Friday, September 30, 2011

The Great Influenza by John M. Barry Part 1

The Great Influenza is Barry's magnum opus, a well-written, impeccably researched, and infinitely interesting work about the influenza pandemic of 1918. The book as the byline claims, tells the epic story of the deadliest plague in history. Divided into 10 parts, Barry begins by outlining the state of science in America in the century prior to the 1900's and moves on to tell the story of how the world, largely unprepared, coped with such a highly infectious outbreak. I will be discussing this book in several posts over the next few days.

In Part I The Warriors, Barry provides a detailed history of medicine and how physicians viewed disease and undertook the practice of medicine up until the late 1800's. By the 1800's enormous advances had been made in many areas of science with the exception of medicine, which was practiced very much the same as it was in the days of Galen and Hippocrates. This began to change in France with the use of objective measurements such as temperature, pulse rate and blood pressure. Some rejected the use of measurements, saying that they turned the human body into an object, but this application of mathematics to medicine allowed doctors to become detectives and to make discoveries about the causes of disease and to design real treatments for their patients.

Part I is a magnificent and interesting account of the attitudes and practices that prevailed within the 1800's medical world in America which was largely behind that of their European counterparts. In the 1800's for example, most medical students could barely write and having a degree was not a requirement for admission to a medical school. There were many medical schools in the country but they hired uneducated doctors. Many doctors had There were no medical laboratories in America, so doctors went overseas to learn the latest techniques, only to return and be unable to practice what they had learned.

The founding of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, in 1876, and its medical school in 1893 was an attempt to change this situation. It would be an institution that would change how science was studied in America and how medicine was practiced. Ultimately, by the time the pandemic arrived in 1918, the changes in American medicine as a result of the Johns Hopkins would result in America having the researchers and the knowledge to confront it.

Barry writes in detail how William Henry Welch, a physician who studied chemistry but who himself never produced a significant body of research, was to transform Hopkins into an influential and cutting-edge institution. Welch had the ability "to identify those with the promise to do what he had not done" and to inspire. Because Hopkins combined a medical school with a hospital, graduate students were afforded the opportunity to examine the sick, make diagnoses, conduct laboratory experiments and undertake research. These students then graduated and took this approach with them to other schools, transforming them.

Welch turned Hopkins into a major influencing force in American medicine revolutionizing the way doctors were trained, how medicine was practiced and developing public health. An interesting fact was that Hopkins got its medical school from a $500,000 endowment from a group of women who had founded Bryn Mawr College, contingent upon the new school accepting women!
Throughout this part of the book, Barry sets the stage for America's medical researchers and how they were unknowingly being prepared to uniquely deal with the pandemic.

In Part II The Swarm, Barry eloquently explains the nature of viruses touching on genes and sterochemistry. He discusses the mechanisms involved in viral attacks on cells in the respiratory track and the immune system's response.

The influenza virus has the unique ability to enter a cell, rather than fuse with it and therefore to effectively hide from the immune system. Within 10 hours, between 100,000 and 1 million new viruses have been replicated and release into the body to attack new cells. Unlike other viruses, the influenza virus, which is an RNA virus, is capable of mutating and adapting rapidly - another reason why it is difficult to attack.

We learn what constitutes a normal immune response and what immunity is (a response to a new infection without symptoms). Barry provides the reader with all the basics needed to understand what happens during an invasion by a virus including how the body mounts an attack on an invader, the development of antibodies and the antigens of viruses.

The most interesting parts of this chapter detail how influenza has developed a way to evade the immune response. Two receptors on the virus, hemagglutinin and neuraminidase mutate quickly by shifting into different forms - this is known as antigen drift. It becomes apparent in this chapter that John Barry has an excellent ability to enable his readers to visualize the concepts he is discussing through the use of examples that are familiar and easy to understand. A prime example is his discussion of antigen drift - when mutations occur in the virus so that the immune system no longer recognize the antigen. Antigen drift is what public health experts monitor each year in order to adjust flu vaccines.

Viruses also undergo antigen shift which is more encompassing with radical change in hemagglutinin or neuraminidase or both. In this case, the infection spreads rapidly because few people have antibodies to fight the infection.

Hemagglutinin occurs in fifteen known shapes while neuraminidase has nine basic shapes. Both occur in different combinations with subtypes. Virologists use these antigens to identify the specific virus they are investigating by using H and N combinations. Hence H1N1 refers to a specific combination of hemagglutinin and neuraminidase.

In the next post on this book, we will discuss how America entering World War I created conditions conducive to the development of a pandemic.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Tyranny by Lesley Fairfield

Tyranny is a graphic novel by artist Lesley Fairfield which explores the struggle of a young woman as she develops an eating disorder. We follow Anna as she enters puberty and begins to feel she is too fat because of the changes her body is experiencing. Her dreams and excitement over the potential of her young life begin to fade as she is consumed by a fear of eating and becoming fat.Anna states

"I felt trapped inside my new body. My imagination worked overtime, and before long, I was tormented and miserable! I was desperate to have my younger body back."

