The Story of
The Great Influenza
Pandemic of 1918
And the Search for the Virus
That Caused it
(Farrar Straus & Giroux)Some say it killed 20,000,000 people; others guess that the figures were closer to 100,000,000. It appeared suddenly as WWI was ending, lasted for less than a year, and then completely disappeared. 500,000 Americans --- mostly the young and the healthy --- died. Whole villages were devastated, including some in far corners of the earth --- Western Samoa lost 40% of its population, some Eskimo villages in the Arctic were reduced by over 70%.
The victims would sicken, their lungs would fill with a bloody froth, and in a couple of days they would be dead. Those that didn't die of the flu died from the pneumonia that immediately set in. Strangest of all, after the flu disappeared, it also disappeared from the consciousness of most of us, except for those who lost family or lovers. (The tragedy, as with AIDS, was that most of the victims were young, most were in robust health --- their average age was 20 - 40). The scientific literature has always been spotty, and, until now, few books have been written about it. It represents what the author calls a singular case of medical amnesia.
Recently, the epidemic has reappeared in our consciousness (and in our nightmares) because --- although most traces of the virus have disappeared --- several researchers have gone to places where the tissues of those who died have been preserved. This means digging into the repositories of various medical institutions. One such, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, has been collecting tissue from the military dead since the Civil War.
Even more creatively, scientists have been going to places in the far north where flu victims have been buried for all these years in permafrost. The theory is that using new scientific techniques now available to us we might be able to reconstruct the structure of the virus --- and be prepared if such a pandemic were to recur.
Ms. Kolata's story is told with care and precision, and at times has the elements of a good detective story. At other times, however, she veers off on a lengthy discussion of such as the swine flu which --- on the basis of a handful of cases at Fort Dix, New Jersey --- seemed to infect the brains of our top scientists with the fear that the epidemic of 1918 was about to return. The going gets a bit loopy with that particular story from 1971, with its digressions and attendant lawsuits.
But, overall, the details she digs up about the flu are fascinating: that the 1918 epidemic may well have begun in 1916 or, even more remotely, with a more benign version in 1890; that --- for scientific testing --- the one animal that can be infected with it is the ferret, a feisty little creature that bitterly resented having its long nose daubed with germs; that no one --- yet --- knows why the flu disappeared as quickly as it did without mutating; and most interesting of all, the revelation that all flu pandemics start in one place in the world: namely, in South China --- because of the peculiarity of its farming techniques:
While the rice is growing, they put ducks on the flooded fields. The ducks eat insects and even weeds, but do not touch the rice....The problem, however, is that the farmers also keep pigs that live alongside the ducks.
Pigs are known to be a rich source of the flu --- there was a swine flu epidemic concurrent with that of 1918 --- and the virus can be particularly virulent when it begins in the intestinal system of birds, then mutates in porkers. It goes without saying that this pig-and-duck routine shows no sign of being rooted out of the Guangdong region of China and, for that reason, one day, many of us might find ourselves going quackers, oinking, and even waking up dead.--- Ignacio Schwartz
The Love You
(Curbstone)Marcela lives in Mexico City, works as a publicist. Her husband Rafael is a lawyer. After fifteen years of marriage, she meets up with Eduardo, an older physician --- and they have a brief, restrained fling.
We pick up with Marcela at the time Dr. Eduardo has just bailed out of his affair with her. She has returned to the home of her parents --- San Lázaro, a port town on the Gulf of Mexico --- to dig up whatever information she can about her origins. The whole of The Lover You Promised Me is taken up with her in San Lázaro, memories of growing up with loving mother and chilly father, and memories of the short-lived romance with the very doctor who tended to her dying mother.
We are told that this novel won the 1999 Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize. God knows why. It's a jumble of supposed letters from Dr. Feelgood, memories of her childhood (she was terrible at the piano; her father insisted that she take lessons; her mother cooked) and this trip to San Lázaro. We are forced to hang out with her in her drab hotel, or wander around the streets, swatting mosquitoes, ruminating on family secrets, being courted by yet another man, Miguel.
The letters from Dr. Eduardo are a yawn ("Having you, Marcela, I concluded late in life that the sexual mores of Saint Augustine and Saint Paul were absurd...") Some of her insights are ridiculous ("They were almost teenagers, and teenagers view the world as being more complex than it actually is...") And the facts about her fictional family are not only absurd, they lead nowhere:
It seems that Ilona's grandfather was a man used to the countryside and farm animals, who couldn't adjust to life in America. He had just settled in Schenectady, New York, when his wife died. He remarried, but within five years he was broke. He opened a tannery, but since he didn't speak English, he had a hard time making a go of the business.
Reading this, we must ask if Ms. Molina is being paid as Dickens was --- by the word. Because for those of us who admire pith and brevity in a novel, we wonder why this minor, never-
heard- from- again character is given a brief, stupid life as a widower and tanner in America? What does this do to advance the plot? And why Schenectady, of all god-forsaken places?
Molina's writing is not unlike the algae that grows everywhere in her tropical seaside village: it sprouts, but doesn't seem to have much direction or color. Facts about 1994 --- the murder of the Mexican presidential candidate, thoughts about the leader of the uprising in Chiapas --- are sprinkled in, here and about, poppy-seeds on the bun, but they seem to have nothing to do with our labored tale.
