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review 2018-09-24 08:34
Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them
Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them - Jennifer Wright

I finally finished this one.  The delay was a combination of being on holiday, and needing to put some space between my experience of this book and the experience of others, as I was starting to feel like I was losing my objectivity regarding my feelings about this book.

 

So, my feelings: Get Well Soon was poorly sub-titled and marketed.  As a popular science book, or a popular history-about-science book, it fails.  As an introductory anthropological and cultural survey of how society has historically reacted to epidemics and pandemics, I think its excellent.

 

Furthermore, while I like her writing style a lot, it is polarising.  Jennifer Wright is a 30-something author whose voice is informal, irreverent and snarky.  She writes the way friends - good friends - talk when they don't have to behave themselves.  She uses this no-nonsense voice to sometimes share her thoughts about topics that are themselves, polarising.  

 

So this is a book that isn't going to appeal to everyone.  It particularly isn't going to appeal - at all - to anyone looking for a more sober, scientifically-focused exploration of the topic.  After reading the whole thing, I'm pretty sure it was never meant to, at least, not from the author's perspective.

 

"If you take nothing else away from this book, I hope it's that sick people are not villains."

 

This is a recurring theme from start to finish.  Wright's objective seems to be to focus a spotlight on humanity's reaction to mass illness throughout history, whether good or bad.  Her hope in doing so is that perhaps those who read this book will learn from history rather than doom themselves to repeat it.  She does this is the frankest, bluntest possible way, with a lot of snarky humor.

 

In this objective, I believe she succeeds.  I think those of us who could be labeled as 'prolific readers' or those who voraciously devour their favorite subjects, might lose perspective on how well-informed, or not,  most people today are.  Society today is at least as divided as it's been at almost any other time in history, and a good deal of opinion is shaped via the internet, a source we all know can be about as accurate as a round of the telephone game.

 

In this context, I think the book is fantastic.  Jennifer Wright seems to be a popular author of columns in various newspapers and magazines; if even a handful of her fans from Harper's Bazaar, et al, read this book simply because she wrote it, and they come away having learned something they didn't know before they started, or thinking harder about their responsibility in society, then Wright will have succeeded where others have failed.  (And yes, I'm generally pessimistic about the world I live in - my country is being run by an orange lunatic; I think I'm entitled to a bit of pessimism.)

 

I'm not one of her magazine/newspaper fans.  In fact it wasn't until after I'd started this that I realised I'd ever read anything by her before.  I'm also quantitatively better read, if not qualitatively (some would argue), and I can say that not only did I enjoy this book a great deal, but I learned more than I expected to.  For example, I had no idea that the Spanish Flu wasn't actually Spanish, but probably American, and I had no idea that it killed so many Americans.  Granted, most of my knowledge of the Spanish Flu comes from British fiction, but it's a testament to the horrifying effectiveness of government censorship during WWI that you still don't read about it in American fiction, and this is a disease that killed in one month more Americans than the US Civil War.  I'd also never heard of Encephalitis Lethargica, and sort of wish I never had.  Even on the diseases I knew more about, Wright managed to impart something new for me, and in at least 2 chapters, left me misty eyed over the power people have when they choose to be selfless.

 

As a popular science book meant to tackle a complicated topic in a palatable way, this book is a fail; there's not nearly enough scientific discussion or data here to qualify this as such a book.  But as a popular, cultural overview of the way societies throughout history have succeeded or failed to handle epidemics when they happened and the importance of rational, humane leaders and populace in times of crises, I think Wright succeeds very well.

 

The tragedy of this book is that it's marketed to the very people who are bound to be disappointed by it and likely don't need its message, and the people who might gain the most from it are likely to pass it by because they think it'll be too boring and dry.

 

I read this for The Flat Book Society's September read, but it also qualifies for the Doomsday square in Halloween Bingo.

