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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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Be Quiet!

I  was five years old when I started school. There was no such thing as kindergarten in rural Mississippi back then, so thanks to my December birthday I started first grade at age five. To be honest, I don’t remember much about first grade, but I do remember two things.

One, at some point I was given a printed-out copy of a drawing of a Scottie dog to color. With due diligence, I colored said Scottie perfectly, completely black … with a red collar. I recall someone – new teacher? mom? – saying something along the lines of “That’s not very cheerful.” To which I replied, more or less, “It’s a Scottie dog. They’re black.” This continued for a bit with comments about bright colors and comments about yes, but it’s a Scottie dog and they’re black.

I would not be moved.

So that’s the first thing I remember from first grade. I had a tendency to be stubborn and could be argumentative. And I knew, dang it, that Scottie dogs were black.

The second thing I remember from first grade is that I got in trouble a fair amount, and always for the same thing – talking.

Don’t talk.

Be quiet.

Stop talking.

Sit in the hall until I say you can come back in.

Give me your hand (for the ruler swat).

Always about talking. I made perfect grades, did whatever I was told, was a class leader, read all the time, but still played sports on the playground at recess. But I liked to talk, and it kept me in trouble through my whole first year’s encounter with formal education.

At some point in that first-grade year, I decided that talking just wasn’t worth the trouble, so I shut up. I didn’t really speak in school much for the next 12 years. I wrote. I talked to my cat, and to my short-term dog. I talked to myself, while wandering the fields and woods around my home. But I didn’t talk in school.

Talking has always been my Achilles’ heel. I like to talk with people. It made me a pretty decent reporter, and a more than okay teacher, but it just keeps me in trouble with people who don’t talk much.

I talk too much. I blab on. I babble.

So I’m told, even now. Guess it’s time to shut up again, and start writing it all down. And talking to the dog. Heck, I can get a fake ear-phone-thingie and talk to myself even in public, and nobody will think I’m some kind of lunatic.

Yeah, that’s the ticket. Be quiet.

Thanks.

 

P.S. Scottie dogs ARE black, dang it. And I’ve colored outside the lines ever since. So there. 😀

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Laying Low

One thing I really hate is when I hit those pockets of life in which nothing I do is right. I’m sure you know what I mean.

It’s those days, weeks, months when everything you do is just slightly off, seems just slightly irritating to those around you. If you’re quiet, you’re too quiet. If you talk, you talk too much. If you try to remain calm, you’re apparently sad. If you give in to exuberance, you’re embarrassing. And worst of all, it’s all in your own head. Not like anybody’s actually saying any of these things.

But it makes existence … odd. I suspect others back away to give me space, and then I feel isolated.

Y’know what? I’m just a mess, and need to stop thinking about this stuff. Here’s some actual factual things:

* I got myself apparently banned from our governor-elect’s Facebook page, and I didn’t even use any bad language. I just kept asking when he’s going to apologize for basically calling me a minion of Satan. Guess he doesn’t like the question. Guess I’d better keep asking it at every juncture.

* Finally reading “Guns, Germs and Steel,” thanks to the Amazon lending library, and finding it fascinating. Right now pondering the issue of disease from the point of view of the disease microbe. Very very interesting.

* Recently read “The Blacksmith’s Daughter,” a first novel by a very dear friend, and enjoyed it greatly. You can find it at Amazon. Also read “The Whip” by Karen Kondazian, on the recommendation of Jim Beaver, and really liked it. It’s a novel written by a screenplay writer, so it reads like a movie, but it’s based on the real life of Charlotte “Charley” Parkhurst, who lived as a man and a stagecoach driver in Goldrush-era California. Nobody knew she was a woman until after she died.

* Been making lots of hats and suchlike lately, which means I’ve been watching lots of movies/TV. Saw “Rio Bravo,” with John Wayne and Dean Martin. Reminded me of why I had such a huge crush on Dean Martin back in the day. Watched “Dark Knight” again, and renewed my admiration for the spectacular creepiness of Heath Ledger’s Joker. Watched (thanks, streaming Netflix!) “The Trouble with Angels,” which I hadn’t seen in at least 30 years. It holds up amazingly well, all things considered, and reminded me why I basically idolized Hayley Mills as a youngster.

All these things are quiet, and quiet is a good thing for me to be right now. Quiet and non-bothersome. And keep many of my opinions to myself. It all works out better that way.