So Anna decides to diet and lose weight. which she does remarkably well. But she can never be quite thin enough. Food is her enemy that will make her fat and ugly. Anna begins to spiral faster and faster into behaviours that are harmful. She weighs herself several times a day, and calorie count, and finds that she is no longer able to eat at all. Soon she becomes too sick to attend high school, drops out and gets her own apartment when her relationship with her parents breaks down. At first things seem to be fine but Anna's eating disorder gets worse. She has no energy to keep a job and becomes physically ill. She ends up in hospital and under the care of a psychiatrist.

Eventually she gets another job and meets some new friends one of which she becomes close to. That girl also has an eating disorder. However, when a tragic event occurs, Anna realizes that she can no longer cope on her own and that she wants her life back. Anna decides she wants to live. She goes into treatment and discovers that she can deal with Tyranny. She learns to claim her thoughts, and to discover who she really is! She begins to fight for her life and for who she really is.

Tyranny is her alter ego, the fear behind her eating disorder, the demon that pushes her to stop eating. Anna learns to confront Tyranny, control her and ultimately banish her. Her life no longer belongs to fear and to Tyranny.

This book is a beautiful concept about a terrible illness, written by a woman who has struggled with an eating disorder for thirty years. Lesley Fairfield's unique illustrations aptly show the dysmorphia that Anna has. This distortion is also reflected in the image of Tyranny.

Eating disorders are the bane of many young women today given the cultural climate of perfection presented in advertising and entertainment. It was my children who have made me realize just how desensitized we can be to this. Every ad showing a woman's body is that of apparent perfection but is in reality a huge distortion of what women actually look like. It is not only models that are part of this myth but also any actress or performer who allows their image to be photoshopped.

This book is a must for all young adult collections.

Book Details:
Tyranny by Lesley Fairfield
Toronto: Tundra Books 2009
114 pp.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Letters To My Daughters. A Memoir by Fawzia Koofi

Letters To My Daughters is a searing memoir that is an intimate look into the recent troubled history of Afghanistan from the perspective of a young Afghani who is both a woman and the country's only elected female politician. It is intense, thought provoking and and at times heart-rending. Fawzia Koofi's memoir is written in two formats; each chapter is prefaced by a letter to her young daughters Shuhra and Shaharzad, followed by an account of her life and the cultural and political landscape of Afghanistan at that time.
Fawzia was the nineteenth of her father's twenty-three children. Her mother was her father's second wife - he had seven wives but had divorced two so that he could marry two other women. Although her father had many wives, Fawzia claims that it was her mother Bibi jan whom he loved the most and it was her mother who ran the household, who kept the keys to the storeroom and the safe and whom coordinated the cooking for the huge political dinners he hosted.

Her father had recently married his seventh wife, a 14 year old girl who gave birth to a son just three months prior to Fawzia's birth.Her mother who had already had borne seven children when Fawzia came along was distraught at yet another younger wife in the home. Upset at having lost his favour, she prayed for a son but it was not to be. Instead Fawzia was born in a remote mountain shack and left outside to bake in the fierce mountain sun. Finally after a day, her family took her back in and Fawzia's mother vowed that no harm would ever come to her again.

Fawzia's father, Abdul Rahman was a member of the Afghan parliament in 1975, the year she was born. He represented the people of Badakhshan province in the northern Afghanistan. It is one of the poorest areas of the country. Her family lived in the Koofi Valley, for which they are named.

Fawzi describes the rise to power of the Taliban from the ashes of an Afghanistan left in chaos after the defeat of the Soviets by the Mujahideen. While the West rejoiced in the Soviet withdrawal, a brutal civil war raged in Afghanistan between the factions of the Mujahideen. The country slipped into chaos and terror around the capital, Kabul as different Mujahideen struggled for control. This period was a dangerous time for Fawzi's family - her father was murdered and they had to flee their home in Badakhshan and travel to Kabul.

Meanwhile in the south, young men who had studied at the madrassas in the border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan began to arrive in the southern villages of Afghanistan bringing with them radical Islam, common to Arab countries. The southerners, tired of civil war and poverty, accepted these "angels of rescue"as the young men called themselves.

When a peace treaty was brokered between the Rabbani government and the Mujahideen in 1995, the Taliban influence was growing. Koofi relates the heart-breaking and catastrophic changes that occurred within Afghanistan in 1996 when the Rabbani government fled north and Taliban rule commenced. Instead of rescuing the Afghan people as they initially claimed, the Taliban began to systematically implement laws that drove the country back into the dark ages within months. Women were required to wear burkas and were confined to home, no longer being allowed to attend school. All women in any type of public life were forced out. Men had to wear beards and turbans and many cultural practices such as the traditional Afghan weddings and music were banned.