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review 2018-09-15 04:33
Get Well Soon by Jennifer Wright
Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them - Jennifer Wright

Since I came so late to the party with this one, I knew enough from other people's updates that I needed to adjust my expectations somewhat. This wasn't a survey of plagues over the centuries with discussions of symptoms, causes, and societal effects of various contagious diseases. It was a chattier discussion that liked to use a lot of exclamation marks and throw in cultural references and attempts at humour.

 

Some of the chapters were more interesting than others, but I slowly became more and more appalled by the blithely American-centric attitude that went so far as to refer to some countries as "core" countries and some as "periphery". Now, she never actually defines what constitutes a "core" country versus a peripheral one, so I'm not exactly sure what she means here (it's not like she's even talking about a particular industry where core might mean countries strongly involved in that industry)...it's really just not a term I've ever encountered before and it makes me wonder what kind of circles the author moves in where she wouldn't think that she needed to define it because it was so commonly used.

 

It also makes me wonder whether part of the reason she disliked John Snow so much wasn't because he was a tee-totalling vegetarian but because he was British? I realize she was probably aiming for a humorous angle when commenting on the various people involved in her plagues but a lot of her comments just came off as silly. As she approached the modern day "plagues", the book became more and more American, too.

 

I will say that Wright at least comes down against the anti-vaxxers, but viewed against the rest of the book, I just don't feel that that merits raising my rating even by half a star. I didn't mention it in an update, but I'm also skeptical of her coverage of the Antonine plague because she runs two plagues together and then claims that they continue to deplete the Roman empire to the point of failure over another hundred years.

 

I recommend Medical Detective aka The Strange Case of the Broad Street Pump by Sarah Hempel if you want to read a slightly less hostile account of John Snow's detective work. Elentarri's review has a more extensive list of alternate books to read.

 

To end on a more cheery note, here's a doctored up Huggins (I hope Broken Tune doesn't mind the appropriation):

 

 

 

Previous updates (with [hopefully] helpful summaries:

Page 2 (first core country rant, longevity rant, and modern viewpoint rant aka the introduction)

Page 11 (cholera in Roman times rant and other Roman stuff)

Page 25 (picturing ostriches as really big geese)

Page 44 (the dangers of bathing in the middle ages)

Page 113 (the dangers of drinking raw milk, or, the problem with viewing the past through a modern lens)

Page 123 (reference to Jenny Lawson)

Page 125 (more on "periphery" countries)

Page 206 (judgement against those who do not race balloons)

 

Oh, and I'll be counting this towards the Doomsday square in Halloween Bingo.

 

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text 2018-09-13 16:48
50%
Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them - Jennifer Wright

Leprosy

 

Leprosy is a bacterial disease, caused by Mycobacterium leprae. The Norwegian doctor Gerhard Hansen identified the bacterial cause in 1873, and the disease today is often called Hansen’s disease.

 

Leprosy is one that current generations probably have more of an inkling about because of the term "Leper" and how it is used to describe an undesirable person. This is one that I thought the author went further into depth, in relation to the other plagues discussed, about what causes it, how it affects the body, and who helped fight it, along with her usual social focus. 

 

The most notable feature of leprosy—and in many cases the first symptom of the disease—is the loss of the sense of touch.

 

How horrifying, thinking about not being able to feel a cut on your foot or hand, then having it get infected seems like such an awful seemingly innocuous symptom that manifests to a major problem. When I think about lepers, most of my imagery comes from few historical photos and how movies/tv shows choose to depict them, the wrapped hands and feet make more sense. 

 

But Damien is a reminder that you don’t have to be a genius or a brilliant scientist or a doctor to help in this war against disease: you just have to be someone who gives a damn about your fellow man.

 

I did not know about Damien and only faintly remember hearing about the leper island of Molokai. His decision to stay on the island and care for the inhabitants so intimately is completely commendable and makes me think a bit reckless in regards to own health. 

