Friday, September 11, 2009

Never Mind the Swine Flu: Books About the Plague and Other Diseases

When you cough and sneeze and the hypochondrium sets in, the best cure is to read about a disease you definitely don’t have (or do you?), be it the Black Death or smallpox or cholera or the always-threatening zombie plague. These books go into all the clinical details about symptoms, contagions, and cures (or lack thereof) so you’ll know exactly what you’re up against and how much Tami-Flu you’ll need. You’ll also sniffle (do you have a cold or are you just sad?) as heroes and heroines help and hinder each other on the road to good health. You might not be convinced that it’s just allergies when you’re done reading these books, but you’ll definitely appreciate your health.

The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox by Jennifer Lee Carell, 2003, Dutton Books (Nonfiction/ European History/ American History/ 18th Century)

Our parents and grandparents might still bear the scars of their smallpox vaccination, but today’s children are free from the threat of that deadly disease. The Speckled Monster is the story of how two individuals emerged from the epidemic-ravaged eighteenth century and began the fight that made smallpox a disease of the past. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was a clever and wealthy London aristocrat who managed to beat the disease—a feat that was the exception rather than the rule. In Boston, hard-working Dr. Zabdiel Boylston was also a smallpox survivor. Separated by an ocean and a significant class divide, Lady Mary and Dr. Boylston began working, in their own ways, on introducing the African concept of inoculation. A patient was purposefully infected with a small bit of live smallpox material, and that patient would get a mild case of the disease and be forever immune to the deadlier forms of smallpox. We know it works today, but people of the eighteenth century thought the idea ridiculous and mad--which only made Lady Mary and Dr. Boylston try harder. Written almost like a novel, with dialogue and conversation taken from diaries and letters, The Speckled Monster presents the portraits of two everyday revolutionaries who flouted medical convention put their trust in the power of prevention. There’s a lot of science and fact, but by grounding the story in the real lives and words of these unique individuals, The Speckled Monster becomes both a relevant history and a dramatic story.

The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, 1992, Bantam Books (Science Fiction/ Historical Fiction) 

Kivrin is a student of history and time travel at Oxford in 2048. With the help of her devoted professor, she’s about to go back in time to the Middle Ages of the fourteenth century for the ultimate historical research. Kivrin has been prepped in every aspect of time travel, but nothing can prepare her for a virus that hits home in the twenty-first century, trapping her in the past and causing an error in where--and when--she ends up. She finds herself smack-dab in the middle of a Black Plague outbreak. With everyone at home too sick to find her, Kivrin can’t help but become deeply involved in the lives of the people in this small disease-ridden village. The Doomsday Book alters between two storylines, one in the past and one in the future, both taken equally unaware—despite the supposed advancement of the future—by this new and deadly threat. And both communities respond with suspicion and fear, and ultimately with compassion as neighbor cares for neighbor regardless of the century of their birth. Award-winning author Connie Willis writes strong characters, her vision of the future is detailed and realistic, and her historical research is impeccable. The tension between the past and future is palpable, the story is harrowing and fraught with suspense, and the reader will be irresistibly drawn into this remarkable tale than spans the centuries.

The Illustrious Dead: The Terrifying Story of How Typhus Killed Napoleon’s Mightiest Army by Stephen Talty, 2009, Crown Publishers (Nonfiction/ European History/ 19th Century)

In 1811, Napoleon Bonaparte was the undisputed emperor of forty-five million people. His French Empire spread from the Atlantic Ocean to the Russian borders, from northern Germany to southern Spain. He was a master of the art of conquest. True, Spanish rebels fought against his rule and Great Britain was still free, but Napoleon was still the most powerful leader of the day. Until, that is, he decided to send his enormous, state-of-the-art army into Russia. Utter and total defeat was in the cards for Napoleon for the first time, but not from the Russian army. No, Napoleon’s soldiers carried their deaths with them from the start—in a tiny microbe clinging to their gear called typhus. In The Illustrious Dead author Stephen Talty traces the fall of one of the greatest armies the world has ever seen and shows how one little pathogen altered the course of history. From the tsar’s palace in Moscow to the bedsides of stricken soldiers, and with the giant personality of Napoleon Bonaparte hanging over it all, this is a fascinating book rich in historical and scientific detail.

