News of the World – Paulette Jiles (2016)

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

Life continues with university classes now back in session – the first class is today so I’ve been busy prepping for that and doing general office-y things that have cropped up. I hadn’t been in the office (officially) since last July (due to all the medical stuff) so there has been quite a bit of catch-up although I have been doing the odd thing here and there during the interim. It’s good to be back as I really enjoy my job and I am fortunate to have really good co-workers and boss. 

Wanting to try something new, I rather rashly signed up DH and me for the local chorale group. (What could go wrong with that?!) 

Turned out that, despite having slogged through years of piano and (briefly violin) lessons, I couldn’t actually remember how to read music or sing, so that activity has been crossed off the list now. I was so out of my depth. I think I had thought that this would be more of a casual sing-along when, in fact, it’s a VERY SERIOUS group full of professional singers. They were friendly-ish, but DH and I decided that we’d rather watch the latest episode of the remake of “The Karate Kid” than pretend to know which page of music we were on.  All is well. Just not what I had anticipated. 😉

Reading-wise: While I have neglected my book-reading, I’ve been tempted (and typically have succumbed) to the lure of trawling on the internet, traveling from various blogs scattered here and there, so I haven’t actually done that much actual reading of books per se. (Must. Break. That. Habit of web surfing.) I place most of the blame on people such as yourself for writing such interesting blogs! 😉 (What a good problem to have!) 

I did just finish a read of News of the World by Paulette Jiles (2016). This is fiction set in 1870 Texas and follows the lives of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd and Johanna, a young orphan being accompanied to her relatives in San Antonio after having been kidnapped by a band of Kiowa raiders. Johanna only knows life as a Kiowa tribal member which means that she is surrounded by things that she doesn’t understand or know about — a very fish-out-of-water type of situation. The same can be said for Kidd, an elderly man whose livelihood consists of traveling across Texas giving readings of the latest news to isolated communities. 

And, if you think about it, the state of Texas could also be viewed as being inexperienced, since the book is set around a time when Texas’ own statehood is still quite new… 

This was a good read. Initially, I had been concerned that it would be more of a typical “old people/child relationship” type of story, but it’s much more than that, which was very appreciated by this reader. There was definitely a generational influence in the overall narrative, but I liked how Jiles took that idea and applied it to a larger context. 

Really strong descriptions of Texas and its inhabitants along with some excellent writing, this was a fast and enjoyable read last weekend. Plus – the actual book itself has some lovely production values: deckled pages, French flaps (in a soft covered book) and in a good font. 

I enjoyed it. 

The Best American Travel Writing 2019 – Alexandra Fuller (ed.)

I am a big fan of the America’s Best (insert your choice of writing style here) and so couldn’t resist scooping this title up when I saw it for sale.

(See previous reviews for 2000, 2010, 2011, 2016 and 2018 here.)

And – just like eating a big old box of chocolates, there was a mixed bunch of offerings and for the 2019 edition, and only one stinker in the whole selection. 🙂

I was pleased to see that this edition’s editor was female – so often they are typically white males which usually means that 90 percent of the content are also white males. Fuller very ably turned that formula on its head and this book includes almost 50 percent female writers of mixed diversity. And funnily enough, the excellent quality of the writing doesn’t suffer for this proportion! 😉

Snide remarks aside, the writing topics varied from bachelorette parties in Nashville to a tiny village in China where dissident residents are taken on a “tourist” ride by the authorities to the aquatic world of the lion fish and its passionate followers.

In all honesty, I loved nearly all of the articles/essays included so I think that equals a great read for me. Referring back to the analogy of the box of chocolates, each essay hit the spot (apart from that one I mentioned earlier) and that might have been me just being a picky reader.

Authors included a wide variety (not sure of the ethnicity of these folks though) and their work had been published in an array of outlets, including Harper’s, Airbnb magazine, The New Yorker, the Smithsonian magazine and more, but every essay included was extremely well written and well organized.

If I were teaching a creative nonfiction writing class, I’d certainly require my students to read some of the examples as models to follow.

