Recent Current Events Nonfiction: Pandemic, Plague, and the Dying Days of Trump

I’m still slowly trying to get back into the writing-about-books swing of things! Did I mention we moved New York apartments the month before moving German apartments? Yeah, I’m still fucking exhausted.

And I’ve been reading a lot more slowly but still reading, and although I have no brainpower for full reviews, here are some thoughts on a few current event-types I’ve read the last few months.

I’m enjoying reading pandemic analysis, that is, not pandemic personal essays (aside from Zadie Smith, I’m still a hard no on these) but narrative nonfiction or science around what happened/is happening.

Prolific author Michael Lewis’s The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, looks at the failures of the public health infrastructure in the US that helped contribute to our initially disastrous pandemic response. Spoiler alert: the CDC does not come out of this looking good!

But others do, like a public health officer and doctor in California named Charity Dean, who quickly recognized the gravity of the situation and flaws in the official response. The book is worth the price of admission for her story alone. He follows Dean and several other heroic figures who contributed through response and research (including a model built from a science fair project) to our understanding of public health’s role in combating the virus.

Lewis has a great way of framing concepts to make his points: “The same mental glitch that leads people to not realize the power of compound interest blinds them to the importance of intervening before a pathogen explodes.”

No surprise, but we learn that we really couldn’t have been in a worse position than we were with the Trump administration in charge. Interestingly, George W. Bush got very worked up over the possibility of a pandemic after reading John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza. I know, I was also surprised that he actually reads. Apparently, it scared him into developing a comprehensive pandemic preparedness program and unlike his Republican successor, he really grasped the gravity of what a pandemic could mean and the measures that need to be taken to mitigate the impact.

By the end it felt like it had gone off the rails a bit, and I wasn’t even sure what the message was. It felt like it was building up to something that never happened. But I loved learning about some of the people doing good work, despite being underfunded, criticized, not believed, or just dealing with good old run-of-the-mill misogyny. For that, and some insight into what exactly hampered the US response last year, this was great. published May 4 by W. W. Norton

There’s no one I could have wanted to narrate the events of 2020 to January 2021 more than Lawrence Wright. Several of his books are among my all-time favorites, and if anyone could make compelling, insightful narrative nonfiction out of it, it’s him. I could not have been more delighted when I saw The Plague Year: America in the Time of Covid was coming out. 2020 mostly brought us only evil but at least we got a new Lawrence Wright book out of it.

My biggest takeaway was the origin of the hydroxychloroquine-as-Covid-treatment myth. I’ll let you discover the details yourself, but suffice to say it makes me even more incredulous that this got as far as it did considering its source. Okay, just a preview: it involves “a philosopher living in the Wudang Mountains in China [who] tweets white supremacist musings” and whose “hobby” is “researching Jews” and musing that the coronavirus would “destroy feminism”. Great. Perfect. I’m glad we eventually got to waste money and resources on this.

The cyclonic forces of fascism and nihilism gained in power as the center weakened. The only thing that kept democracy from winding up in a suicidal brawl of self-interest was a sense of common purpose, but the pandemic exposed that the United States no longer had one.

It’s a lot to think about. Well worth it for the fascinating insights, his writing about epidemiology, and a few fairly shocking things I didn’t know, although most of it didn’t feel particularly new. But Wright’s writing is fantastic as ever and he has such an eloquent hand for description (“Where Ebola banged pans and tossed firecrackers in its path, the coronavirus slipped in on cat’s paws”) providing commentary that feels incredibly useful.

One of his strengths is highlighting how a single story fits into a greater one, and the several stories he tells of individual Covid deaths are harrowing. The numbers have certainly been mind-boggling to the point of evading our sense of reality, but the human faces he puts on them – a passionate nurse from the Bronx and a veteran who was on the Normandy beaches – drive home how massive and devastating this all is. He emphasizes that, especially considering military veterans in assisted living and nursing homes, “they were old and helpless, captive to a system that they fought to protect but which was failing to protect them in turn.” It was devastating to consider this, how the selfishness and bad behavior in this pandemic hurt the people we like to pretend we value most.

It also made me very sad to read in his acknowledgements his mention of this probably being near the end of his career! No, Lawrence Wright, no! Sorry but we cannot approve your retirement; we need you forever, end of discussion. He’s survived writing about both Scientology and al-Qaeda, surely that’s granted him some kind of immortality. published June 8 by Knopf

Michael Wolff’s third, and dear god let’s hope last, book about the Trump White House, Landslide: The Final Days of the Trump Presidency, was the first one I read since Fire and Fury. What was the middle one in this trilogy (I originally typed “tragedy” which works too)? Dumpster Fire? Shitshow? I don’t even know. I’ve read too many of these Trump reportages at this point, but I’m also feeling a bit suspicious of Wolff, especially after this one. It’s like he knows too much from all the wrong sources. I got the impression, reading this, that one or two people were incessantly screaming all their grievances into his ear and he was just breathlessly scribbling it all down, fact-checking be damned.

Then again, he also actually was invited to Mar-a-Lago this time (I know, we’re all just mad with jealousy) so who knows. Maybe he’s not as much of a persona non grata as he was in the immediate aftermath of the first book.

It’s fine. I don’t really know why I punished myself by reading it and reliving all this though. Aside from the gossipy bits there wasn’t much new here besides that Rudy Giuliani is constantly farting and Jeannine Pirro gets very drunk. I am amused but I don’t know if I truly needed confirmation of either of these things.

It felt a bit like it was padded with tons of rhetorical questions too, like about how delusional Trump is. I just can’t marvel at that anymore. We know he is. We saw his unraveling in real time. And yet he still wants to run in 2024. Jesus take the wheel and just drive the bus into the ocean please.