Koofi accurately refers to this and other actions as cultural vandalism - a very perceptive description of radical Islam's effect on any culture it has ever overrun. Almost overnight, public beatings, stoning and executions became the norm for the slightest violations of radical Islamic code. Televison was banned and radio broadcast nonstop Taliban propaganda. Libraries were destroyed as were the beautiful Buddha statues of Bamiyan.

At this time of her life, Fawzi was in medical school and had to give up her studies. It was not only impossible to attend school, but impossible to go to even to the market unless dressed in "the new uniform of Afghanistan", the blue shuttlecock burka. Women were not allowed to speak to men who were not blood relatives. To do so was to risk arrest, beatings and possibly worse.

Fawzi tells us what this meant to her people:

"And now that the war was officially over, the world also began to move on. The Cold War had ended, and the mighty Soviet Empire was collapsing. The Afghan fight against the Russians was no longer of relevance to the West. It was no longer broadcast internationally on the nightly news. Our civil war was over, and as far as the world understood it the Taliban were now our government. We were yesterday's story.....
But our tragedy was not over. In many way, it was just beginning. And for the next few years, the world forgot us. They were our bleakest years of need."

Fawzia chronicles in detail the cultural annihilation Afghan underwent during Taliban rule and how it affected the people. During Taliban rule she felt Afghanistan was slipping back into the darkness of time. Her family suffered greatly. Newly married to a kindly man Hamid, he was soon taken from her and beaten and tortured, eventually contracting tuberculosis. Eventually Fawzia and Hamid decided to flee northward to Badakhshan where Ahmad Shah Massoud and President Rabbani's forces were fighting the Taliban. Only when Fawzia escaped the Taliban-ruled south did she realize how much she had changed.

Life under the Taliban had changed me in ways I hadn't really understood until now....The Taliban had taken that confident girl and determined teenager and turned her into a diminutive, cold, scared and exhausted woman living beneath the cloak of invisibility that was her burka."

She realized that her attitude towards men had changed. Although interestingly, Fawzia writes that while her father did beat her mother, she felt he respected her. This is definitely a difficult thing for me as a Catholic woman in the West to understand. In one letter to her daughters, she insists that "true Islam accords you political and social rights. It offers you dignity, the freedom to be educated, to pursue your dreams and to live your life." However, I respectfully disagree with Ms Koofi. In every country where Islam is the state religion, women are not treated as full citizens, do not have the same access to education, health care and employment as do men.

There's no doubt radical Islam took it's toll on her too.

There was a huge silence inside me. Until now, I hadn't even noticed it. Little by little, it had grown with each prison visit, each woman I saw getting beaten on the streets and each public execution of a young woman who was just like me.

When the Taliban were overthrown by the American's and Afghanistan began to be rebuilt, Fawzia ran for election in 2005 and became the first woman elected to the new parliament despite the opposition of many of her fellow male politicians. She is the first female deputy speaker of the Afghan Parliament - no small feat for a country that had few basic rights for women only several years ago.

Despite our difference of views on Islam, I admire Fawzia Koofi greatly. She is a brave woman who has incurred great personal risk in order to represent her northern province. Fawzia Koofi seems to me to have considerable personal integrity and a deep love of her country and I believe she desires to help make Afghanistan a place that is safe for her two young daughters and where they can live with dignity. I pray to God that she is kept safe in her work and journey's throughout her country.

I highly recommend Fawzia's memoir, Letters To My Daughters, if you wish to learn about the remarkable people of Afghanistan and wish to understand what it has happened in this turbulent country over the past 30 years. There is no doubt Fawzia is a remarkable young leader in a country desperate for good leaders. She is proof that Afghanistan and other Islamic states need the participation of women in society. She is proof of what these young women have to offer to their countries!

Book Details:
Letters To My Daughters by Fawzia Koofi
Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre 2011
275 pp.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Steampunk. The Art of Victorian Futurism by Jay Strongman

This beautiful, glossy book is a visual treat for those interested in steampunk, the subgenre of science fiction that encompasses 19th century technology with Victorian and Edwardian elegance. Beautifully  illustrated with fascinating and gorgeous photographs and well written, Steampunk is treat to those who are fascinated by this genre.

From the Introduction here are a few quotes to tease your interest:

It's about a fictional place in time and space where Victorian and Edwardian elegance collide with gothic horror and modern science - a sepia-tinted world where My Fair Lady meets The Terminator."

There is also in Steampunk a nostalgic hunger for a period in recent history when much of the world, for the West, was still an unexplored exotic mystery waiting to be discovered and space travel was just a fanciful dream. But, more significantly, (and this is where we put the "Steam" into Steampunk) there is also a longing for an age in which machines were awe-inspiring steam-powered engines and magnificent clockwork mechanisms of gleaming brass, polished wood and shining steel...."
Many steampunk novels deal with the British military conquering foes using fantastic airships and other unique military machines.