This was a true joy to read at the start of the new year. Hopefully, it portends lots more “pure joy” reads in the near future!

Catching up…

So, as mentioned in the previous post (re: me not being up to reading actual books), since I’m now feeling a lot better, I am now actually picking up books and having a lot of fun doing so. 

In the spirit of brevity, I thought I’d just do a quick review round-up of the titles I’ve finished up – a mix of both library books and my own TBR. To the reviews:

Cider with Rosie– Laurie Lee (1959). A reread but still very enjoyable. Absolutely delicious descriptions of England in the 1930s: the countryside, the food, the perspective of life as seen by a young happy boy… All good things. If you haven’t ever read this title (or perhaps it’s time for a reread?), then you wouldn’t go far wrong if you added this to your TBR pile. (TBR title).

The Best American Travel Writing 2019– Alexandra Fuller (ed.); Jason Wilson (series ed.). This is one of the NFs I have going on right now so review to come. (TBR title.)

Oryx and Crake– Margaret Atwood (2003) – This is one of the F I have going on right now so review to come with the end goal of me reading the whole trilogy. (Library copy.)

All Things Bright and Beautiful– James Herriott (1974). I was looking for some comfort reading at the start of December and then remembered how sweet the Herriott books can be. So, off the shelf with this one. And – it was a super read. (TBR title.)

A forgettable collection of essays by Nick Hornby (Housekeeping vs. the Dirt) along with an actual DNF of another essay collection, this time by David Sedaris (2020). I’ve read other work by Sedaris and have found it to be a little patchy in quality, and this was the case with this selection of his work. (Library book.) 

Had the annual read of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol– just love Dickens’ writing and this story was an excellent start to the holiday season (library copy). Other seasonal reads included: Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales (TBR copy), Tolkein’s Letters from Father Christmas (sobs but in a good way) (TBR copy). Carol Ann Duffy, England’s poet laureate (still?), had a short stocking=stuffer kind of read with Another Night Before Christmas (TBR copy) and then David Sedaris’ collection of holiday-related essays called A Christmas on Ice (TBR copy). (This book is pretty funny unlike his book mentioned above.)

John Steinbeck.

By then, I had had enough Christmas reading and started to move on to different titles on the TBR pile. I started with a John Steinbeck title, America and Americans, which collected together his thoughts on America (the country) and the people who live in it. Travel writing sort of thing and very good. 

Pulled a few graphic novel-type books for an afternoon of a different kind of reading. The best was the Get Fuzzy cartoon collection, but Honorable Mention should go to The Borden Tragedy by Rick Geary, a graphic novel that details the Lizzy Borden murder case back in history. Really interesting, btw. (Library.) 

I whipped through a few books by English H.E. Bates: The Darling Buds of May, A Breath of Fresh Air, and When the Green Woods Laugh– a good selection of some strong English countryside writing. I enjoyed it at the time but I must admit it was more of a palate cleanser than an epic read. So, three more off the TBR. 

And then rounding out the holidays was a reread of Emile Zola’s The Ladies Paradise. This one I loved (see an earlier review of this read here) and after researching Zola a little more, realized that he has masses of other work out there so I’m excited to see what other titles I can find on the stacks. ETA: Just checked out Germinal by Zola, so we’ll see!

As the new year beckons, I raise a glass of champers to you and yours for a peaceful, productive and fun 2021. Happy reading ahead!

June 2020 Reading Review

The reads for June 2020 included:

So to the numbers:

  • Total number of books read in June 20207
  • Total number of pages read 2181 pages (av. 321). 
  • Fiction/Non-Fictionfiction / non-fiction.
  • Diversity 5 BIPOC. books by women.
  • Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): library books, owned books and 0 e-books.

Plans for July 2020 include a month of teaching online Summer School at the university, prepping their lectures and grading work… Apart from that, lots of reading, jigsaw puzzles and hanging out. Temperatures are very hot outside for the most part, so it’s a pretty indoor life right now. 😉

Our city has a few lakes and flooded canyons. Here is one of them on a lovely weekend morning walk the other day.