 

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Review: The Blacksmith’s Daughter

First, I enjoyed this book, which is available as an ebook through MUSA/Euterpe and also through Amazon.

Second, I’ve known the author literally since she was born, and count her as a dear friend. Just to get that out there in the front of anything else.

That said, “The Blacksmith’s Daughter” is as good a fantasy first novel as any I’ve read in a while. Fantasy novels have certain things going for them, or against them, depending on personal preference. They have a fair amount of backstory/world-building to do before they can get deep into the story. Anybody who’s ever read Tolkien knows that this has been a challenge all the way since the Big Daddy First Fantasy to Rule Them All, The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings. If you’re the kind of person who loves to dive head-first into a new world, with unusual names and unheard-of places and Important People you need to learn and remember early on, then you’re already comfortable with reading fantasy and won’t have any problem with all these things.

If you’re not accustomed to it, you’ll find that the Prologue is a strenuous chew. But hang in there, all will come clear and you’ll find that you needed to know all that prologue.

About midway through chapter one, “The Blacksmith’s Daughter” really hits its stride and from there on out, there’s plenty of plot to pull the reader though the occasional bit of necessary fill-in.

“The Blacksmith’s Daughter” hovers on an edge between standard fantasy, mild romance, and the Young Adult category the publishers have chosen to put it in. While many of the tropes in the story are fairly standard fantasy, none of them comes across as cookie-cutter. The pint-sized heroine is great fun, unexpected and full of twisty quirks, unusual strengths and a quiet competence not often seen in fantasy females. I love that not only is she a blacksmith’s daughter, she’s a blacksmith herself.

Oddly, the main hero character engaged me the least. He was certainly fine, but nothing really sets him apart. The main hero’s long-time best friend is far more interesting a character. I’ll be keeping an eye out for him if and when the promised sequel comes along!

All-told, “The Blacksmith’s Daughter” provides everything a reader could want from a fantasy novel: Engaging main characters, entertaining secondary characters, wizardly wizards, icky bad guys, sword play and magic. And about that magic: I’m really hard on magical systems in books and movies, because so often it’s misused as an abrupt deus ex machina. Wave your arms and make everything sparkly and fixed: That kind of magic. So I’m pleased to report that the magic in “The Blacksmith’s Daughter” has clearly been well thought out and has sane uses and limitations. Thanks, Arley, for that gift.

In conclusion, I only have one more thing to say: Where are the maps? You can’t have fantasy lands without maps. LOL It sprains the reader’s tiny mind!

My recommendation: Read “The Blacksmith’s Daughter.” And when you’re done, let me know what you think about Enith.

Because I think she’s fab. Just like the chick who brought her to life: Well done, young wizard. Well done indeed.

 

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Media Consumption June 2011

Haven’t done this in a while, so I’m just gonna touch on what I remember from the past month or so.

***** The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell – When the planet Rakkat is discovered to be inhabited by apparent intelligent life that communicates via the radio transmission of gloriously alien music, Catholicism’s Jesuits rush to get the first contact with the new world. The team sent to make first contact is made up of four Jesuit priests, an aging female doctor, her equally aging engineer husband, a young male astronomer and a young female expert in computers and all things A.I. An odd mix, granted.

The bulk of the story moves between the official inquiry into Father Emilio Sandoz, the only survivor of the venture, and the story of how the venture came to be put together and carried out. It’s a beautiful, heart-rending story about the need for belief and the search for God. It’s also a first-contact story unlike any other I’ve encountered, in which everyone involved behaves rightly and does the best things, and yet everything goes wrong. Why is Sandoz the only survivor? How did he survive? What happened to the others? How did he manage to get back to Earth?

All these questions drive the story, which exists on the surface of it as a perfectly fine science fiction novel. But if you care to read deeper, there’s much to be pondered. I won’t be forgetting this book any time soon.

* Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoesky – I already blogged about this. Never again.

**** Luther, BBC – Luther is one of those six-episode BBC “series” that seem so odd to the U.S. viewer. That said, I enjoyed Luther, which is basically just another cop show, this one about British detective John Luther and his troubles at home and on the job. I watch a lot of crime shows, both U.S. and U.K., so I rarely get truly surprised by any plot development, but Luther managed to do it. Luther himself has troubling issues with anger, and wouldn’t last ten days in any real job, I suspect, but it made for entertaining viewing.

