BOOK REVIEW: The Comic Book History of Comics by Fred Van Lente

Comic Book History of Comics: Comics for AllComic Book History of Comics: Comics for All by Fred Van Lente
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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As the title suggests, this is a history of comic books and graphic novels that is presented in the form of a comic book. This book turned out to be more fascinating than I expected (and, obviously, I thought it would be interesting enough to start reading it in the first place.) The added fascination, of all places, came from the economics nerd in me (I thought that guy was dead, but apparently not.) You may wonder what economics has to do with the history of comics, but it turns out that there was a long period of learning about how the unique characteristics of comic books should influence how they were most lucratively sold. At first, comics were sold just like other magazines, but eventually people realized that the fact that these periodicals told serialized stories (and that they were potentially collectable) made them a very different kind of product. And there were booms and busts along the way.

It’s not just economists who might find something surprisingly interesting in this book, there is a colorful discussion of intellectual property law as it pertained to comics. (As well as the more visceral human-interest story of the artists who created characters that made executives and actors billions of dollars, while said artists eked out a living.) Long-story-short, this book isn’t just for those interested in how artistic styles changed, or how various popular characters came to be, though those subjects are touched upon as well. It looks at the history of comics from many angles. One learns a little about the unique Japanese, Brazilian, Mexican, and African comic book markets, and one even sees how comic books played a roll in international relations. While it’s mostly an industry (macro-)level look, there is discussion of a few who individuals who changed the industry (e.g. Alan Moore.)

This is a quick read, but packed with interesting information for those of us who are basically interested in everything. It’s well drawn as well. Check it out.


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BOOK REVIEW: Madness: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Scull

Madness: A Very Short IntroductionMadness: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Scull
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is yet another of the many “Very Short Introduction” books from Oxford University Press that I’ve been pleased to read and review. The series offers concise overviews of a wide range of topics that are presented by scholarly experts. This particular book is a historical examination of the changing approaches to mental illness from the ancient world where such a condition might be attributed to demonic possession to more recent times in which drugs and decarceration / defunding of asylums have become the dominant approaches to mental illness. Along the way the book shines a light on the immense difficulty experts have had in understanding what mental illnesses are and how they can best be dealt with. The book not only looks at the real-world response to mental illness, but also explores how it’s been treated in fiction from “Hamlet” to “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

The book consists of six chapters. As one would expect of a book from a historian’s-eye view, its organization is chronological, but the arrangement of time periods by chapter reflects changing approaches to mental illness. Chapter one focuses on the ancient world, during which we begin to get glimpses of madness in the written record. Chapter two, entitled “Madness in Chains,” focuses on the 16th through 18th century, during which Bethlem [Bedlam] Hospital was the cutting edge. That the institution’s nickname becoming a synonym for chaos and confusion says a lot. It was a time of brutal measures that did little to reduce the trauma of mental illness. The chapter also discusses madness in Elizabethan literature, famously that of Shakespeare.

Chapter three shifts to the 19th century, an era in which incarceration became more widespread as well as coming to be thought of as the best that could be done for the insane. In Chapter four, we learn about the rise of psychoanalysis as well as the increasing employment of treatments that involved the physical body – infamously, the lobotomy.

Chapter five is one of the most intriguing parts of the book. Entitled “Madness Denied” it opens with an exploration of the difficulties that arose from all the war-related cases of mental illness that came about as a result of the two World Wars (and others.) It also discusses a movement to overturn the prevailing approach to insanity, most famously and vociferously argued by the Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, a clinician who had a mix of promising and disastrous results from his experimental approach which used LSD, but few other medicines. What I found most interesting, however, was the discussion of the growing recognition that there was a false front in the idea that psychiatry was beginning to really understand mental illness and its treatment. This was exemplified by the Rosenhan experiments in which sane volunteers checked themselves into asylums and, for the most part, the doctors and staff couldn’t tell that they were sane (though, interestingly, in at least some cases the other patients did call it out.) The troubles in classifying and diagnosing mental illnesses have also seen in the vexed history of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness” [DSM,] a guide meant to get mental health experts on the same page about what’s what. [As opposed to ten psychiatrists offering ten different diagnoses of a given patient.] While a worthy attempt, the DSM has not – thus far – succeeded, though it could probably be argued that progress has been made.

The last chapter brings the reader up to the current period, a period dominated by two trends – first, mental illnesses being treated overwhelmingly pharmaceutically; and second, the closing of asylums and the concurrent ill-effects that have come about, societally speaking.

The book has a few graphics, mostly black and white art and photos used to enhance the reading experience. There are also appendices of references and recommended readings.

If you are interested in the history of psychiatric medicine, I’d highly recommend you check out this brief guide. It may not give you all the information you’re looking for, but it’s a good first stop to organize your thoughts on the subject.

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BOOK REVIEW: Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction by Malcolm Gaskill

Witchcraft: A Very Short IntroductionWitchcraft: A Very Short Introduction by Malcolm Gaskill
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Witches, like ninja, so excite the popular imagination that everyone knows about them, but most of what we know is incorrect — either by virtue of being exaggerated or being imbued with cultural and narrative coloring. Gaskill’s book shows us the changing landscape of popular belief about witches and witchcraft, and it contrasts those perceptions with what the historical records show. So, for example, while there was undeniable persecution of individuals accused of witchcraft, it was less of a widespread mania than one might have been led to believe.

There were several fascinating discussions throughout the book. One such discussion is how surprisingly widespread the phenomena of witchcraft is, with witches being found in Africa who demonstrate remarkably similarities to those we are familiar with from the stories of Europe and New England. One can imagine how societies in which medicine was rooted in shamanistic practices, e.g. mixing herbal medicine with superstitious rituals, might produce practitioners that the modern, Western viewer would associate with witchcraft.

Another interesting question under discussion involved the psychology of accusations of witchcraft. For example, it’s not like every time a child died the parents leapt to the conclusion that there was some sort of voodoo witchcraft being practiced against their child, but in some circumstances it definitely happened. Under our current understanding of science and medicine, it’s hard to imagine how anyone would reach such conclusions, but it’s illuminating to explore the conditions under which our ancestors did. It tells us a great deal about humanity’s changing understanding of the world.

The book consists of eight chapters and the usual ancillary matter for the AVSI series (preface, graphics, references, and recommendations for further reading.) It begins by asking: “what is a witch, exactly.” It’s not as simple a question as one might think. Is a witch an herbal healer? Is she a malicious devil-worshipper? Is he or she just a neighbor with whom one had a beef, resulting in the use of that person’s perceived nefariousness to explain an unexpected tragedy? Is a Wiccan a witch? (This is addressed later because Wicca is a relatively recent phenomenon.) Is a witch just a popular Halloween costume based on stereotypes and story details? In some sense, the witch is all of these things wrapped into a messy mélange.

Chapter two recounts how the rise of Christianity warped the way witchcraft was viewed. As Christians attempted to both eliminate the competition of existing spiritual beliefs and to fit those who practiced witchcraft into the context of the Christian belief system, a new kind of witch came to be introduced. Chapter three delves into how the popular image of witches came to be associated with older, haggish women. (In the early days of witchcraft, women were no more associated with the practice than were men.) This chapter also has a fascinating section about cases of neighborly disputes playing out through accusations of witchcraft.

Chapter four explores how witchcraft came to be conflated with demon-worship in the popular imagination, and how beliefs about witchcraft were influenced by competing takes on Satan and what powers the devil was believed to have (or not have.) It also discusses the topic of witch hunts, and proposes that, while horrific things happened, there are many more examples of rationality and calm reflection winning the day. As I was reading this book, it sometimes felt to me like the author was acting as an apologist for the forces of persecution, but upon closer reflection I realized that he was just trying to combat an overly exaggerated view of what it was like to be amid witch hunts and trials. From what most of us have heard about the Salem Witch trials one might be led to believe that any woman in the seventeenth century who was accused of being a witch would immediately be drowned by an insane and angry mob. That was [mostly] not the case. Which is not to say it’s not horrible that it happened at all, but it is useful to understand the scale of any problem.

Chapter five investigates the nature of witch trials, and the changing face of how witchcraft was treated under the law. Witch trials have become synonymous with a vicious catch-22 in which a woman is tied to a rock and thrown into a river: if she floats out, she’s immediately killed as an agent of Satan; if she doesn’t, they say “our bad” and reward her with a Christian funeral. Gaskill emphasizes that there were people at the time who recognized and challenged how horrible and insane that approach was. [I often mention Dr. Sherrill’s formulation of the “Outhouse Fallacy,” the idea that because earlier people didn’t have indoor plumbing that they must have been complete dimwits, and the fallacy tends to apply to our popular conception of people of that era.] Chapter six dips further into crazes and panics over witchcraft. Chapters seven and eight consider different dimensions of how fantasy and reality became intertwined in how witchcraft was seen – from Macbeth’s trio of witches to modern Hollywood adaptations.

I read a lot of these AVSI titles from Oxford University Press; they are a good way to get a quick overview of a subject with which one has a limited familiarity, while ensuring the source has a high degree of scholarly competence. This edition is no different, and – in fact – owing to its fascinating topic, it’s probably more engaging than most. I enjoyed learning how my perception of witchcraft varied from reality, and how perception becomes a kind of reality unto itself. If you’re interested in learning about witch hunts, witch trials, and the like, this book provides an excellent and brief overview of the subject.

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BOOK REVIEW: Richard II by William Shakespeare

Richard IIRichard II by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a dramatization of the last couple years of the deposed King’s life. It is written entirely in verse, which is not the norm for Shakespeare (only a couple other histories are purely verse, most mix prose and poetry.)

The story opens with two gentlemen petitioning Richard II about their dispute. One of the men, Henry Bolingbroke, has accused the other, Thomas Mowbray, of both misappropriating funds and being involved in the murder of the Duke of Gloucester (a relative of Bolingbroke’s.) Mowbray denies these claims. First, Richard attempts to mollify the men and bring about a peaceful settlement. When this fails. Richard agrees to allow the two men to undertake “trial by combat” – i.e. dueling to the death. While this seems to provide a solution, as combat is about to take place, Richard changes his mind and calls off the match. Instead, the King banishes both men into exile – Mowbray permanently and Bolingbroke for ten years [adjusted to six years.]

As in Hamlet, indecisiveness is the root of tragedy in this play. Had Richard let the two men duel it out as planned, he likely would have died as King instead of being deposed. If Mowbray had won, then Bolingbroke would not have been around to later usurp the crown. If Bolingbroke had won, he would have automatically received his inheritance upon the death of John of Gaunt (Bolingbroke’s father and Richard’s uncle) and – therefore – Richard wouldn’t have confiscated John’s holdings to fund a war in Ireland. Either way, Richard would have been better off had he let the duel happen. But, because he didn’t, and then took possession of Bolingbroke’s inheritance, he triggered a chain of events that would involve Bolingbroke invading England against minimal resistance [and increasing support] as Richard was off fighting in Ireland.

While this play is generally classified as “a history,” it has been known to be called a tragedy, and the ending certainly fits that genre. In the last act a conspiracy to unseat the newly coronated king, Henry IV [Bolingbroke,] is revealed when the Duke of York discovers that his son, Aumerle, is involved in the conspiracy. Aumerle races to King Henry and gets him to grant him leave without knowing what treachery was in the works. Henry agrees, but then the Duke of York shows up asking the King to punish his son for his involvement in the conspiracy. It looks like York is about to have his way when the Duchess (York’s wife and Aumerle’s mother) enters and implores the new king to spare her boy – which Henry does (though he has the conspiracy brutally crushed with most of the conspirators killed and those who weren’t killed being captured.)

Also in the last act, one of Henry’s loyalists overhears an off-the-cuff remark that Henry makes about wishing Richard dead. The henchman decides to go to the prison and take matters into his own hands. The play ends with a mortified Henry rebuking the murderer and announcing that he, himself, will go to the holy land in an attempt to make amends for the suggestion that triggered Richard’s murder.

I found this to be an engaging tragedy. The histories aren’t often as intriguing as the tragedies, but this play features and intense – if straightforward – narrative arc. If you’re interested in reading Shakespeare’s histories, this is definitely one you’ll want to check out. It also sets up what is sometimes called “the Henriad,” [a tetralogy of plays] which includes “Henry IV, Part I,” “Henry IV, Part 2,” and “Henry V.” That makes “Richard II” a logical starting point to take on the four-play epic.

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BOOK REVIEW: Pandemics: A Very Short Introduction by Christian W. McMillen

Pandemics: A Very Short IntroductionPandemics: A Very Short Introduction by Christian W. McMillen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book explores disease pandemics through the lens of History. I open with that because this is a topic that can (and has) been addressed through many different disciplines, and a reader expecting biological or epidemiological insights is likely to be disappointed. However, if one is interested in questions of how, where, and with what impacts various diseases spread, this book provides a concise overview for seven select pandemics: The Plague, Smallpox, Malaria, Cholera, Tuberculosis, Influenza, HIV/AIDS.

This book belongs to Oxford University Press’s “A Very Short Introduction” series, a massive collection of brief guides outlining a wide range of scholarly topics. This title complies with general guidelines of the series, presenting the basics of a subject in a manner accessible to a neophyte, citing sources and providing recommendations for further reading, and offering graphics to support the text where beneficial.

As mentioned, the book delves into the seven pandemics listed in the opening paragraph, and does so in the order in which they are listed. Each disease is presented in its own chapter – so the book consists of a prologue, seven chapters, an epilogue, and back matter (i.e. citations, recommendations for additional reading, and the index.)

Obviously, these seven pandemics don’t represent a complete history of disease pandemics. The book was published in 2016, well before the COVID-19 pandemic (though readers will certainly read some prescient-sounding statements — particularly in the epilogue,) but not even all past epidemics classed as pandemics are addressed. [It should be noted that there is no perfectly agreed upon dividing line between epidemic and pandemic.] Still, this book includes the biggest and most globally-widespread pandemics, but it also covers a diverse collection of diseases, including: contagious, vector-borne, and water-borne illnesses, as well as bacteria- and virus-induced diseases. It’s worth noting that The Plague is a worthy first case not only because it’s one of the diseases that has most shaped human history, but also because there’s not a great deal known about disease before then. (During the relatively recent 1918 “Spanish” Flu pandemic, the medical community still didn’t know anything about viruses, and so one can imagine how little ancient people would have understood about these causes of death.)

As the book shares information about the pandemics and their impact on the world, it also teaches one something about how medicine and science progressed as a result of these events. This is famously evident in the case of Cholera, a disease whose unusual characteristics with respect to spread baffled doctors until a clever investigator learned that cases were tied to a common water well. The case of Cholera is a prime example of how changing one’s approach can resolve a stubborn question, looking at the cases spatially offered an immediate insight that other modes of investigation had failed to present.

I found this book to offer interesting insight into pandemics. If you are looking to understand the history of disease pandemics, this is a great book with which to start one’s study.

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DAILY PHOTO: Bara Kaman

Taken on November 29, 2020 in Bijapur (Vijayapura)

Looking like the remnants of a bombed out Gothic cathedral, this expanse of arches resting on a massive plinth is actually the unfinished mausoleum of Ali Adil Shah II. Shah intended this structure to dwarf other famous tombs — e.g. the nearby Gol Gumbaz and the Taj Mahal in Agra — but when he was defeated by Aurangzeb the structure became stuck in suspended animation.

BOOK REVIEW: Freiheit! by Andrea Grosso Ciponte

Freiheit!: The White Rose Graphic NovelFreiheit!: The White Rose Graphic Novel by Andrea Grosso Ciponte
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: March 4, 2021

This tragic story tells the tale of a small college-centric anti-Nazi resistance group, doing so in graphic novel form. While it touches upon the story of six White Rose members who were executed, special emphasis is given to the sister-brother duo of Sophie and Hans Scholl. White Rose was largely involved in distributing leaflets to encourage others to engage in resistance activities against the Nazis. (Note: the translated text of the White Rose pamphlets is included as an appendix.) There is so much attention given to the truly fascinating question of how a bunch of fascist lunatics managed to run a country into such diabolical territory that it can easily be missed that there was at least some resistance within Germany. I, for one, was oblivious to the story of White Rose before reading this book.

The arc of the story takes the reader from the upbeat stage during which White Rose was succeeding in distributing articulate and persuasive flyers, through some of their close calls and other frustrations (e.g. the Scholl’s father being arrested), and on to the bitter end. Much of what I’ve seen previously about resisters centered on communists. One sees in White Rose a different demographic. There are a number of religious references without the “workers of the world unite” lead that would be taken by leftist groups.

I believe the author overplayed the stoicism with which the executed individuals accepted their fate. This is based upon a true story, and so this may seem an unfair criticism because perhaps that’s how it appeared in reality. However, from a storytelling perspective, it felt surprisingly devoid of emotional content [given the events provide loads of potential for it.] There is a great tragedy in young people being executed by the State for asking others to resist fascism, but as a reader I didn’t really feel an intense visceral connection to events. As I said, I suspect this had to do with the author wishing to show that the Scholls took it in all in stride, but I think some display of angst or anger might have made for a more intense reading experience. I don’t know whether it was more a textual or graphic issue that left me unmoved.

All in all, the book was an interesting insight into resistance to the Nazis in an academic environment. I did find reading the pamphlet translations themselves to be insightful. The flyers give one insight into where the student-resisters were coming from, and what buttons wished to push in others. It might have been a bit more gripping, but it was an interesting telling of events.

If you’re interested in learning more about Germans who resisted the fascists, this book provides a quick example of how (and by whom) it was done, and I’d recommend you give it a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Photographer of Mauthausen by Salva Rubio

The Photographer of MauthausenThe Photographer of Mauthausen by Salva Rubio
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Due out: September 30, 2020

This “graphic novel” tells the story of a Spanish photographer, Francisco Boix, who was sent to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp as a Communist during the Second World War. [Note: I only put graphic novel in quotes because it’s not a fictitious story, which “novel” implies, but graphic novel seems to be the accepted term for any graphically depicted story – fact or fiction.] Mauthausen was a camp in Austria. While it wasn’t technically one of the extermination camps, it was legendary for the death toll associated with the granite mine where many of the inmates labored. Its “staircase of death” was the location of untold fatalities, including: murders by the Nazis, suicides, and even tripping accidents that will happen when an emaciated prisoner has to carry 50 kg stones up almost 200 uneven steps with no railing day after day.

Boix, who had been a journalistic photographer previously, was assigned to work for a Nazi officer who took pictures in the camp – particularly pictures of fatalities. Boix carried equipment, set up lighting, developed negatives, and made prints. His boss, Ricken, is depicted as bizarre character. On the one hand, Ricken seems not so bad by Nazi SS standards, but, on the other hand, he has a sociopathic inclination to see death as art. Boix takes advantage of his position to make copies of the negatives with the idea that they will be evidence when the war comes to the end. At first, there is support for this plot among the Spanish Communists, who help hide the negatives away in places like the carpentry shop. However, this support dwindles when it becomes clear that the Germans will lose the war, and – thus –surviving to the end becomes everyone’s primary focus. Soon Boix is on his own to figure out how to get the photos out. He develops a plan involving one of the boys at the camp (children being less intensely scrutinized) and an Austrian woman, who is a sympathizer.

The book climaxes with the operation to get the negatives out of the camp, but resolves with the immediate post-War period when Boix attempts to generate interest in the photographs as well providing testimony at the Nuremberg Trials. Boix is portrayed as fiery and impassioned. When the others at Mauthausen just want to survive to the end, he maintains that any risk is worth it. While he is shown to have some conflict about putting a boy’s life at risk with (arguably) the riskiest step in the process, he doesn’t seem waiver. At the trials he’s outraged about the panel’s insistence on “just the facts.” He wants to freely and fully tell the story of Mauthausen, and they – like courts in democracies everywhere – wish to maintain an appearance of the dispassionate acquisition of facts.

I found this book to be engaging and well worth the read. The artwork is well-done and easy to follow. The story is gripping. While there are a vast number of accounts of events at places like Auschwitz, there aren’t so many popular retellings of events at Mauthausen. I highly recommend this book for those interested in events surrounding World War II and the Holocaust.

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BOOK REVIEW: Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

Julius CaesarJulius Caesar by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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As with Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline,” the titular character isn’t the play’s main character – but is the most “bankable” name. The lead is Brutus, the one member of the cabal of executioners that kill Julius Caesar who does so because he truly believes that Caesar has too much power and that the Roman leader’s ambition will result in yet more power flowing to him at the expense of Romans.

In the first half of the play, the conspirators are assembled and the conspiracy planned — with Cassius leading the charge. Unlike Brutus, Cassius mostly wants Caesar dead because of jealousy over the dictator’s power and popularity. However, even in the opening acts much of the story revolves around Brutus, because Cassius knows Brutus must be on-board because he’s both popular and respected. Brutus’s participation both lends moral authority to the act and will help get others to take part. Early in the play, Caesar returns to Rome and is warned by a soothsayer to “Beware the ides of March” (March 15th.) Near the play’s mid-point, the ides arrive, and the soothsayer is proven correct. The play’s second half involves a battle between pro-Caesar forces and the forces of the conspirators. Caesar’s right-hand man, Marcus Antony, and Caesar’s heir, Octavius, purse the conspirators [notably Brutus and Cassius and their men] who’d been forced to leave the city by an angry citizenry after Mark Antony gave a clever speech at Caesar’s funeral. In tragic style, the ensuing battle doesn’t work out well for Brutus, Cassius, or those who are with them.

In broad strokes, Shakespeare follows the flow of events of recorded history. However, in the details he takes dramatic / poetic license. For one thing, he adds a supernatural element with Brutus seeing the ghost of Julius Caesar toward the play’s end. [I suppose this could also be interpreted as stress-induced mental illness / hallucination on the part of Brutus as he not only realizes things are going poorly for him and his family (he was resigned to his own demise when he signed on,) but, moreover, he may recognize that things might get worse for Rome under Caesar’s successors, rather than better. In the debate about whether to eliminate Antony (and about allowing Antony to speak at the funeral,) Brutus comes down firmly on a side favoring Antony. That said, Brutus is presented as a rock – a stoic to the core.] It should be pointed out that the other apparent supernatural element of the story, the soothsayer’s warning, is recorded in some accounts and wasn’t made up by Shakespeare (which is not so say it wasn’t made up by someone.) However, the bard did make up Caesar’s final words, “Et tu, Brute?” [“You, too, Brutus?”]

Lest one think this is irrelevant Elizabethan Era tragedy with little to say about the world today, the crowd dynamics portrayed in the play’s middle act may feel sadly familiar. All it takes for the crowd to go from “Brutus is honorable, forget Caesar” to “Let’s go burn down Brutus’s house!” is a change of speaker from Brutus to Antony. And Antony is only gently riling them up. Mostly, he’s exploiting the fact that the crowd has intensity and passion, but no intelligence. So, they are ready to go out killing and burning without much spurring them on, but they need a leader to point them in a direction (and they don’t seem to care much what the target is.) This mindless, madness of crowds can be seen when Cinna the Poet is captured by the crowd, and they beat him. Even when it’s recognized that it isn’t the same Cinna that participated in the conspiracy, the crowd continues attacking him on the basis that he’s named Cinna.

Where Titus Andronicus aims for the gut and Romeo & Juliet aims for the heart, “Julius Caesar” is more cerebral – a thinking man’s play. What is the virtuous course of action? That’s the question that plays out from beginning to end as events change. This is one of those works everyone should read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Pale Rider by Laura Spinney

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the WorldPale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World by Laura Spinney
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Before the present-day COVID-19 pandemic, the Spanish Flu of 1918 seemed to be a largely forgotten historical footnote. It was overshadowed by its more explosive, if less lethal, co-event, World War I – the war that was fallaciously believed to hold the promise of ending all wars. Furthermore, Spanish Flu never achieved the mystique of the Black Death. In fact, among the fascinating questions this book examines is why such a world-changing event isn’t more diligently studied. Of course, these days there is a sort of grim desire to understand what happened in 1918 and what – if any – lessons can be learned.

[Which isn’t to suggest that that Influenza virus pandemic was perfectly analogous to the present Coronavirus pandemic. In 1918, science was still at a state in which there remained debate about whether the disease resulted from a bacterium or a virus, and — in some sense — it didn’t matter because they didn’t have good treatments for either. For COVID, we had accurate tests in short order, and will no doubt have a vaccine at some point in the coming months. That said, I’m not dismissive of COVID-19. As I understand it, COVID’s R-nought (reproductive ratio), and the fact that both pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic transmission occur make the current pandemic serious business. Furthermore, while scientific understanding has increased radically, human psychology is surprisingly similar and some of the same conspiracy theories and wishful thinking that made things worse a hundred years ago may prove to do the same today.]

The strength of Spinney’s book is that it takes global perspective. It doesn’t fixate on the United States (where the 1918 Flu was first understood to its own, new disease) or Europe (where it was inexorably linked to the fighting, and got its fallacious name of “Spanish Flu.”) In addition to these locals, Spinney’s telling visits and revisits China (one of the alternative candidates for ground zero,) India (which suffered tremendous fatalities from the disease,) Brazil, and a number of other countries around the globe.

The book’s twenty-two chapters are arranged into eight parts. While these divisions are topically organized, emphasis is given to the stories being told and so said topics aren’t in one’s face but are, rather, background that is subtly presented in narrative form. Chronological consideration is tertiary. The penultimate part (Part VII) does explore the world in the wake of the Spanish Flu, but discussion of attempts to find the true index patient (a.k.a. patient zero) don’t take place until chapter 11 [Part V.] [To clarify, the acknowledged patient zero was a soldier at a US military base in the middle of America, but there are widely divergent thoughts about how long the disease might have been infecting people before that – masked either by the war or by the lack of data collection and reporting throughout the world. The only thing that is widely agreed upon is that the “Spanish Flu” didn’t originate in Spain.] I’m certainly fine with meandering on chronology in order to serve a more appealing narrative.

A lot of the subjects covered are interesting, but are what one would expect, e.g. what was it like to live in the midst of Spanish Flu. Therefore, I want to focus on a few topics that I found particularly interesting because they were illuminating, but weren’t necessarily what I anticipated. One set of topics addressed sheds light on just how different a time 1918 was. I suppose different people have different ideas about how modern the early 20th century was — relative to today. To me it was interesting to hear about church leaders calling upon people to attend services because there was an idea that the Flu was a result of god finding humanity’s “lack of faith disturbing.” [I quote Darth Vader, not this book’s author.] I’m sure there are priests and preachers saying the same these days, but I also suspect those voices are so far into the lunatic fringe as to not merit much attention, but not so in 1918 (and, thusly, many went to sit in high-density churches only to spread the flu more effectively than any virus could hope for.) Another interesting insight into the level of modernity was Spinney’s explanation of the fact that medicine, as we know it, had not yet risen to a favored spot above approaches like homeopathy and shamanism. Lest it sound like I’m engaging in the outhouse fallacy; I will say that people are falling in many of the same holes despite more advanced understanding of viruses – particularly as regards to people’s desire to impose order and purpose on a natural event.]

The other discussion that I found unexpected and revelatory was about the dearth of art and literature on the subject of the 1918 Flu. Spinney describes the effects of Spanish Flu on many major artists of the time, but goes on to discuss how few of those who survived the flu in 1918 brought it into their works. She does also discuss some of the works that did come about, as well.

I found this book fascinating from cover to cover. The fact that it covered so much ground geographically as well as topically was part of that intrigue. Learning what changes occurred in the wake of the 1918 Flu has certainly helped me consider what to expect in our future. The similarities and differences between then and now also surprised me. Just like today, there were a lot of wildly bizarre conspiracy theories from people who had to make sense of both the randomness of the Flu’s action and the fact that it put such a nasty a crimp in their lifestyle. It’s also interesting to consider some of the more intellectually stimulating theories – e.g. that part of the reason for the lethality of Spanish Flu is that in the theater of war, the virus didn’t benefit from the internal restraint usually shown (because people were dying so rapidly) and so mutations that favored a quick and harsh influence made gains. [For those who aren’t aware, it was the second wave of the Spanish Flu that was really nasty. The first wave was like seasonal flu for almost everyone, and by the third wave the virus didn’t have much of a reservoir of those without acquired immunity and so petered out relatively quickly.]

If you want to learn more about Spanish Flu, I’d highly recommend this book – particularly if you are interested in the global story and the after-effects of the disease.

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