She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman – Erica Armstrong Dunbar (2019)

Crikey. This was one heckuva read about an amazing Black woman. It’s also an excellent nonfiction book with cool modern graphics integrated in amongst its well-written text. (I know. Lots of praise but this volume deserves every ounce of that.)

If you’re unfamiliar with Harriet Tubman, get thee to at least the Wikipedia page and read about this true American hero. (No hyperbole there.) Her life story just blew me away. 🙂

Harriet Tubman (1885). Photograph by Horatio Seymour Squyer. National Portrait Gallery.

So – not only is this the life story of an astonishingly brave woman, this title presents her history (or herstory) in a modern and extremely graphically-pleasing format. And — it’s well-written. As you can perhaps surmise, this was an informative and wonderful read for me, and I highly recommend it for you.

She Came to Slay:
Erica Armstrong Dunbar, author.

If you’re not familiar with Tubman (and disregarded my advice in the second paragraph to go and read the Wiki page on her), you’re missing out. Tubman may have been small in stature (five feet tall) but holy cow – she had the biggest and bravest heart and used that courage to save hundreds of people from slavery.

Not only was she a leader in the historical Underground Railway system for escaped slaves, but she was also a hardcore soldier, a brilliant spy, a suffragette for the vote AND an advocate for old people. And – she had brain surgery without anesthetic. Phew. Can you see why I am amazed by this fabulous woman?

Author Erica Armstrong Dunbar, the Charles and Mary Beard professor of history at Rutgers in New Jersey, has done a great job here of relating Tubman’s life and endless achievements, all done in an energetic and graphically pleasing presentation which made this a pure pleasure to read.

It’s written in a conversational tone (despite Armstrong Dunbar’s academic status), but this tone comes across as friendly and informative, similar to watching an approachable historical documentary onscreen but while retaining the sheen of academic rigor to the text.

Credit: Toledo Public Library.

A powerful and mesmerizing read about one of the most impressive historical figures I have ever come across. I’m astonished that Tubman is not more well known for her life and times – she should be. This will be definitely be one of the top reads for 2020. Amazing.

(Curiously – Tubman was scheduled to be honored on the design of the $20 dollar bill [to replace racist President Andrew Jackson] but true to form, the Orange Goblin has put the kibosh on that for now. See this CNN article for the (disgusting) details. Sigh.)

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You’re still here? Shouldn’t you be at the library checking this book out? Or buying it online? Why – yes. You should. 😉

Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights – Gretchen Sorin (2020)

With the world in this state of flux (for all of the many different reasons), I’m really interested in learning more about the history and the lives of the many people who call the U.S. “home”.

At the same time, I’m also committed to reading more BIPOC authors and topics, so toddled off to the library to see what I could track down on the shelves.

“Driving While Black” covers some of the history of American civil rights through the lens of automobiles and their overlap with social history. This was a fascinating read.

As the cover copy states, this book “reveals how the car – the ultimate symbol of independence and possibility – has always held particular importance for African Americans, allowing [B]lack families to evade the many dangers presented by en entrenched racist society and to enjoy, in some measure, the freedom of the open read.”

And although a lot of this history may not have been unfamiliar to me, the manner of how these two topics were combined and presented was eye-opening for me, as a white reader. Through careful documented research, Sorin puts together a thorough timeline of the parallels between the introduction (and subsequent widespread adoption) of the car and the increasing social roles of Black people in America:

Travel for Negroes inside the borders of the United States can become an experience so fraught with humiliation and unpleasantness that most colored people simply never think of a vacation in the same terms as the rest of America.

The Saturday Review, 1950

Geographer Karl Raitz has described the American roadside as a public space open for everyone, but the roadside itself only represented private interests.

This presented a dilemma for Black travelers: sure, you can buy a car (if you can afford it); sure, you can drive your car along the roads for great distances throughout the U.S., BUT if you want to actually stop at any point along your journey, these “private interests” (the hotels, restaurants, rest-stops etc.) are not always going to be welcoming for you and your family.

