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“The American Plague” and “Asleep”: Reviews

in 1878, yellow fever struck Memphis, Tennessee, then a vibrant and booming town of about 5,000 souls. By the time it left, that autumn, at least one out of every five Memphians was dead, countless more debilitated by the fast-moving and rapidly shifting disease.

All told, more Memphians died in that one summer of yellow fever than the number of Americans who had been killed in Chicago’s Great Fire, San Francisco Great Earthquake, and Johnstown, Pennsylvania’s Great Flood COMBINED.

And then it was gone, and the reeling medical community had no more idea of where it had gone than of where it had come from. Memphis was far from the only place struck by yellow fever that year, but it was the largest single place and bore the most grievous injuries. Was yellow fever a bacterial sickness? Was it viral? Was it spread by poor sanitation? By contact? By air? No one knew, and the medical community, such as it was, was dying just as quickly as everyone else.

The weather cooled. Fall arrived, and Memphis was left to pick up the shattered pieces. Imagine a town in which one of every five citizens – men, women, children, rich, poor, black, white – one of five had died.

Molly Caldwell Crosby takes up the incredible story of the Memphis yellow fever epidemic in her newish book, “The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic That Shaped Our History.” Crosby is a deft and entertaining writer, wrapping statistical minutae inside fascinating human stories. And her book only begins with the Memphis epidemic.

From there, the story moves to Cuba and the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898. Of the roughly 3,000 U.S. soldiers who died in that war in Cuba, only about 400 died of war-related injuries. The rest were victims of disease, including malaria and, especially, yellow fever.

About two-thirds of Crosby’s book focuses on the amazingly dedicated work of U.S. Army doctors, led by Major Walter Reed, to try and find the cause of yellow fever. This, while continuing to treat all the men  (and some women) who succumbed to the disease.

Crosby tells the story tightly and with enough interest that it kept me up late for several nights trying to finish it. If you enjoy a good piece of popular history that reads as fascinatingly as any thriller, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

“Asleep,” Crosby’s second recent nonfiction book, doesn’t quite live up to the promise of “The American Plague.” The subject matter is interesting enough – the recurrent outbreaks throughout history of encephalitis lethargica, the “sleeping sickness” that sometimes seems to parallel flu outbreaks.

Unfortunately, although the topic is fascinating, the way the information is communicated leaves something to be desired. Where “The American Plague” was tight, fast and engaging, “Asleep” is loosely jointed, surprisingly slow-moving, and easy to lose interest in. Which really irritated me, because I was completely looking forward to this book. Oh well.

So, in short:

“The American Plague” by Molly Caldwell Crosby. A++ Would read again. Highly recommended.

*Asleep” by Molly Caldwell Crosby. C+ Probably won’t read again.

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Mining for Craft

So there was a really interesting prompt after I posted yesterday, and I thought man, I’m gonna write about that. But of course I forgot to write it down and now I can’t remember what it was. Sheesh.

Which leads me to the current game that is eating much of my brain space: Minecraft. A year ago, I’d never heard of it. Six months ago, I’d barely heard of it. Now…

Well, now I’m addicted. It’s like Legos for grownups, with a whole world made of blocks of various kinds that you can build with, dig through, explore, manipulate … it’s more fun than a head full of hair!

Especially since I play it on the “Peaceful” setting, which means I don’t have to worry about bandits and zombies and things that go BOOM! I don’t like those things.

For me, the perfect game just lets me explore and maybe monkey around with things a little bit, and that’s what Minecraft offers. I love it.

If you don’t like games that require a fast twitch response and just enjoy meandering around and building – and shearing sheep and arguing with chickens, but that’s another story ;D – I highly recommend Minecraft. No, I didn’t create it, nor am I getting any payment for this plug. It just makes me laugh, and I like to share things that make me happy.

www.minecraft.net

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Fitting In

Most of the time I don’t care. I decided a long time ago to follow the Groucho Marx edict (or was it W.C. Fields?) who said he didn’t want to belong to any group that would have him as a member. So that’s okay.

Sometimes it gets pointed out in unexpected ways, though. I’m quite familiar with two specific internet communities. Technically, I belong to both, but truthfully I’m a lurker at best. The reason? I’m too nice for one of them, apparently, and too careless for the other.

Somedays you just can’t win. Look at a photo instead.

Tremble

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Three Years Later …

Sometimes my life is like that. I wake up one day and suddenly a week is gone, or a month, or a year. What I’m left with is a vague memory of the time, like a skeleton made of smoke. Occasionally something got big enough or strong enough or loud enough to get through the fog and leave an impression, and when I wake up the smoke skeleton has developed a soggy bladder or a single clear trapezius or maybe just a radiating pain in the ankle. But all these things exist in a hazy vacuum.

It’s hard to tell what I missed. And the things that break through the fog enough to be memorable aren’t particularly good or bad or important. They’re just moments, incidents that registered for some reason when everything else vanishes silently into the fog.

I remember the day my dog died. The day my daughter graduated from college. Going to see “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the W. Also the young woman who played the cancer victim in that amazing small play “Wit,” also at the W. Selling “Mad Hats” like crazy at the first Windows Arts Fair.

Snow. And then another snow. And, amazingly, another snow. All last winter.

The night the oak tree fell on the back of our house and sounded like the biggest thunder ever. Seeing patches of blue sky through the ceiling (and roof) of my office/craft room. The day the tornado hit Wren and Smithville, feeling the ground tremble under my feet and understanding awe in a way I never did in any California earthquake.

I remember our new puppy throwing up – twice – on the hoodie I was holding him in on my lap on the way home. Walking through the maze of corridors at the hospital in search of Outpatient Surgery the day my daughter had her tonsils out.

These are the bits of viscera, muscle, fat and organ meat that drift around the smoke skeleton of a lost time. Maybe it’s the same way for everybody. Maybe everybody loses big chunks of daily existence and just doesn’t worry about it.

I worry.

When I am clothed and in my more-or-less right mind, I try to grab things, people, events, places, moments, and shove them into words so that when the fog descends again, I can remember. Maybe.

Maybe.

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