**** Waking the Dead, BBC – So what is it with the Brits and anger management problems? I really enjoyed Waking the Dead, although it contains nothing truly new or unusual. Standard TV cold-case fare, but the characters are nicely drawn and I got very fond of them. Much to my frustration, at one point. Anyway, the main character, Peter Boyd, while sometimes charming and amusing and always whip-smart, is also constantly angry. I mean constantly. It must have been traumatically exhausting for the actor who plays him to be so freaking angry all the time.

** The Jacket -I didn’t really know what to expect from this movie, so I wasn’t disappointed. It’s an interesting if mostly irrational meditation on time travel, of all things. But I’ll be honest… I had a hard time paying attention to it because I find Adrien Brody so amazingly distracting in appearance. I can’t mentally place him in any role because he looks so distinctively just exactly like himself all the time. And his nose distracts me. There. I admit it. I AM that shallow. So sue me.

**** Precious – I’ve put off watching this for a long time because I figured it would be depressing. And it was. But it was also oddly hopeful, and I recommend it to anyone. Let me say this, and that’s all I’m saying…. Mo’Nique deserved every gram of that Oscar, baby. Her performance is utterly fearless, ferocious, eviscerated and lacerating. The main character and all the others were fine, but Mo’Nique’s amazing performance as the abusive mother completely makes the movie. Holy cow. Watch it, for a perfect example of what real, gut-level honest acting is.

Death Note, anime  – I’m watching this on the Kiddo’s recommendation. It’s certainly twisted and forces the viewer into some uncomfortable moral positions. That said, it’s hard to get attached to any of the characters beyond surface level. I’ve still got a few more episodes to go, though.

*** Surface (aka Fathom) – I’m not entirely sure why the Kiddo and I started watching this, but we did, and we both enjoyed the heck out of it. It’s one of those TV series that gets started, never develops enough viewers, and is dropped before it has a chance to live. Surface, in which a marine biologist, an insurance adjuster and a 16-year-old boy race to solve the mystery of “what the heck is that in the ocean?” is a great deal of good clean entertaining fun. Sure, it’s got plot holes you could slip an entire Panzer brigade through, but if you just chill and enjoy it, it’s better than most of the shows that have lasted several seasons. You can find it on streaming Netflix, by the way, under the name “Surface.”

**** The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson – An excellent work of non-fiction, contrasting the struggles and successes of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 with the predations, during the same time and in the same location, of America’s first known serial killer, H.H. Holmes. I started reading the book because of a vague interest in Holmes, but I’ll admit that the story of the World’s Fair stole my heart. It’s a mind-boggling story, and I highly recommend it.

* Sister: A Novel, by Rosamund Lupton – This, on the other hand, was seriously so-so. I picked it up because I’d seen it on a couple lists of recommended summer reading. It’s okay; nothing special. I’m pretty sure I finished it, but to be honest I have very little recollection of it at all.

*** Big Machine: A Novel, by Victor LaValle – There’s no way I can describe this book. It’s weird from the get-go. But it was a fascinating read, partly because it made me realize just how seldom I’ve ever read anything written from a contemporary black male perspective. Fascinating for that alone. Waaaaay better than Sister: A Novel. If you’re only gonna read one novel this summer, I recommended Big Machine: A Novel over Sister: A Novel.

**** A Little Death in Dixie, by Lisa Turner – When I got to the end of this book and eagerly started searching for more from this writer, I was stunned to discover that this is her first novel. Damn, girl. That’s a good one for a starter! Again, there’s nothing overly unusual about the plot, but the writing is nice and clean, the plot gallops along, the characters are three-dimensional, and it’s set it Memphis. Can’t beat that.

**** Forever Queen, by Helen Hollick – This was a 99-cent book from Kindle, otherwise I might never have read it. That would have been my loss. Forever Queen reminded me of how much I used to love historical fiction. It’s a fictionalized account of the life of Aelfgifu, better known as Emma, a young Norman girl who, in 1002 or thereabouts, was married to Aethelred, King of England. She survived him and married Cnut (Canute), a Dane who became king in 1016 of Denmark, Sweden, Norway and England and proved to be a good king for 20 years. She also was the mother to two kings, serving as regent for one of them for several years. She was also the first English queen to have a biography written of her. Hollick, the author, is a dedicated researcher and this story reads very well while retaining as much historical accuracy as possible.

Queen Emma’s great-nephew, by the way, famously returned from Normandy to England in 1066, and changed everything.