So, the introduction of the car to Black consumer symbolized freedom, just as it did for other car owners, but only the freedom of driving along the actual macadam. If you, as a Black driver, became hungry or tired and wanted to stop along the way, that’s a whole other kettle of fish. Do you see the dilemma now?

Sorin goes into well-documented depth on this using oral and written histories to bring you, as the reader, into this problematic world. As the twentieth century progressed, American life slowly and incrementally improved for Black families but it was geographically uneven and in irregular fits and starts. Sorin’s decision to intertwine consumer history of the car industry and the social history of Black America made this a riveting read which made me shake my head as the stupidity of racism.

Throughout the twentieth century, America was a confusing mix of integrated and non-integrated places which made traveling by car hazardous for Black drivers without significant preparation.

What were your options for help if you had a flat tire by the side of the road on a highway? Where would your family sleep at night? Have you packed enough food and drink for the non-stop journey (obviously you can’t stop at any old restaurant along the way)? Would your life be safe if you were driving in this particular community after sunset? (There were more than 150 “sundown towns” across the U.S.). And don’t even think about what your choices were if one of your party became sick and needed medical care…)

It is insane that the Land of the Free allowed these horrible constraints on some of its very own citizens. How traumatic for these early Black travelers just to drive to see other family members!

“At the Time of the Louisville Flood” – 1937 photograph by Margaret Bourke-White. (Getty Images.)

You’ve probably heard of the Green Book (link to book review), one of several travel guides for Black drivers on where to go, where to eat and where to stay, but this was just one of several publications that were popular at the time. (Huh. Didn’t know that but it makes sense that Victor Green wasn’t the only one to see the need.)

As cultural mores slowly started to shift and the white-owned travel business saw that more money could be made by catering to Black business, more hotels and restaurants gradually started to cater to these new customers. The Civl Rights Act of 1964 further accelerated this program (although it was achingly slow in parts of the South), but people were stubborn to change and adapt.

The problem of [B]lack business is not the absence of [B]lack support, but the absence of white support.

John H. Johnson, owner, Ebony magazine, 1971.
The Post-Racial Negro Green Book by Jan Miles (2017).

And although life has improved for Black Americans in the 21st century, it’s still got a ways to go. (Witness: police brutality et al.)

In 2017, author Jan Miles published “The Post-Racial Negro Green Book“, which is her take on the historical travel guide but this one is a 2013-2016 state-by-state collection of police brutality, racial profiling and everyday racist behavior by businesses and private citizens. Yikes.

Suffice to say that this was a powerful read for me. It wasn’t perfect in terms of the writing (quite a bit of repetition which could have been caught by a sharp-eyed editor), but the content more than made up for that.

Highly recommended!

The Mothers – Brit Bennett (2016)

After reading Petry’s excellent work, I wanted to read a more modern Black author so I tracked down Brit Bennett’s “The Mothers” (2016). After having seen all the recent exposure for her most recent release, “The Vanishing Half” (2020), I was curious about all the hoopla so nipped down to the library to see what I could find. “The Mothers” was what I left with. 

The plot revolves around an African-American community who are linked with a Black church called the Upper Room. The main protagonist, Nadia, is still reeling from her mother’s unexplained suicide and, along with her surviving father, Nadia spends with and is supported by the Church Mothers, a tightly-knit group of women who are deeply involved with this religious organization. Along the way, Nadia also hangs out with young Luke, the son of the pastor, and ends up getting pregnant with Luke’s child. But what to do, what to do…

This was a very quick read – Bennett rightly has a lot of traction in the publishing world right now and the narrative flows well and is well-written. So I’m quite puzzled why I wasn’t as positively taken with this title as many other readers have been. It wasn’t a bad read, by any means, but it wasn’t as supercalifragilistically fantastic as I had expected it to be. 

As I think about this, this was a pretty “issues-y” novel – unmarried/unplanned pregnancy, a parent who has killed herself (but why? It’s never explained…), a lonely young woman trying to sort out her life with a fairly-distant father who doesn’t help her… It seemed to me as though Bennett had thought of some issues mostly likely to attract her readers and then plugged them in to the plot as she wrote.