Steampunk as an art movement deals with craftmanship. Many steampunk artists are focused on creating fully functional pieces of art with visible mechanisms in the Victorian style. This is in contrast to modern technology in which the "mechanisms" are micro-circuits invisible to the eye and where function isn't apparent. It just works because it does. This disconnect between man and machine has been increasing with each generation removed from the Victorian age.

"Steampunk not only relishes those possibilities, and attempts to capture them in word and art, but also tries to imagine the innovations of our present and our future as if the Victorians themselves were designing and manufacturing them."

The late 1800's were a time of monumental change in society especially in areas of science, technology and medicine. It was also an era of unlimited possibilities, where science was seen to have the potential to vastly improve the quality of life of mankind and where the limits were only the imagination.

As a subculture steampunk first showed up as a literary sub-genre in science fiction more than a century ago. The works of Mary Shelly and Bram Stoker, and Edgar Allan Poe were the forerunners of the literary movement. These early novels suggested that scientific knowledge could possibly "threaten and ultimately upset the natural order" p.15

Into this era came two streams of thought - that of Jules Verne and the other of H.G. Wells. Jules Verne and H.G.Wells were the pioneers of modern science fiction however, they had different approaches. Verne's novels tended towards the romantic aspect of exploration while Wells dealt more with the potential for catastrophe that technology and science might bring about.

Steampunk is now a subculture that includes art, fashion, design, music and print and that is what this book tries to show the reader. It is a showcase of objects d'art, diagrams and pieces constructed by various artists. Here is one example below:

Automaton (Other), 2006 Mannequin-robot 'torture machines' by Kazuhiko Nakamura

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Books I'd Like to Read

Lately I've been managing to read a few books more representative of  my personal tastes, rather than just teen fiction. I love teen fiction and there is a great deal of wonderful teen fiction being written today but deeper and closer to my heart lie books about my Catholic faith and English literature. There are more than a few books on my shelf at home just waiting to have their spines cracked! Here are a few that I'm just itching to get at:

The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought The Light of Science To The Dark Ages by Nancy Marie Brown. This book is about Sylvester II who was pope for four years, from 999 to 1003. Before he became pope, Sylvester II was known as Gerbert of Aurillac and during his time as pope, he was renowned as a mathematician and astronomer. He was the first known mathematician to teach math using the nine Arabic numerals and zero. Brown is one of a handful of authors who are writing books about the scholarly efforts to change the iron-clad idea that the middle ages were the dark ages when the Catholic church snuffed out all scientific endeavour and curiosity.

Catholicism: A Journey To The Heart Of The Faith by Father Robert Barron seems like an incredible book, having received numerous positive reviews by such luminaries as George Weigel, Archbishop Chaput and Raymond Arroyo. Father Barron who heads Word On Fire Catholic Ministries has also completed a 10 part documentary that presents the richness of the Catholic faith in a way never before attempted. Catholicism is Barron's written attempt to accomplish just such a thing, to rediscover the beauty of the Catholic faith which is evidenced in music, art, architecture and print.
“What I propose to do in this book is to take you on a guided exploration of the Catholic world, but not in the manner of a docent, for I am not interested in showing you the artifacts of Catholicism as though they were dusty objets d’art in a museum of culture. I want to function rather as a mystagogue, conducting you ever deeper into the mystery of the incarnation in the hopes that you might be transformed by its power.” –Father Robert Barron

According to several reviews I've read, Father Barron explores every aspect of the faith from Jesus and Mary to the saints and the sacraments in a sort of catechetical manner but in a way that draws the reader into both understanding and desire. The television series which is slated to air in October promises to be similarly breathtaking.

Now for something quite different. Besides English lit I also love to read books about India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China, especially those that explore the role of women in these cultures. When I was a teen and young adult I read most of Pearl S. Buck's books and I feel I should reread these some day. I also love books that tell a great story and True Grit by Charles Portis does just that.

I saw the original movie starring Kim Darby, Glen Campbell and John Wayne as well as the recent remake which was outstanding (and according to what I"ve been told, very true to the book) and the storyline has always been a favourite. Besides, when a book opens with this line,
"People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day."
it just begs for a good reading. The book was reissued around the time the movie came out after being out of print for many years and I bought a copy which has been sitting dutifully on my night-table just waiting to be taken up.

The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khardra and A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam are two other books I loved to find the time to read. The Swallows of Kabul follows the lives of two couples during the Taliban occupation of Kabul, Afghanistan. A Golden Age is a story set in East Pakistan or Bangladesh as it came to be known,  during the Bangladesh War of Independence and this novel it tells the story of one family's struggles during this chaotic time in the 1970's.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Firehouse by David Halberstam

Firehouse by David Halberstam is one of those books that quite honestly, can be termed iconic. I read this book in 2004 and recently found a copy in good shape in a donation pile at our library. I consider it to be one of the best books written on the 9/11 tragedy. It focuses on the loss of life endured at one particular New York firehouse.
Halberstam is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who lived near the firehouse, Engine 40 Ladder 25 on the West Side of Manhattan. Although he lived only steps away from this firehouse, Halberstam had never visited it nor really given it much thought. Firehouse 40/35 was considered "the hidden jewel" of firehouses in Manhattan, New York because of its special degree of cohesion and loyalty.