*** The Book of Tea, by Kakuzo Okakura – An awful lot of public domain books are available for the Kindle for free. This is one of them. It’s a lovely meditation on Japan, Japanese culture, and, almost incidentally, tea. I read the whole thing with delight, unable to determine any time period for the writing. Afterward (to the WikiMobile!) I was startled to discover that the author died before WWI. The writing has an ageless quality that I found remarkably soothing and easy to read. There’s an awful lot about flower arrangement, too. It’s a short book, and well worth the time for anyone with any interest in Japanese culture.

And that’s it for now. I’m waiting fairly impatiently for midnight and the magical appearance of  “A Dance With Dragons” on my Kindle. After which I’ll disappear for a few days. ;D

Nothing like a good book.

 

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Crime and Punishment

No, I’m not joining the mobs of voices decrying or cheering the Casey Anthony verdict. I’m talking about the original “Crime and Punishment,” the novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky, published in Russia in 1866.

I finally read it.

Somehow nobody forced me to read this classic, all the way through high school and six years of college, and I only just now managed to bull my way through it, thanks to Kindle. Yeah, something about having all those daunting pages just show up a page at a time in pixilworld made it seem less daunting. Not a lot less daunting, mind you. Just enough.

So I finally read it. From start to finish, it took about a month. Admittedly I took a two-week break in the middle because I just couldn’t stand to pick it up again, it was making me so crazy. But last night I finished it. And as an initial reaction, I have to say … huh. Classic psychological drama. Right.

I understand what this book is supposed to be about. Alienation. The inner life of the criminal mind. The psychology of guilt. I understand that. I just don’t see it in the book.

Raskalnikov (he of the many names, like every other character), the protagonist, is unlikeable from the start, at least to me. He comes across as one of those whiny brats who thinks he’s so much better than everyone else that anything he does must be okay. Period. He accepts the kindness of others with ill will, grumpiness and a cavalier attitude that just made me want to throttle him. So he’s poor. Got it. But every time someone gives money to him, often at difficulty to themselves, he just throws it away. Sometimes almost literally.

As for his psychological wrestling with his crime, I saw none of that. I read a lot of thrashing about not wanting to get caught, but he almost never thought about the double murder itself. He felt no guilt, only fear of punishment. He felt no remorse, only that continuing intellectual whining as he see-sawed between playing games with the police and his friends and collapsing onto the sofa in his garret. His “oh, poor me” fainting routine was overdone the first time. We won’t even get into the later ones.

And then there’s Sonia. Saintly Sonia. So pure. So beautiful. So innocent. So religious. So…. a prostitute. Sorry, I just can’t go there. The hooker with the heart of gold has been done to death. Granted, this might be one of the earlier ones, but I found myself wanting to slap her, too. According to the analyses I read earlier, trying to figure out what I was “supposed” to get out of this book, Sonia’s pure love saves Raskalnikov. Sorry. I didn’t get that.

The only thing that happened with Raskal and Sonia was that he was creepy at first, and then creepier, and then creepiest. And the fact that she didn’t run away screaming says, to me, more about the deadness of her heart than about love. She has given up.

He finally confesses, basically, out of spite because nobody could figure out that he was the murderer. I could almost see him in my mind, flouncing in a tragically emo fashion into the police station, draping himself over a chair and announcing, “Oh, fine. You’re all too stupid to figure it out. I’m the murderer. This is soooo boring. I think I’ll faint, or have a sudden fever.”

All that said, I’m glad I finally read the book. I feel much more educated now. And it did have a couple of nifty creepy images that’ll stick with me. Crazy Raskal forcing Crazy Sonia to read aloud the story of Lazarus from the Bible by the light of a single flickering candle in her tiny room. Not sure what it was supposed to mean, but it was creepy as all get out. And then there’s the character whose names starts with an S, who may or may not be a crazy deviant pervert who talks with his dead wife and gives away money like it was flowing from his fingers, who walks out to a bridge overlooking part of the city, muses on the beauty of it, and shoots himself in the head.

Ooookay.

So. Crazy crime and punishment with crazy inexplicable people doing nutty things and getting away with it didn’t start with O.J. and Casey Anthony. That’s for sure.

And, oh yeah, I don’t expect to be re-reading “Crime and Punishment” any time soon. Did  I read the wrong Dostoevsky? Let me know!

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