You know – it reminded me of the 1980s/1990s Oprah Books where they were designed to trigger long meaningful interactions about knotty social issues that tend to happen to “other people”.

I’m glad I read it – I don’t regret the time I spent with this book at all but to put it into perspective for you, my favorite thing about the edition that I read was the artwork on the cover. (Really nice.) So – perhaps this is more of a beach read than a substantial work on social issues. It was fun to read. It was well-written, but it was a pretty superficial approach to some weighty issues. 

(It’s also possible that I could be the only person in the world who doesn’t gush over Bennett’s work, so you might take this with a grain of salt. It just suffered in contrast after reading the excellence of Petry’s book immediately before it. If you’re looking for a solid read this summer, the Petry is the one I’d recommend.) 

Slow summer days and Petry’s “The Street” (1946)

Ahh. I really appreciate the fact that I am privileged enough to get to experience and enjoy a faculty summer at a large state university. After having worked year-round as a full-time staffer on campus for 20+ years, the fact that I officially get to have the ENTIRE summer off is, frankly, almost unbelievable. (Well, I am teaching summer school but I chose to do that.) 

So – what have I been doing with these long languid days? Have I been using them wisely to contribute to the world around me during these times of COVID and civil unrest? Ummmm. :-}

Right when the semester officially ended in mid-May, I finished up all my grades and then worked hard on the front garden flower beds (new shrubs, tidy-up etc.). After that burst of focus though, I picked up in the world of jigsaw puzzles (OMG – the time-suck but OH SO FUN!). I finished up a couple and bought a new one (which I am looking forward to completing) so that’s been interesting. 

Reading-wise, I’ve renewed my focus on Black writers and their work, starting with the 1946 fiction called “The Street” by Ann Petry, an amazing first novel by a Black female author and which was the also the first title to sell more than a million copies in print. 

Set mostly in WWII-era neighborhood in Harlem, the plot focuses on Lutie Johnson, a single Black mother who is confronted daily by the serious issues of racism, sexism and classism. It’s a political novel, in terms of dealing with society ills and making a point, rather along the same lines as Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath”, published in 1939. 

(And – if you haven’t ever got around to reading “Grapes…”, take thee to a book provider and read it. It’s. Oh. So. Good.) 

Ann Petry.

Back to “The Street”: Lutie is a really hard-working woman who is doing her best to give her young son, Bub, a better life and she really truly believes that if she just works hard enough and saves enough, she will be able to give Bub that gift for his future. However, it’s the mid-1940s in New York City so the reader just knows what is in store for this small family. 

Lutie also believes in Benjamin Franklin and his ideas of working hard and being frugal to get ahead, and Petry even names one of the other main characters Junto, after the name of Franklin’s true secret organization of the same name. It’s totally heartbreaking because you just know that, historically, no matter how hard Lutie Johnson works and scrimps and saves, her life (and that of young Bub) is not going to improve that much. She’s stuck in the poverty trap and despite her goals of moving out of this dark and ugly tenement building, the odds are way against her. 

This is a gritty novel in a gritty neighborhood in a gritty city, and it was hard for me to read how much hope Lutie had for improving her life and that of Bub. Almost everything in her life is against her and yet she gets up every day to keep working towards that goal of a better life. She works a crappily-paid job doing crappy work, she lives in a crappy cramped and dark apartment, her choices are few and far between, and yet she continues to believe that things will get better (if not for her, at least for little Bub). What’s even more difficult is that I know that things haven’t necessarily improved for families in poverty in the U.S. living lives that follow a similar pattern. 

Lutie gets involved with Junto, who runs a steadily-employed nightclub band, and by dangling her dreams of a better life in front of her, Junto ultimately leads Lutie to commit a serious crime from which there is no escape. 

(It’s interesting to think how awful this Junto character is in this read when you consider that Benjamin Franklin’s secret club of the same name (and also called the Leather Apron Club) was focused on mutual self-improvement. It consisted of twelve men, of course, all white, of course, and started in 1727 in Philadelphia.

