Particularly telling is the fact that information about a disease outbreak is classified as a state secret in China. It was illegal to disclose this information anywhere but up the reporting line. Greenfeld witnessed a doctor arrested for talking to him about the outbreak, and another doctor that spoke up spent the rest of his life under house arrest. A Hong Kong virologist risked arrest by traveling across the border repeatedly to smuggle samples for his lab, since it was impossible to get any information out of the Chinese Ministry of Health.

Coming in at seventy-three—albeit often short—chapters, China Syndrome does feels somewhat drawn out, especially in the early chapters before the agent of the disease has been identified. As Greenfeld points out, however, the specific agent often isn’t all that important if doctors can treat the disease with existing methods. Investigators were at first highly focused on the possibility of avian influenza, and it is almost halfway through the book before the term “coronavirus” is even mentioned. By comparison, however, it took more than two years for scientists to isolate the agent responsible for the AIDS epidemic. The race for the answer features internal and international rivalries, and more than one false step along the way.

Before you decide to pick this one up, I would issue a warning for a few more graphic parts of the book. It includes descriptions of the conditions market animals live in, and how they are restrained and killed on site at the restaurants that serve them. Greenfeld also describes the liquidation of livestock that occurred once the virus’ host animal was identified and banned from sale. In the medical section, there is a detailed description of intubation that serves to illustrate why the procedure posed such a risk of infection to the healthcare workers who performed it on SARS patients. These don’t form huge swathes of the book, but it is worth knowing they are in there.

There is a definite sense of eerie deja vu in reading this book, from the slowly escalating rumours, and mutters about biological warfare, to the runs on particular kinds of equipment and supplies, to the very timeline and symptoms of the illness itself. Yet perhaps the most eerie part is the unheeded warning that SARS now represents. As Greenfeld details, the Chinese government banned the sale of the animal found to be the reservoir of the virus, and seized and destroyed the existing stock. But the closure of the urban markets where live animals were sold was only temporary, and within months they were back in business, operating much the same as before, with thousands of diverse, defecating, bleeding, doomed animals trapped in close quarters with one another, and the people who sold, butchered, and consumed them. One threat was eliminated, but the conditions for another such zoonotic outbreak remained much as they ever were.

You might also like Pale Rider by Laura Spinney

Pale Rider

Cover image for Pale Rider by Laura Spinneyby Laura Spinney

ISBN 978-1-61039-768-1

“The number of dead could have been as high as 100 million—a number so big and so round it seems to glide past any notion of human suffering without even snagging on it. It’s not possible to imagine the misery contained within that train of zeroes. All we can do is compare it to other trains of zeroes—notably the death tolls of the First and Second World Wars—and by reducing the problem to one of maths, conclude that it might have been the greatest demographic disaster of the twentieth century, possibly of any century.”

The influenza epidemic that began in 1918—which became known as the Spanish Flu—has drawn a lot of interest in recent months as comparisons are made to the current situation with COVID-19. Pale Rider by Laura Spinney was published in 2017, shortly ahead of the flu pandemic’s centenary year. As such, it is quite current, but of course does not directly address our present circumstances. Spinney tracks the influenza’s two year path around the globe, while also providing historical context, history of medicine, and a significant look at recovery and collective memory as it relates to the pandemic. By the numbers, the contemporary estimate of deaths was 20 million, but over the years that has risen to 50-100 million as more records and evidence come to light. Probably about one in three of the then 1.8 billion living people would have become infected, and while most recovered, up to five percent of the sick may have perished.

I selected this title from among a few popular books about the 1918 pandemic as it is noted for its attempt to take a more global approach to understanding the outbreak. Other previous titles have a more North American and European focus, despite the fact that these areas were not the hardest hit. According to Spinney, that dubious honour likely goes to India, though the numbers for China are murky. In addition to addressing the first recorded case, at Camp Funston military base in Kansas, and covering the impact on the Western Front as well as the acquisition of the “Spanish Flu” nomenclature, Spinney goes further afield to dig into the available numbers for places as various as China, Persia, India, Australia, Iceland, and more, resulting in a more complete picture of the global impact.

The structure of the book is circular, and somewhat repetitive. Rather than following a chronological timeline, Spinney takes a locale-by-locale approach that covers the same chronology multiple times in different places. Despite the repetition, this is an effective structure for sinking into each location and getting a full sense of their experience of the pandemic, which had huge regional variations. Australia, for example, experience only the third wave, having effectively kept out the deadly second wave with a maritime blockade. Spinney also covers three major theories about where the flu may have emerged before it surfaced and was recorded in Kansas, but with a careful eye to the contemporary prejudices that may have been shaping these hypotheses, particularly with regard to China. Within the United States, she addresses the tenements of New York, as well as the remote villages of Alaska, and highlights how differences in responses between cities led to vastly different death rates.

In addition to tracking the pandemic, Pale Rider provides and explains historical context about where the development of medical understanding and technology stood when the pandemic began. Notably, the electron microscope was not invented until the 1930s, meaning that while bacteria could be seen on an optical microscope, viruses—which are about twenty times smaller—were still invisible. Spinney briefly traces the evolution of Western medicine in relation to contagious diseases, and in specific locales such as Indian, China, and Persia, she also addresses how this knowledge was interacting with local medical traditions like Ayurveda. In the West, she also briefly chronicles the backlash against traditional doctors for their failure to prevent the outbreak in the first place.