 

Typhoid

 

At the turn of the century, if untreated, the disease resulted in death about 60 percent of the time. Today, antibiotics reduce the risk of fatality to almost zero.

 

Another Oregon Trail villain!

 

The Sherlock Holmes figure in this case was a sanitation engineer named George A. Soper.

 

Like with lepers, most people have heard of "Typhoid Mary" or know what the phrase means. I had never learned about George A. Soper before and reading a synopsis of how he tracked down Mary as the source of typhoid breakouts was interesting and I'll probably see if I can find a book on him. 

 

Mary herself was an interesting character, her forced confinement was hard to read about, just as her decision to change her name after released and work in a hospital, knowingly infecting more people. 

 

Even with these interesting people I was more excited to see Dr. Sara Josephine Baker discussed and someone I have read about and I think doesn't get read about enough. Reading about how she sat on Mary to force her to stay in the car to bring in for testing, makes you think about what a sight that would have been. 

 

Really, though, this section to me was all about WASH YOUR HANDS.

 

Spanish Flu

 

By 1918, 35 percent of people dying from influenza were in their twenties.

 

The healthiest population dying at 35%, frightening. The author did a good job again talking about symptoms and how the disease overwhelms the immune system and triggers a cytokine storm, which is basically too many immune cells flooding to a part of your body that causes the problem. Interesting stuff but like the wash your hands dominating the last chapter, this one was dominated by the author talking about the government didn't want to start a panic so they were putting restrictions on what newspapers could print about it. 

 

In all likelihood, the Spanish flu was an all-American plague hailing from Haskell, Kansas.

 

I'm not sure the veracity of this comment, "in all likelihood" has a lot of wiggle room, but what a discussion a classroom could have about the how and why it is called the Spanish Flu instead of the Kansas Flu. A discussion that involves World War 1, Spain's neutrality, censorship, patriotism, and plenty more. 

 

 

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text 2018-09-11 22:59
Reading progress update: I've read 206 out of 336 pages.
Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them - Jennifer Wright

"For a time, in Vienna the disease was known as von Economo's encephalitis lethargica and in France as Cruchet's disease. I am not paying much attention to Cruchet because he did not race balloons. If you want to call EL Cruchet's disease, you can."

How very deep. <.<

[Sarcasm]

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review 2018-09-11 22:46
Epidemics are horrible. Well, duh ...
Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them - Jennifer Wright

In substance, I don't really have a whole lot to add to my one ill-humored status update on this book.  This is the book-form equivalent of a cross-breed between tabloid journalism and a series of superficial, but opinionated and self-centered blog posts: short on bonafide science, history, and research generally; long on sweeping, generalizing judgments, inappropriately flippant tone, ill-matched pop culture references, character assassination, vagueness and imprecision, the sensational aspects of the diseases treated, and the personal histories of some of the protagonists of the episodes chosen for presentation (clearly not all of them selected for their "heroic" attributes but for their "human interest" and sensationalist appeal).  Several of the chapters do not deal with genuine epidemics (never mind "plagues") at all: the "dancing plague" was arguably collective hysteria, encephalitis lethargica doesn't qualify on either overall numeric or "sudden mass occurrence" grounds, and if Wright's grounds for including lobotomies seriously were (as she writes) that you can't possibly leave a gruesome procedure such as this out of a book on "medical horrors," then that statement alone shows what she was truly after; never mind her book's extremely misleading subtitle.  Most of all, however, Get Well Soon is extremely long on MeMeMe: the book's true protagonist is not in any way, shape or form any of the brave, poor, heroic, stupid, bright, unfortunate and other souls remembered for their accidental, unwilling or deliberate involvement in one epidemic or another, but the author herself, who clearly considers herself God's gift to popular science writing. 