Asked by Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair to visit 40/35 firehouse and learn about the men who died in the 9/11 tragedy, Halberstam found a story rich in humanity, loss, valour, and courage.

In Firehouse, Halberstam retraces the events of September 11, 2001 both at the firehouse and also at Ground Zero. 40/35 firehouse is staffed by 50 firefighters, in shifts of 11 men. Halberstam recounts what happened to the 13 men from 40/35 who lived and worked at the firehouse that morning and who also responded to the catastrophe unfolding before them. Twelve of those thirteen men would never return to 40/35.

David Halberstam's portrayal of each man is intimate, yet respectful - preserving their integrity and dignity, all the while quietly hinting at their humanity. These were real men, with excellent qualities and yet imperfect as all human beings are. Each one considered firefighting a calling. Each one did his duty even though he knew he would probably not return.

"There is a quick flash of videotape that shows Lieutenant John Ginley, Michael Lynch, Steve Mercado, and Mike D'Auria as the descend the stairs into the lobby of Building Four and head for the lobby of the south tower....They are loaded up with gear, and their expressions are unusually stoic. Their brothers from 40/35 find it almost unbearable to watch the brief clip, because they can imagine what the men already know about their chances of surviving, and yet they are going forward, with no panic or fear on their faces...It is a haunting moment, and the videotape reveals with rare intimacy what brave men look like at the worst moment...."

There's a good deal of information about the culture of the firehouse that an outsider would not know. The friendly competition between the engine and the truck crews, the firehouse humour and the camaraderie between the men are all deftly described, forming a backdrop for the tragedy unfolding.

Firehouse is an essential book that will help future generations understand one aspect of the magnitude of the tragedy that occurred on September 11, 2001. It is also a book that portrays the courage and the humanity of the men who lost their lives that day, in the service of others.

Book Details:
Firehouse by David Halberstam
New York: Hyperion 2002
201 pp.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Falling Man Documentary

They began jumping not long after the first plane hit the North Tower, not long after the fire started. They kept jumping until the tower fell. They jumped through windows already broken and then, later, through windows they broke themselves. They jumped to escape the smoke and the fire; they jumped when the ceilings fell and the floors collapsed; they jumped just to breathe once more before they died. They jumped continually, from all four sides of the building, and from all floors above and around the building's fatal wound. They jumped from the offices of Marsh & McLennan, the insurance company; from the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald, the bond-trading company; from Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 106th and 107th floors -- the top.

Tom Junod

The Falling Man is a documentary based on one of many pictures taken by Associated Press photographer Richard Drew on September 11, 2001 during the Al-Qaeda attack on the Twin Towers in New York City. Following the crash of planes into the towers, horrified spectators watched as people in the buildings either fell or jumped to their deaths - some 90 and 100 floors above the street. Over 200 people died in this manner. It was sight many will never ever forget. Drew photographed some of the people who jumped that day as well as many other images from the disaster. The photograph shown below, is that of an unknown man falling to his death from the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
When Drew's photographs where printed, newspapers had to decide whether or not to print the image of the falling man. The New York Times decided to print Drew's photograph of the unknown man, the image above, on page seven of the first section. Response to the image was both intense and negative. Many people felt that this photograph should never have been published out of respect for the dead man. It was a degree of voyeurism on level never quite seen before. The photograph of the falling man slipped quietly into oblivion. But not quite.

Peter Cheney, a reporter who worked for the Globe & Mail was assigned by his editor to try to discover the identity of the falling man. At first Cheney thought that the unknown man, captured during the 10 seconds it took him to plummet to the earth, was Norberto Hernandez, a pastry chef from Windows on the World, the restaurant located at the top of the North Tower. He based his theory on the image on one of the thousands of missing posters plastered throughout New York.

However,Hernandez family rejected the possibility that the photograph was that of Norberto. After viewing all the frames taken of the falling man, one thing that stood out, was the discovery that underneath his white jacket, which was ripped off him during his descent, was an orange top. Someone, somewhere knew a man who went to work that day wearing an orange top.

Tom Junod's article in Esquire Magazine, in an evocative and heart-rending piece, tells the story of the search to put a name to the falling man. The documentary, The Falling Man was based on Junod's article which you can read on Esquire's website.

The Falling Man is presented below. Please be advised this is not for the faint of heart. Like everything associated with September 11, 2001, it is deeply saddening.