My Gui Roji tells me that there is one San Lázaro in Mexico --- and it isn't anywhere near the Gulf of Mexico. It's high up in the Montes Azules, in Chiapas, on the Guatemala border. Since Molino is a writer, presumably with some artistic purpose, the name must mean something.
Lazar means "to lasso" or "to noose." "Lazarillo" is a blindman's guide. Lazarillo de los Tormes, the Western world's first novel, has to do with a boy who was forced to care for a wandering blind man, to lead him through the countryside. It's filled with "picaresque" adventure. It was and is a wonderful novel.
This one isn't.--- Elizabeth Wickes
(Scribner)Remember the old days of murder mysteries --- Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe, the Thin Man, the Continental Op? We'd get a couple of murders and some terse writing. Our brassy detective would figure out how to evade the klutzy police, he'd make some astounding connections and catch the villain...and that would be it.
And the murders themselves: shot through the heart or head, bludgeoned, drowned, stabbed to death, ice pick through the back of the head. Pretty simple. All the victims were, well, of reasonable age, and they were a pretty unpleasant bunch, anyway --- people who deserved to be shot, bludgeoned, drowned, stabbed or ice-picked to death. Murder itself was practically an afterthought. It was the characters and the story which gave us the chance to marvel at the cunning of a Holmes, the cynical snippishness of Marlowe, the dry wit of the Thin Man. Death definitely, was not de Jour.
How things have changed. And not for the better. We might as well blame Patricia Cornwell for starting it all, for now, in Death du Jour, comes one Temperance Brennan, lady forensic specialist. And we don't just get a couple of murders. No --- in these days of inflation, we get ten or twelve.
We also get an inflation of information, more than we could ever possibly want to know about what the murder weapon did to the body, how it did it to the body, what the body looks like postmortem. The lectures --- what are these tales but medical school lectures? --- on exactly what the body's like when it gets exhumed, exactly how it feels and smells, exactly how it rots, exactly how many bugs have taken root in it, how the bones have gotten separated from flesh, what the flesh feels like, what the bones look like, and how everything gets squashed into the bodybag.
Then we get a written report by our lady pathologist, which is mostly nonstop forensic babble ("I found the radioplaque fragments in the femur were the result of postmortem impact,") and, always, a sub-rosa pathological report on how tired Temperance is, how little sleep or good food she's getting, how stressed she is, how difficult it is for her, in her forensic way, to attract suitable lovers, except for those not-so-clean police types. The murders are so brutish she wants to cry (but won't), the world is made up of creeps. Dr. Brennan even dissects her meals --- snips of chives and basil; the lettuce is...well...torn, not cut.
The world has always had its stable of creeps. A few hours with Shakespeare, the Bible, the classics, will give as fine a selection of rapists, ghoulish brutalists, and baby killers that you could ask for. The whole business of Orestes, Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and the Trojan war grew from Atreus cooking up brother Thyestes' sons into baby pot pie --- then feeding the whole sordid mess to unsuspecting Thyestes. Talk about a Michelin three-star dining treat!
Fortunately, most of us don't have to deal with creepy people like Atreus on a daily basis. We leave that to our police and their forensic pathologists. They, by rights, must have a fairly glum view of the world. Dr. Reichs proves the truth of that by her story line: her Temperance is a busy-body and a sad-sack, at the same time.
She's also a prize #1 Boor for any fan wanting only a good night in the sack with a crackerjack mystery novel. The vomit level us upped by a factor of ten with the details she selects for our delectation. There are, in addition, in the body department, a few standard ones, but, in addition, an eighty-year-old lady, a 150-year-old nun, and the coup de grace, two four-month-old twins --- one of whose heart has been yanked out with a corkscrew device, so that
I could see a distinct pattern in the baby's flesh, a crudiate central feature with a loop at one end.
The technical language gives us a verisimilitude so we know we ain't dealing with some non-techie smarty-pants illiterate like Sam Spade.
Can we be alone in thinking that the mystery genre has crossed the bridge from interesting and slightly ghoulish fun, with appropriate cynical dialogue, now transformed into a competition of let-
me- show- you- how- revolting- I- can- be? Those of us in the geezer class remember with especial fondness Philip Marlowe venturing out to the seedy parts of the Los Angeles basin to find a body, getting beat up a bit himself --- all wrapped up in his singular mordant wit. No crudiate central features for him.
Cornwell, Reichs and their ilk are, in truth, spoilsports. They've taken an interesting genre and put it in a bodybag stuffed full of bones and body tissue, putrescent flesh, rotting eyeballs, and brain-goo that poops out of the skull. It gets so bad that when we finally get to the usual required hump-sex-pant scene, the clinical nonsense rubs off on the libido,
My nipples throbbed and fire surged through my body...His hand cupped my left breast, then gently bounced it up and down...Current shot through my lower torso...
Current? What kind of current? Current events? Current assets? The Gulf Current? The ritual passage of love-and-lust turns out to be a pathological report on the tumescent tissue with interpretive analysis of the mucoid discharges. We half expect Temperance to do a sonogram on her boyfriend's parts to check on his level of lust. In ergs.
They tell us that when she's not writing moist and smelly prose, Dr. Reichs works as a forensic anthropologist for the State of North Carolina, one of fifty in the country. Let's pray to the great gods of murder mysteries that the other forty-nine don't get it in their heads to start whipping out novels, too. There are only so many dripping pipettes that we, the hapless reader, can take.--- Lolita Lark