A notable cautionary note that emerges from Pale Rider is the danger of mass gatherings for any purpose. Influenza does not distinguish between a church service and an armistice parade, a wedding or a funeral. Particularly chilling is Spinney’s account of the Spanish city of Zamora, which was among the hardest hit in that country. Zamoran congregations actually swelled as the pandemic raged, and the populace sought solace and prayed for relief. The city had a zealous new bishop who encouraged religious gatherings, called novenas, promoted the adoration of relics, and continued to distribute communion, all activities that send a shiver down the spine of anyone with a current understanding of the germ theory of disease.

In the latter part of the book, Spinney dives into the difficulty of trying to tease apart the inextricable impacts of the one-two punch that was the Great War with a pandemic following close on its heels. Although more people died in the pandemic, the war remains much better remembered, though Spinney suggests that the centenary is changing that, and no doubt the current situation will also contribute to the revival of interest. For those wondering whether they would be up to reading this book at the moment, I found the author’s approach thorough, but largely not grisly, though there are some dark spots. Spinney leans more towards statistics rather than graphic descriptions of the physical suffering of the flu victims.

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2017

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2017. Click the title for a link to the full review where applicable. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year.

Born a Crime

ISBN 978-0-385-68922-9

Cover image for Born a Crime by Trevor NoahWhen Trevor Noah was born in South Africa in 1984, his existence was literally illegal, proof that his black, Xhosa mother and his white, Swiss-German father had violated the Immorality Act of 1927, one of the many laws defining the system known as apartheid. Noah is observant, and able to clearly convey the absurdity of the system he was born under while also explaining its function for a North American audience that is probably not terribly familiar with the ins and outs of apartheid. In addition to an interesting life, Noah also has a good sense of pacing and narrative style that make his recollections particularly illuminating. Noah is known as a comedian, successor to Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show, but while there is an understated humour present in Born a Crime, for the most part it is memoir, not comedy. The humour comes mostly in the form of sly comments, though some of the stories are indeed laugh out loud funny. I actually read this book twice this year, once in print, and again as an audiobook, and would highly recommend it in either form.

Categories: Memoir, Humour

March: Book Two

ISBN 978-1-60309-400-9

Cover image for March: Book Two by John Lewis and Andrew AydinThis is a shout out to the entire March Trilogy, written by Congressman John Lewis with former congressional aid Andrew Aydin, and art by Nate Powell. The trilogy captures Lewis’ experiences as a civil rights leader and organizer, before going on to represent Georgia’s fifth congressional district for more than thirty years. In March: Book Two, Lewis and Aydin really master the structure of the frame narrative, which was a little stilted in the first volume. Lewis’ recollections of his time as an activist are framed by memories of Inauguration Day 2009, an especially striking juxtaposition with the violence that met peaceful civil rights protests. Book Two powerfully covers key events in the movement’s history, such as the lunch counter protests, the Freedom Rides, and the March on Washington.

Categories: Memoir, History, Graphic Novel

Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World

ISBN 978-1-61620-586-7

Cover image for Here We Are, Edited by Kelly JensenFeminism is a concept that has been loaded down with a lot of cultural baggage. In this collection of essays, poems, comics, and lists, editor Kelly Jensen has pulled together a selection of pieces for a teen audience that aim to clarify misconceptions, share experiences, and reinforce empathy for a variety of journeys and perspectives. Here We Are contains enough broad variety that no doubt different pieces will speak to different readers. It is reaffirming to read about people who share your experiences, and enlightening to read about different ones. Interspersed with the longer essays are short, fun pieces, such as feminist music playlists, poems, and comics. There were only a few things I thought were notably absent, such as a piece about affirmative consent to complement the discussion of rape culture. The chapter on romance and sexuality could also have used an essay about asexuality and aromanticism. Overall, however, I was pleased with the diversity of this introduction to feminism, and would heartily recommend it.

Categories: Young Adult, Essays

A Mother’s Reckoning

ISBN 978-1-10190-276-9

Cover image for A Mother's Reckoning by Sue KleboldIt is with caution that I include on this list a book that has stuck with me, perhaps even haunted me, since I read it this fall. Sue Klebold’s memoir is an intimate and gut-wrenching look inside the home of an ordinary little boy who grew up to be a high school mass murderer. When her son committed suicide in the school library following the rampage, she was left with more questions than answers, and a difficult public reckoning that continues to flare up to this day. Klebold does her best to recount the events in a way that is compatible with existing guidelines for responsible reporting on such tragedies in order to prevent imitation, something which she sharply calls out the media for failing to do in their treatment of the events at Columbine High School. It is a harrowing read because it shows people who commit terrible acts of evil as human, leaving aside the question of whether those who do monstrous things need to be humanized. I can’t imagine how upsetting this account might be for anyone who lost loved ones at Columbine, and it is for this reason that place a caveat on my recommendation of this title. Nevertheless, I can’t stop thinking about this book.

Categories: Memoir

How to Survive a Plague

ISBN 978-0-30770-063-6

Cover image for How to Survive a Plague by David FranceThis history is an insider’s look at the activists who advocated for AIDS treatments and victim’s rights in the early days of the epidemic. France’s account centers on New York, and the founding of such organizations as ACT UP and the Treatment Action Group, as well as the safe sex movement. France truly makes the reader feel the uncertainty and fear of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when even the cause of the disease was a mystery. How to Survive a Plague also delves into the bureaucracy and homophobia that delayed the development of effective AIDS treatments by researchers and public health officials. Desperation led to thriving experimental drug undergrounds without proper oversight or data collection. Especially if you were born after AIDS went from being a death sentence to a manageable health condition, this is an essential and illuminating read about a key aspect of LGBTQ+ history.

Categories: History, LGBTQ+, Pandemic

And that’s it for 2017. See you all  on the other side.