Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them
by Jennifer Wright
A humorous book about history's worst plagues—from the Antonine Plague, to leprosy, to polio—and the heroes who fought them
In 1518, in a small town in France, Frau Troffea began dancing and didn’t stop. She danced herself to her death six days later, and soon thirty-four more villagers joined her. Then more. In a month more than 400 people had died from the mysterious dancing plague. In late-nineteenth-century England an eccentric gentleman founded the No Nose Club in his gracious townhome—a social club for those who had lost their noses, and other body parts, to the plague of syphilis for which there was then no cure. And in turn-of-the-century New York, an Irish cook caused two lethal outbreaks of typhoid fever, a case that transformed her into the notorious Typhoid Mary and led to historic medical breakthroughs.
Throughout time, humans have been terrified and fascinated by the plagues they've suffered from. Get Well Soon delivers the gruesome, morbid details of some of the worst plagues in human history, as well as stories of the heroic figures who fought to ease their suffering. With her signature mix of in-depth research and upbeat storytelling, and not a little dark humor, Jennifer Wright explores history’s most gripping and deadly outbreaks.
One of my fellow reader/reviewers over at Booklikes had stated that this book read like a compilation of blog entries, written by "an overconfident twenty-something with an only superficial grasp of history and medicine and science." I seconded that statement, because the writing style in this book is extremely informal, with a lot of opinionated side-quips, and tons of speculation masquerading as scientific fact or historical data. I'm not saying that this book doesn't have anything to offer, but to be honest, it doesn't offer what it seems to have been marketed to offer: a look at history's worst plagues and the heroes who fought them. Instead, I feel like the title should have been changed to something along the lines of "Some Sensational Stories About Plagues, Medical Horrors, and History that Interested This Author."
The book is very Anglo-centric, focusing mostly on how these plagues affected America or the European nations. But a cursory search of, say, leprosy, shows that this is a disease that impacted, and still impacts, hundreds of countries never mentioned in this book. Wright's focus, however, was the leper colony of Moloka'i and the story of Father Damien. While I didn't mind reading about the wonder who was Father Damien, this chapter on Leprosy left a lot to be desired.
Much like a lot of her other chapters, Wright doesn't dwell very long on the science of each plague, and instead spends a good amount of time on tangents and speculative asides. In fact, she doesn't spend a whole lot of them with the plagues themselves, because a lot of her side tangents, some of which have nothing to do with the plague (re: Comoddus's incestuous lusts circa 'The Antonine Plague') take up more pages than were necessary.
After the first couple chapters in this book, I realized that I'd have to change my mindset before continuing on. The writing style wasn't what I'd been expecting, and even up to the end, still wasn't a writing style that worked for me. There were too many of those opinionated side-quips, too many random and ill-used pop culture references, and a lot of times, Jennifer Wright will insert her own imagining of how she would recreate certain parts of history if left to her devices.
I'm always trying to rewrite the scripts for history, the way some people must mentally rewrite the scripts for disappointing episodes of their favorite television shows.
First of all, yes I can relate to mentally rewriting scripts for disappointing episodes of a favorite television show; and at least Wright is aware of her own habits. Of course, I also don't try to sell my rewritten scripts as fact in a popular science book, currently worth $12.99 via Kindle.
As I think I might have mentioned in another update, this book tries too hard to be informal and personal by adding random pop culture references, and short humorous (?) commentary, possibly in an attempt to lighten the mood of the context. After all, this is a book about devastation and tragedy, with millions of deaths and a lot of suffering communities and nations over history. I'm never opposed to dark humor, but you have to do it right. At some points, Wright DID manage to make my lips quirk, but other times, I just didn't quite understand her humor. The timing always felt off, or the insertions felt awkward. Whatever it was, it didn't work for me. And a lot of times, I didn't understand the connection--I grew up in America, but I've never been big on the pop culture trivia.
She also inserted exclamations almost everywhere! Even when said exclamation probably wasn't warranted! A lot of her opinions were exclamations! A lot of her speculations and asides were exclamations!
But they failed to really do the job of being exciting or surprising in their exclamation point usage.
If it is one thing I will say in favor of this book, it's that Jennifer Wright truly DOES seem passionate about the subject and each plague's impact on human life and society. Her stance on vaccinations, hygiene, sanitation, general health... all good points to emphasize. Her stance on behaviors towards humankind and the diseases that afflict us is sincere--the message not to treat people badly just because of the disease is a good one. Being kind, supportive, and understanding is a message I think needs to be put out there more often. We don't become afflicted with something deadly as a punishment from some higher judgment--diseases don't pick and choose who they affect, and pathogens aren't discriminatory.
As a popular science book, she could have focused more on the science and medicine of these plagues she is show-casing. But show-casing is really what she is doing in this book, choosing specific stories that seem to interest her about each plague rather than giving more details about the specific plague itself. Truly, the only chapter I felt had the most sincere presentation was the 'Smallpox' chapter, but unfortunately, she didn't tell me anything I didn't already know.
But the rest seemed to hinge greatly on some sensational aspect of each disease: Syphilis and the rotting noses, Tuberculosis and how people glamorized it, for examples.
Then there were the chapters on 'Dancing Plague' and 'Lobotomies,' which, in honest truth, I don't see as counting as true plagues. Lobotomies as a medical horror I can see, but this is a book about plagues, so if she truly wanted to write a book about medical horrors that included a chapter on lobotomies, she should serious reconsider the title to her book.
I can see this book interesting a lot of people, if only because it DOES present a lot of tidbit information that many might find intriguing. In some instances, you DO find yourself wanting to learn more, from a much more detailed, well-informed source. In some chapters, she DOES manage to tell me things I didn't already know, although I would confirm her facts from my own research if inclined to do so. For the most part, this book is, at best, an overview, which I feel would have been better off in a blog format, where expectations might be a bit lower than as a book you had to pay for.
|Halloween Bingo 2018
(anything related to the end of the world, doomsday cults, or a post-apocalypse world)
**This book was approved by our Halloween Bingo hosts for the Doomsday square, and by default, the Creepy Raven Free Space.**