Every scene with Rudy was amusing, if terrifying, considering his proximity to power.“Rudy had had too much to drink, which seemed perilous among all the porcelain and fine dishes lining the walls, and was fumbling through his devices, looking for numbers. He was full of intensity and weird math.”

I think that was Yeats’s original line, “the worst were full of passionate intensity and weird math”. He should have kept it, it’s much creepier. published July 13 by Henry Holt

15 thoughts on “Recent Current Events Nonfiction: Pandemic, Plague, and the Dying Days of Trump

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  1. Oh my goodness. This is….Wow. You have gone where I swear I won’t be able to go for years! And just after what sounds like TWO moves? I am full Wayne and Garth not worth.

    I have added these books to my TBR but it might take me a minute to read them. I am so SO so SO annoyed by the Invermetic ridiculousness……I am genuinely worried for my blood pressure. Yet still, I want to know all about the CDC and the Pandemic.

    You’re amazing – as always!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Wayne and Garth not worthy really did make lol, thank you for that!! I think I was really drawn to books looking at the public health aspect because of the vast differences in how different countries have handled this. I just wanted to understand more about it, so trying to fill a knowledge gap felt less traumatizing for that 😂

      I thought we’d hit a new low with the people drinking fishbowl cleaner and then Invermetic happened. It’s like when I think we’ve hit a new low the bottom drops out.

      But if you’re interested in more of what went on behind the scenes, how the modelling works (some of it from a girl’s science fair project!!) and how certain epidemiological developments came about, the first two books are great and I highly recommend! Actually part of my disappointment with Landslide was how little it actually addressed anything to do with the pandemic, aside from revealing that Trump really thought it might be the end for him (!) when he got Covid.

      Thanks for the kind words, btw 🙂 Hope you’re doing well!!!

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  2. Wow, terrific reviews. I don’t know if your exhaustion correlates with your sarcasm, but I love it. Yeats, passionate intensity and weird math – brilliant!

    The memories and may I say the trauma of 2020 are still so raw I’m not sure I have the intestinal strength to read any books about it yet. So kudos to you for getting through three of them. Of the three, Lawrence Wright’s sounds the most interesting, and I confess I’ve not read any of his earlier books. But I’m gonna need a little more time …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha thank you! I definitely think there must be a correlation 😂

      I get it, I still feel traumatized too…I guess something about understanding where the official response went wrong and what we can learn from that makes it feel worthwhile to me. Lawrence Wright is an incredible journalist and I think his books are always so well written. Like no matter what topic he’s covering it’s just so well done and compelling!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great reviews! Like the commenters above, I don’t think I’ll be able to read about the pandemic for a while yet. That said, I am currently in the process of reading up on the ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine stuff for teaching reasons (it serves as an object lesson for why nurses need to be able to read and interpret scientific papers), so I am somewhat tempted by the Lawrence Wright book.

    (Also, I can’t imagine moving twice in two consecutive months, let alone in different countries. No wonder you are exhausted! Hope you are looking after yourself!).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was surprised that I hadn’t heard this elsewhere, where the hydroxychloroquine thing originated from. We should have been emphasizing that big time. The Lawrence Wright book is great, if/when you feel ready for it!

      Yes, it was absolutely insane. We’re living in two places for the time being which is a bit crazy enough, and then to have move both of them within a few months…truly, when it rains, it pours! But it’s at a more manageable, liveable pace at the moment, finally!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You’re very brave reading about current events so soon – I can’t do it! I do have a book on pandemic cooperation which is meant to be quite positive … And good to see you back, I do enjoy your posts. Hope the two moves settle down soon and easily!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Pandemic cooperation does sound positive, and probably more of what I SHOULD be reading to feel a bit better about things! Let me know how it is if you get to it. And I always so enjoy yours too, looking forward to catching up with what you’ve been reading!

      Like

  5. Am late to the party as usual but really enjoyed reading your thoughts on these books. I need to read some Lawrence Wright, have not read anything by him yet, have the Scientology one on my Kindle. Time to get to it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!! You absolutely MUST read Going Clear, really one of my favorite books. I spent a weekend glued to my couch with that one! There’s a good documentary of the same name based on it too, but of course there’s so much more insanity and scandal in the book, and I find him such an exceptional writer.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Haha, like Harry commented above, your sarcasm here was really enjoyable. So much about the political situation over the past four years had been infuriating and it’s still cathartic to hear other people calling that out.

    I really loved The Premonition, but really did only tackle such a raw topic because I already knew I love Michael Lewis. I’ve not read anything by anything by Wright before, but the fact that you feel the same way about him made me want to pick up something of his – maybe his latest or I might be more up for another topic, haha.

    Glad you’re done with all the moving! Obviously I’m way behind on commenting, as things have been hectic here as well, but hopefully we can get caught up more soon 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad I could make you laugh! I feel like we can’t stop calling this stuff out and being aware since he apparently plans to run again. Our national nightmare still isn’t over.

      I did like The Premonition, I think it just lost me somewhere along the way, or maybe I was expecting it to be about something slightly different than it was, I’m not sure. I did learn a good bit from it, and I like any of these portraits of people who stepped up and did great things during this bleak time, like Charity Dean.

      I think you’d really like Lawrence Wright, his narrative style isn’t dissimilar from Michael Lewis’s, at least going by this book. There’s just something about the way he presents a topic that I always absolutely love. I can unhesitatingly recommend The Looming Tower, Going Clear, and God Save Texas if this topic isn’t the most appealing to you at the moment.

      Yes, let’s catch up soon! I’m sorry to hear you’ve been in a hectic period too…hope it’s evening out somewhat for you. Let’s find another book to chat about soon 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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