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks, 2001, Penguin Books (Historical Fiction)

In 1665, Anna Frith is an eighteen-year-old mother and widow in a rural English village. Anna is befriended by the vicar and his wife, who teaches her how to read. The vicar convinces Anna to take in lodgers, but when a tailor from London boards at Anna’s house, he brings with him more than rent money. Hidden in one of his bundles of fabric is an infected flea. The flea bites a rat, the rat bites a villager, and the Black Plague is suddenly sweeping through the remote town. The village voluntarily shuts itself off from the rest of the world to contain the horrible disease (a fact based on the true-life story of the real village of Eyam). For the rest of the year, we live with young Anna as she experiences first-hand the devastating effects of disease, death, and despair. Year of Wonders is an elegant tale for all its heartbreak and Anna’s story is a triumph over human tragedy in all its forms. Author Geraldine Brooks’ prose is lyrical even while she describes the worst that the plague brings out in people; her treatment of Anna’s intelligence and grace results in a compelling portrait. It’s not always an easy book to read, but it is a fine example of historical fiction and the lessons learned from the past.

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Deadliest Epidemic—and How it Changed the Way We Think About Disease, Cities, Science, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson, 2006, Penguin Books (Nonfiction/ British History/ 19th Century)

When cholera struck a London neighborhood in1854, it became the deadliest epidemic the city had ever seen. Victorian London has a reputation even today as an era of progress and wealth, and it was indeed a city on the verge of immense cultural and industrial growth. But science and medicine still had a long way to go—no one knew about germs or how contagions were spread or how to effectively treat many of the diseases that killed people every day. And the study of cholera was especially bogged down by old-fashioned beliefs. Doctors of the day were convinced that the disease was spread by foul odors in the air. London was indeed a stinky city, but the notion was way off base. When a single physician, Dr. John Snow, presented the theory that cholera was in fact spread by contaminated water, he was dismissed by the bureaucracy that was supposedly responsible for public health. But he was right, and The Ghost Map is the story of how he proved it and paved the way for much of the understanding about the spread of diseases that we take for granted today. Author Steven Johnson uses Snow’s experiences to shed light on the evolution of civilizations and the organization of cities, but his story is firmly centered on the real people who lived and died in the epidemic, including devoted minister Henry Whitehead who walked the streets of his Soho neighborhood to keep track of who, when, and where the disease struck. Cholera is a small threat these days, but The Ghost Map reminds us that the foundations of our sleek modern cities were laid down hundreds of years ago, and that the threats of the past are never too far from the present. An engrossing and lively book, The Ghost Map is certain to entertain—and educate.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks, 2006, Crown Books (Fiction/ Fantasy/ Horror) 

Ten years ago, the zombie plague swept the globe. Now, our narrator has taken it upon himself to document the stories of those lucky enough to survive. And, oh the horror. From early breakouts in China to full-scale military tactics in America, different characters tell their stories in their own voices to our intrepid author Max Brooks (son of Mel and author of the all-too-comedic Zombie Survival Guide). There’s an undercurrent of social and political criticism that’s hard to resist, and let’s face it—nothing is as heart-stopping and attention-grabbing as hoards of the undead moaning and lurching over the ruins of Tokyo and New York, across the freezing plains of Iceland and Canada, and into the worlds’ oceans to sink into the waves and pop up on beaches far away, sopping wet but hungry for human flesh. Despite the outrageous premise, the pain and outrage that the survivors express is real and tangible and much less like a mockumentary than you’d expect. In fact, World War Z is written with such realism that you’ll begin to think it’s all too real. Don’t worry—it’s highly unlikely that your sniffling cold will transform you into a member of the walking dead. But you can never be too careful, so take care of yourself, watch your back, and keep a copy of World War Z in your pocket at all times.

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