"People have to get over wondering who this man was," she (Gwendolyn Briley Strand) says. "He's everybody. We're so stuck on who he was that we can't see what's right there in front of us. The photo's so much bigger than any man, because the man in the photo is clearly in God's hands. And it's God who gives us the grace to go on."

from Surviving The Fall by Tom Junod

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ashes, Ashes by Jo Treggiari

Author Jo Treggiari offers teen readers a dystopian adventure/romance in Ashes, Ashes, that in my opinion, had great potential but ultimately fails to meet the mark.
Sixteen year old Lucy "Lucky" Holloway is surviving in post-apocalyptic New York City. The world started to fall apart when she was eleven years old. At that time, the first floods came, along with severe storms, hurricanes, tornadoes and then earthquakes. The storms melted the polar ice caps altering the shape of the continents. Many low-lying cities were obliterated. New York City became six or seven scattered islands connected to the mainland by bridges.

Four years after the severe weather began, a smallpox plague began to ravage society. The first wave of the plague killed many people but then it mutated and a second more devastating wave occurred in which most of the remaining population was killed. Only 1 out of a million people survived the second wave.

As the plague intensified, Lucy continued attending school never quite noticing that there were more and more empty desks. She was an outsider in high school, often going unnoticed by her peers. Posters of lists of symptoms appeared all over school. Lucy was repeatedly called to the health office for blood tests. The last time she was called for yet another blood sample, she'd discovered a thick dossier on her. When she was asked about why she had never been vaccinated, Lucy told them it was due to her older brother Alex's fatal reaction to a vaccination.

Lucy lost her superjock younger brother Rob, her brainiac older sister, Susan "Maggie" and both her parents. Eventually, Lucy left her family's home for the shelters in the city. Many of the highrises in New York city were massive concrete cairns containing the bodies of thousands of plague victims. Friendly bombing had turned areas of New York city into rubble. When the shelter she was living at was raided by "Sweepers", government workers searching for plague survivors, Lucy decided to strike out on her own.

She fled into the wilderness of Central Park, taking with her her mother's shawl, her father's hunting knife, a box of freeze-dried food, a bottle of spring water and her tenth-grade yearbook. She made herself a camp in the wilderness and this is where we find her when Ashes, Ashes opens.

However, the course of Lucy's life is changed once again when she goes out on a walk and is hunted by a pack of wild dogs. She is aided in escaping the dogs by a handsome young man named Aidan. He tells her that he's been watching her and that she is being hunted by the Sweepers who send out the dogs to find survivors. The Sweepers are the people who live in the Compound on Roosevelt Island where the smallpox hospital is located. Aidan encourages her to come live with his band of survivors. Although Lucy declines his invitation, when her home is destroyed days later, she decides she has had enough of living on her own and treks to the survivor's camp on Ward's Island.

But Aidan's camp isn't safe either and Lucy learns that there are frequent raids by the Sweepers who kidnap people and infect them with the plague. Lucy, Aidan and their fellow survivors decide to rescue a recent group of kidnapped children only to discover that the situation was a cleverly laid trap to catch Lucy, the sole unvaccinated survivor of the plague.

There's no doubt that Treggiari develops the setting of her story well with vivid descriptions of the destruction wreaked by the climate disasters and the rapid annihilation of the population by plague. Because Lucy spends the first part of the story alone, the first 100 pages or so lack dialogue for the most part. However, the author does manage to portray Lucy's resilience and strength of character in describing how she has survived for over a year by herself. Treggiari also utilizes detailed description and two major events to capture the reader's attention.

The middle section of the book deals primarily with Lucy's struggle to fit into Aidan's camp and details her growing attraction to Aidan. There is a strong development of conflict between Lucy and another survivor, Del who is also attracted to Aidan. I felt the author did a good job of portraying the difficulties survivors would have living in the post-apocalyptic wilderness as well as their fears and hopes.

The ending however, was less satisfying. Although suspenseful, the result was predictable and anti-climatic.

For those who might be puzzling over the book's title, Ashes, Ashes is a reference to a version of Ring Around the Rosy whose origins are traced back to the Great Bubonic Plague of London in 17th century England.

Ring around the rosy
A pocketful of posies
"Ashes, Ashes"
We all fall down!

The rosy red rash was a symptom of the plague, usually a rash with a ring around it. Posies were carried in pockets to ward off the smell of disease which was thought to be the way illness was transmitted. The ashes, ashes refers to the cremation of dead bodies, the blackening of the skin and so forth. Plague survivors in Ashes,Ashes are described as being hideously deformed, with blackened skin and red eyes.