In contrast, this novel’s Junto character here has absolutely no interest in anyone except himself (and Lutie, sexually-speaking). He’s such a selfish character that you can just see Petry’s opinion of him through her giving him this name. Clever of her to pick this name and use it in this manner.) 

It’s a heart-breaking story but it’s so exceptionally well-written that you bear the harshness of Lutie’s life alongside her, hoping against hope that her dreams might even slightly come true. 

It’s pretty interesting to search online to see what else was happening in the U.S. in 1946. WWII has been over since 1945 (so not that long ago and, of course, the lingering social effects were still in existence), there were civil rights riots in Chicago, there was the last recorded lynching in Georgia (crikey)*, atomic bombs were being developed, Truman was starting the first group that would turn into the CIA, and the Russians were viewed as significant threats to world peace. 

Realizing that, you can see how “The Street” fits into the cultural milieu of the times. This is a fascinating read on a hundred different levels, but even if you’re not interested in the backstory, this is one heckuva read. I loved it!

*And holy cow: Wikipedia reports that the state of Georgia didn’t officially acknowledge any of its lynchings and its role in them until 1999 when a state highway marker was placed at the site of the original attack. What took them so long??

Summer mini-reviews

Summer is now here and for me, life has slowed down (but just until I start teaching Summer School). In the meantime, I’ve been focused on learning about racial and social issues and how I can impact those. 

My first step in that plan is to be quiet, listen and to learn, so I’ve been doing a lot of that. On a more practical level, I’m also planning on working some voter registration drives – a cause that I believe will be critically important this autumn. I am cautiously optimistic that perhaps this country’s (and the world’s) social unrest will be the catalyst for some long-overdue societal changes but again – that leads back to the upcoming U.S. election. 

I’d like to really encourage you to take some action in your own community, however you’d like to do that. If you’re interested in registering more voters, then you might follow up with your local League of Women Voters (LWV), a non-partisan non-profit focused on getting voters (of any stripe) signed up ready to do their civic duties. If you happen to live in a mid-sized (or up) city (or near one), I bet there is a chapter near you. Pretty fun and important to do at the same time. 

A tricky (and miniature) jigsaw puzzle completed the other day. 🙂

Moving on, I’ve been reading some books, working on a jigsaw puzzle or two, and messing around in the garden a bit. Just bibbling around really, but it’s been fun and relaxing. Our local gym opened up the other day – thank goodness! – and so we’ve been spending time there, trying to catch up for the previous slacker COVID months when nothing was open. 

I went through a patch when I had a reading block, but that seems to have lifted now, so let me give you a brief taste of some of the titles I’ve finished recently:

Wallis in Love – Andrew Morton. Let me save you some time here. Interesting story but it’s Andrew Morton. He writes for drivel such as the English red-top newspapers so it’s pretty hard to take him seriously, but as a gossipy frothy look at Wallis Simpson and her influence on the British monarchy, it was ok. No one was portrayed well throughout this recounting of this story, but at least the book was grammatically correct. 😉 

Offramp – Hank Stuever. NF travel essays by Stuever who writes a little aimlessly about his journeys to the smaller towns and communities just off the larger highways that crisscross America. I had quite high hopes for this, but it was not to be. Although fairly well written, the essay collection was only tangentially related to the overall theme of road travel and was more of a lame excuse to lump these texts together. Not bad, not great. Just ok. 

Mr. Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo. Fiction. Truly excellent. Will definitely make my Top Ten Books of 2020. See my review here and then go and read this book. You’ll love it (but let me know what you think about that last chapter!) 

The graphic novel version of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Loved this, although it was a necessarily shortened recounting of the novel’s more-involved plot. Still, a good reminder of Atwood’s plotting excellence and gave me impetus to check out the third volume in the MaddAdam trilogy. 

My Sister, the Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite. A satirical take on what might happen if your actual sister was a real serial killer and you were involved each time with the clean-up and cover-up of the victims. Well written Nigerian title. Good descriptions of life in this modern African country. 