 

Well, no, Jennifer.  You're not.  And contrary to what you seem to be hoping, history won't remember you, either.  Not even because you've written a book.  Because this just isn't the sort of book that either scientific or general literary history will remember.  Not even because it's taking a scientific position that will be shown off as outrageous in the near or far removed future.  It's just a run-of-the-mill, subpar, badly-researched tract that would be (and, as the books you cite show, has in fact been) in better and more competent hands with just about any writer who, unlike you, actually understands what they're talking about.

 

To the above comments, I will add only one thing that began to bug me (no pun intended) progressively more after I'd posted my only status update:

 

Wright's view is extremely Anglo-centric: in a book that makes so much out of the benefits reaped by humanity at large from the medical and scientific advances of the late 19th and the 20th century, and a book that purports to deal with, inter alia, cholera and tuberculosis, you'd expect scientists such as Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch and their research to be given fairly big play, but Wright has either never heard of them at all or is completely unaware of their immense contributions to the diagnosis and treatment of the very diseases she writes about, including in the areas she trumpets over and over again: disinfection / sterilization, sanitation, and vaccination (which contributions to science and medicine justly earned both of them the scientific community's highest honors -- Pasteur was, inter alia, a member of the Académie Française and the Académie des Sciences, and gave his name to the Institut Pasteur and the procedure known as "pasteurization"; Koch was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine).  Even more than that, however, Wright's world is divided into "core countries" and "periphery countries" -- which seems to translate vaguely into "the North American and Western European parts of the industrialized world" and "all the rest."  If that isn't outright racism -- and not of the casual sort, either -- I don't know what racism is.

 

Wright is adamant enough about the importance of vaccination and disinfection / sterilization / sanitation for me to give her the benefit of the doubt that she really is passionate about these subjects -- and about the importance of science and scientific research generally.  On those grounds, and those alone, and in light of the undeniable importance of these topics (not only in connection with the current anti-vax idiocy), I'm willing to award her books two stars.  But that doesn't stop me from wondering who at Henry Holt (of all places) thought this book would be a good idea in the first place, and where they hid both their science editors and their general editors before they let it go to print.

 

Finally, two fun facts:

 

1)  "Lone genius" or not, I learned more about Edward Jenner and his research from my 5th and 6th grade English language textbook -- i.e., from a book whose primary purpose was not to teach science, but to teach English to nine- and ten-year-olds who were just starting to learn the language from scratch, and who were in the very first stages of building a very basic English vocabulary.

 

2)  I happen to know one of the authors Wright cites.  He is a friend of my mother's and, when in Germany, always makes sure to spend some time with my mom / with us.  On one of those occasions, we took a trip to Speyer, which is some 2 - 2 1/2 hours south of Bonn (near the Luxembourg and French borders), has a certain significance in the history of Germany, and was founded, like many cities in the southwest of Germany, by the Romans.  Not surprisingly, it therefore has a museum dedicated to its Roman history, which the three of us decided to visit.  Having peroused the museum's exhibits, we afterwards proceeded to discuss the decline and fall of the Roman empire and my mom asked her friend what he considered the key causes of Rome's eventual downfall.  Now, that was a very apt question not merely on general grounds in light of our just-concluded museum visit but more specifically because her scientist friend had published, a few years earlier, a book on the collapse of certain civilizations (including some highly advanced ones), and even before that, a book that deals with the way in which [resistance to] epidemics, warfare and technological advances combined have historically favored the descendants of the inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent over the indigenous inhabitants of other parts of the world (say, the Americas) (this, incidentally, is the book that Wright cites in Get Well Soon).  So you could say that he knows his stuff.  And you'd think that if a scientist who had researched, in depth, these specific aspects of scientific, medical, geographical and social history, were to consider the Antonine Plague even remotely among the things that brought to an end a millennium's worth of Roman history, he'd say so, right?  Well, guess what was the one thing he did not consider worth mentioning at all?  (Spoiler alert: yes -- the Antonine Plague.)

 

Nice try, Jennifer.  Better luck next time.  Or on second thought -- maybe better not.

 

 

 

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