Book Details:
Ashes, Ashes by Jo Treggiari
New York: Scholastic Press 2011

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Reaching Through Time by Lurlene McDaniel

Reaching Through Time is a book containing three novellas each with a twist about time. In the first story, What's Happened To Me?, Sarah awakes to find herself in a strange house with a handsome strange young man watching over her. At first she cannot remember her name or how she came to be in this place. The house and its grounds are beautiful but strange, surrounded by a menacing black fence that lets no one in and presumably no one out. Heath de Charon, the strange young man is eerily discomforting. When he touches Sarah, she cannot remember things and while she finds herself drawn to Heath, she is also wary of him. There is some mystery about him she cannot understand. She also can't understand how time seems to pass so quickly. When she goes riding with Heath the first time, Sarah notices the sun setting and Heath tells her that they've been riding for hours. But to Sarah, it seems as though no time has passed. Sarah soon begins hearing voices begging her to come back when she lays down to sleep at night. Who are the soothing, comforting voices calling to her? Why can she not remember them? No matter how loud she yells, they cannot hear her. Why?

The second story,When The Clock Chimes Drake Iverson, a sixteen year old with mild cerebral palsy is looking for a job. Drake and his mother are new to Sanderson, North Carolina where they have moved so his mother can take on a new job. Drake responds to an ad in the local newspaper for a summer student to catalogue artifacts and is hired by a professor, Avery Dennison who lives in a mysterious house with his beautiful daughter Gina. He soon discovers some quirky things about the house. His watch and cellphone won't work in the house which strangely doesn't show up on any map of Sandstone Mountain. The grandfather clock in the front hallway seems to be forever chiming the time incorrectly; sometimes slow, sometimes too fast. Gradually, Drake and Gina become friends and then fall in love. But when Gina becomes terribly sick, her father refuses to allow Drake to take her to see a doctor. Eventually Drake too becomes ill. When he recovers Drake struggles to find out what has happened to Gina as well as learning the history of the house at 13 Sandstone Mountain.

The final novella, The Mysteries of Chance explores the possibilities of time travel and changing the course of a person's life. When Maura enters one her professor's science labs she takes a time travel device and vaults herself over one hundred years into the past - 21st century America. Dylan Sorenson sees her arrive and offers her a place of sanctuary despite not knowing who or what she really is. Maura knows it is only a matter of time before the time police hunt her down. While Maura doesn't tell Dylan the truth about her situation she also comes to realize that he too has his own secret - one that is literally destroying him. When Maura learns about Dylan's past she makes a decision that will forever alter her life and Dylan's too.

For the most part, I really enjoyed each of these short stories even though they were somewhat predictable. The Mysteries of Chance however, did offer the reader an unsuspected twist that was satisfying. Lurlene McDaniel is known for writing novels that deal with life-altering medical conditions and there is some of that in each of these stories too.

My only complaint was the discussion of the condition known as "persistent vegetative state" (PVS) in The Mysteries of Chance. Although a common term today and one used to describe those who for whatever reason are unable to respond or minimally able to respond to stimuli, this story perpetuates the myth that people with PVS are not alive and should be removed from life support. In fact, they are living human beings in a condition that doctors do not really understand. People have awoken from PVS and recovered. Survivors tell of being "locked in" and unable to respond in any way with their body.

Dr. Adrian Owen, a British neuroscientist who is now located at the University of Western Ontario specializes in studying patients who are labelled as PVS. Not only has Dr. Owen been able to communicate with patients in this condition but he believes that someday we might help these people to recover.

You can investigate these ideas further in the videos below:

Reaching Through Time is a great read with a retread for a cover. Fans of Simone Elkeles' Return to Paradise will recognize the cover.

Book Details:
Reaching Through Time. Three Novellas by Lurlene McDaniel
Delacorte Press 2011
228 pp.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr

...just my mind going blank and thoughts reaching up up up, me wishing I could climb through the ceiling and over the stars until I can find God, really see God, and know once and for all that everything I've believed my whole life is true, and real...Not even half. Just the part about someone or something bigger than us who doesn't lose track. I want to believe the stories, that there really is someone who would search the whole mountainside just to find that one lost thing that he loves, and bring it home.

Once Was Lost follows the life of 15 year old, Samara Taylor over a two week period in early August. Sam's world is unraveling. Sam is the daughter of Charlie Taylor, pastor of one of the numerous churches in Pineview. Her beautiful mother is in rehab after being arrested for driving under the influence. Sam and her father are having a difficult time coping with her absence as well as relating to one another. Sam's father is emotionally distant, doesn't really listen to her and isn't able to maintain the home in any way.

Sam is depressed and lonely, missing her mother and is gradually drifting away from her classmates and her best friend, Vanessa Hathaway. Although Sam is part of her church's youth group, she feels alienated from her peers because of how people relate to her due to her being the daughter of the pastor. Sam notices that she is treated differently and that people behave differently around her. Friends go to parties but don't always invite her. She is also struggling to understand what has happened to her family, especially since her father has never explained to his congregation her mother's absence nor has he talked much about her going into rehab. Her father's inability to show leadership in his personal life is what is truly crushing Sam.

Set against this backdrop is the disappearance of 13 year old Jody Shaw one day off the streets of Pineview. Jody's disappearance is the last straw in Sam's struggle to believe in a God who cares.

"...Perfect love drives out fear, is what it says in the Bible. Perfect love. And who, my dad included, really knows anything about perfect love? Anyway, if God loves Jody so much, how could he let this -- whatever it is -- happen to her? And what else is he going to let happen to me?"

Sam narrates her story told over the course of sixteen days in diary form. She relates how the town comes together to try to locate Jody with searches and bake sales. This is set against the backdrop of Sam's own personal life spiraling downward as she struggles to cope with the loss of her mother to rehab and her father's possible involvement with his church's youth minister, Erin. Her father seems oblivious to Sam's personal struggles with her faith, and is unable to relate in any meaningful way to Sam.

"What's the point of being a pastor if you can't tell when your own daughter needs helps?"

But as Sam watches her father struggle to cope with the loss of his wife all the while helping a family deal with the loss of their daughter, she comes to realize that maybe it isn't just because he doesn't care.

"Looking at him, I realize for the first time that it's possible he feels as lost as I do. Maybe what I've been thinking of as him being clueless is actually him not knowing what to do."

Once Was Lost is a book about being lost on many different levels. Sam has lost her mother to alcohol addiction and rehab. She has also lost her faith in God who seems not to care about what happens to people. The Shaw family has lost their daughter Jody. But through all these losses, there is restoration. Sam's mother is gradually healing and recovering in her rehab at New Beginnings. Sam's faith grows throughout her Job-like experience.

Once Was Lost is a great book that explores a young teen's questions about faith and God when times are tough  and when it seems like there is no hope left. Through the eyes of Sam, we see one person's struggles when the adults around her have made and continue to make bad choices.

Book Details:

Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr
New York: Little, Brown and Company 2009

Sunday, September 4, 2011

In Defiance of Hitler. The Secret Mission of Varian Fry by Carla Killough McClafferty

Varian Fry was an American citizen who moved to Marseilles France in August, 1940 with the sole purpose of aiding a special group of refugees flee to safety from the Gestapo. Fry had in his possession a list of approximately two hundred artists, writers, muscians, and scientists who were at risk of being captured and either sent to concentration camps or executed. Among the names were Marc Chagall, Heinrich Mann, and Max Ernst.

Fry had been to Germany in 1935 and saw firsthand what Hitler had in mind for the Jews of Europe. He was appalled at the brutal behaviour of the young German people who rioted and smashed the shops and homes of Jewish citizens. During his visit, Varian met with Ernst Hanfstaengl who was the chief of the Foreign Press Division of the Nazi Propaganda Ministry. Hanfstaengl told Fry that it was the Nazi Party's goal to remove all Jews in Europe either by deportation or by murdering them. Although Varian wrote a piece for The New York Times detailing the Nazi's plans, most of America remained unconvinced and unconcerned about the Jewish people at this time.

However in 1940 when Germany defeated France and set up a puppet government in Vichy, part of the armistice agreement required "the French government to surrender upon demand all Germans named by the German Government in France" as well as preventing the "removal of German war and civil prisoners from France into French possessions or into foreign countries". Varian knew that this meant people who opposed the Nazi Party, as well as people of Jewish ancestry, were in grave danger. Both political refugees and Jewish refugees had fled parts of Europe previously overrun by the Nazis and come to France in the hopes of leaving Europe for safer countries. Article 19, as the above portion of the Armistice was known, would prevent them from doing so.

Varian Fry along with several hundred other Americans met in the late spring of 1940 and formed the Emergency Rescue Committee. The main purpose of the ERC would be to help well-known refugees escape France. After an unfruitful search for someone qualified to accomplish this task, Varian volunteered to travel to France to set up the organization in Marseilles. Eventually Varian Fry was allowed to travel to France with a detailed list of refugees he should seek out and aid in leaving France. To accomplish this task he was given $3000 which he taped to his leg.

In Defiance of Hitler details Fry's work in setting up the ERC in Marseilles and the difficulties he had during his stay of just over a year. McCalfferty presents the reader with an uncompromising and detailed portrait of Varian Fry and his work in Marseilles, France. We see a man who worked 12 to 15 hours a day interviewing 50 refugees per day. He had to decide who was most likely in danger and which to save. We get a real sense of the danger and the difficulty Fry and his team experienced as well as the effort the refugees had to make to escape from France into Spain and on to freedom.
I had not known about Varian Fry until I saw this book on the shelf in my local library. It's a wonderful book about a man who couldn't stand by and watch while a certain group of people were being hunted down simply because of their beliefs or their heritage. Altough Fry knew that war in Europe had created millions of refugees, the vast majority of whom he couldn't help, he felt that each person he could help was a small victory. Imagine if the world had had many more Varian Fry's.

For further reading, try the following websites: Varian Fry. The American Schindler and the Varian Fry Institute.

Book Details:
In Defiance of Hitler. The Secret Mission of Varian Fry by Carla Killough McClafferty
New York: Farrar Straus Giroux 2008
196 pp.