Tomboy – Liz Prince. An autobiographical graphic novel which looks at the role of gender and how its then-limited definitions impacted the childhood life of the author. This might be a helpful read for middle-school-and-up readers who are struggling to fit in with their peers without giving up their own individuality. Good artwork along with the evergreen message of staying true to yourself.

After this string of OK reads, I’m also relieved to report that I’m now thoroughly immersed in the 1946 novel, “The Street”, by Ann Petry, a Black* writer. An early literary thriller and a huge bestseller, this title is notable for being one of the first bestselling novels to be published by a Black female writer. 

Black writing had been published before this, naturally, but the general term of “Black lit” typically referred to only male writing. This was a woman writer who had centered her story in Harlem and featured the hard scrabble side of life. It covers serious issues such as sexism, racism, poverty, and unemployment, but at the same time, the story has a seam of hopefulness and almost optimism throughout the plot. Really good read so far. More deets later.

*Note: I am using the term “Black” in favor of “African-American” since that is the recommendation from the National Association of Black Journalists and the Associated Press. See here for more details.

The Disease history book cont’d…

More fascinating notes from the book, Disease by Mary Dobson. (Part One of review is here.)

According to the author, the actual origin of the popular drink of gin-and-tonic actually got kickstarted with the disease malaria and its not-very-tasty medicine, quinine.

In the early days of the British Raj, there was a big public health problem with malaria, and quinine was a main staple of malaria prevention and treatment. Dobson reports that the British people would add quinine to Indian tonic water (to make it taste better?) and that led to the basis of a gin-and-tonic.

(Something similar happened in the States as well: during the U.S. Civil War, every Union soldier in the malarial zone was given a daily dose of quinine sulphate dissolved in whisky. Huh.)

Unrelated random fact: One famous smallpox survivor was Queen Elizabeth I who contracted the disease in 1592. Her penchant for wearing her face covered in white lead and vinegar is thought to have been her strategy to cover up her smallpox facial scars. They are also thought to have been the reason why she didn’t want to get married as she didn’t want to show anyone her scarred skin. (Poor thing.)

Stalin had smallpox as well, btw, but he had all his photos touched up to hide that. (Remind you of any other orange-colored world leader who would also probably do that?) President Lincoln survived the same disease. And so did Pocahantas (who died in 1616 on a visit to England, possibly of smallpox.)

Moving on to polio and its history of vaccination: I didn’t know this, but in 1955, Cutter Laboratories (a U.S. company and one manufacturer of the then-recently licensed Salk vaccine), distributed faulty serum. A total of 200,000 people were inoculated with this serum which then turned out to contain “virulent non-attenuated polio virus”. Seventy thousand people became ill; 200 children were left paralyzed and ten died. (I’m wondering if this is controversy is somehow related to the ferocious antivaxxers of today? Vaccinate your kids, folks.)

So, by now, you might have surmised that I may have enjoyed this gruesome but straightforward book. I really did (and so much so that I’m going to keep this copy to read at another time).

However, there was one (easily preventable) thing that kept popping up – poor production work with the graphics.

Whoever the poor soul was who added the graphic elements to one of the later proofs kept overlaying their image outlines so that the rest of the image field would cover up one end of some of the paragraphs which meant that there were whole sections of text where you had to sort of guess what it was trying to say.

I don’t want to seem too judge-y. It’s an easy thing to miss, in general, but proofreading/editing should have happened. I would have thought that if you had a well-written serious tome about public health hazards from the past, the least you could do would be to check for that novice error. (Maybe it was an intern. It’s intern season…) 😉

If I had been Dobson, I would have been disappointed in the final product (if she ever saw it): her research, her words, probably her collection of illustrations – and then there is that?

That aside, the book did have some lovely qualities: glossy pages, plenty of high-res graphics, loads of historical ephemera and lots of intriguing sidebars with fascinating bits and pieces about whatever disease was the topic for that section.

Ghoulish but fascinating. Highly recommended.

Just FYI: Other medical history (or medical-related) reads for JOMP include: