June was a good month for reading, managed to finish four great books. Two of my June titles nicely compliment each other and are timely and prescient reads given the pandemic challenge the world has been enduring in 2020.
As we entered covid 19 lockdown I was interested in reading pandemic fiction and non-fiction. Lawrence Wright’s The End of October was an eagerly awaited release. I must confess that long before covid 19 emerged I had been aware of the growing threat of pandemic, although I think I was expecting the world to be hit by a virulent new strain of flu not a corona virus. Pandemic is a risk that has been growing for some time and clearly Lawrence Wright was also contemplating the prospect of how the world would cope with a crippling pandemic, his new novel The End of October has been hailed as “eerily prescient” dealing as it does with the emergence of a new and deadly virus of global proportions. Wright conceived and wrote the novel shortly before the emergence of covid 19, so the novel is timely and insightful given what we have lived through and are still living through. Wright’s thriller has a highly contagious hemorrhagic virus emerge in an internment camp in Indonesia, spreading rapidly and aided by international travel as one of the early victims carries the disease to the hajj and thereby unleashes a global catastrophe.
Wright, a staff writer for the New Yorker is the author of some pretty stellar non fiction like The Looming Tower for which he won a Pulitzer Prize, as you would expect from a writer of Wright’s calibre this is a well researched and plausible thriller that taps into the issues and discontents of our time, including the issues of cyber terrorism and disruption, bio terrorism and climate change. Wright’s novel is told from the perspective of one of our modern day but largely unsung heroes, a microbiologist and epidemiologist and offers insight into how organisations like WHO and the CDC (Centre for Disease Control and Prevention) in America work to protect us all from unseen but deadly threats: “Disease was more powerful than armies. Disease was more arbitrary than terrorism. Disease was crueler than human imagination. And yet young people like these doctors were willing to stand in the way of the most fatal force that nature has to offer.” The awesome power of nature is something we would do well to respect: “If there was a lesson in these ruins, Henry thought, it was that civilizations were built on the arrogance of progress. We believe that nature is no match for human ingenuity and that nature can be tamed. Pompeii reminds us that the incomparable ferocity of nature will never be fully tamed.” This is a page turning insight into a very real modern threat and I can highly commend The End of October as a thrilling and thought provoking read.
A book that makes a great companion read to The end of October is Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker’s non-fiction; Deadliest Enemy: Our war against killer germs This read is if anything even more frightening than the fictional The End of October. Osterholm and Olshaker set out to explain the very real threats the world is facing in terms of challenges to global health, not just the threat of pandemics but the threat posed by antibiotic resistance, zoonotic and vector born disease the threat of which is increasing with environmental degradation and climate change, and the threat of bio-terror. Osterholm is a renowned epidemiologist and authority on public health crisis planning so he writes with considerable authority on this topic and we would do well to heed the warning the authors are offering. Covid 19 is not the only threat we will face in coming times nor is it likely to be the worst threat we will face. If you want an understanding of some of the very real and frightening scenarios humanity is facing this book is a fantastic read, as terrifying as any thriller. It is a pity that the US, once so well prepared for public health crisis has not been able to meet the challenge presented by covid 19 more effectively.
“The battle lines are well drawn: the microbes’ genetic simplicity and evolutionary swiftness against our intellect, creativity, and collective social and political will. We cannot overwhelm the pathogens, because they so vastly outnumber and outmaneuver us. Our survival depends on outsmarting them.” Being informed about the challenges we will face in public health is the first step in being able to meet them and this book goes some way in arming us for the battles we will undoubtedly face. I found this read absolutely fascinating and frightening. Knowledge is empowering and ignorance can and will cost lives.
I can highly recommend both the above books, in fact together they nicely compliment each other.
I also read a wonderfully, haunting, gothic thriller set in the Scottish highlands called Pine by Francine Toon. I believe this is a debut novel but Toon is a well published poet. This is a deeply evocative novel that is best summed up in one word: haunting. While the story is driven by mystery and disappearance it is also about grief and loss and the fact the empty spaces left by the missing are never really empty.
Toon’s main character is a child and this quite adult story is told largely through the eyes of a ten year old girl whose mother disappeared some time in the past. Outwardly a simple tale, this is such a complex, beautiful novel. It touches on grief, loss, parenting, bullying and growing up. Toon’s characters are understated and captivating. The novel powerfully evokes a sense of place and isolation. It draws on folklore and tradition, it is simply beautiful.
The novel begins at halloween with Niall taking his daughter Lauren into their small community to go guising a kind of Scottish version of trick or treating and it is a perfect read for the deep winter, a time of dark nights and cold winds. It evokes those thin spaces where otherworlds can seep into ours. The novel grabbed me from the first page to the last and I highly recommend it.
And last but not least another Discworld re-read: The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett:
Discworld is a world and a mirror of worlds. This is not a book about Australia. No, it’s about somewhere entirely different which happens to be, here and there, a bit…Australian. Still…no worries, right?
Parodies and satires on Australia are not always well executed but this one is pretty good, mostly this is just a bit of a romp with a side story about evolution thrown in. The inept wizard Rincewind and the whole Unseen University crew do Australia or rather the continent of; EcksEcksEcksEcks (four x), otherwise known as the last continent, predictable mayhem follows. I am not really a fan of the Rincewind stories but I do like the the UU crew and the associated academia humour:
“But we’re a university! We have to have a library!” said Ridcully. “It adds tone. What sort of people would we be if we didn’t go into the library?”
“Students,” said Senior Wrangler morosely.”
or this description of Archchancellor Ridcully:
“Unfortunately, like many people who are instinctively bad at something, the Archchancellor prided himself on how good at it he was. Ridcully was to management what King Herod was to the Bethlehem Playgroup Association. His mental approach to it could be visualized as a sort of business flowchart with, at the top, a circle entitled “Me, who does the telling” and, connected below it by a line, a large circle entitled “Everyone else.”
On a more serious and I suspect accurate note:
“Knowledge is dangerous, which is why governments often clamp down on people who can think thoughts above a certain caliber.”
To be honest this was more of a listen than a re-read as we had this as an audio book for the drive to Woodgate earlier in the month. The Discworld novels do make good audio books for long trips.