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