Epidemics and Society by Frank M. Snowden

I picked up a copy of Epidemics and Society in November of 2019, having no idea it had just been published, nor any hint of what would happen in China only a few weeks later. I thought that, well, I was trying to write a pandemic in my current NaNoWriMo novel and maybe some research would help…

Epidemics and Society is the best book on understanding the intersection of medicine and history I’ve ever read. When I took history classes in high school and college, public health was treated like a thing separate from historical events. This book shatters that illusion and shows that many points of upheaval took place during or directly after an epidemic of some sort.

It starts early with explanations of our understanding of disease and moves through history, epidemic by epidemic, around the world. Each is explained in context of the politics, public health policies, epidemiology, and even economics that impacted the response to the pandemic.

Ultimately the lesson is simple: all this has happened before, and all this will happen again. The best we can do is make public health a critical priority both in times of low concern and times of epidemic.

Also, hug your healthcare workers (consensually) because they’ve been through a hell of a ride for centuries now.

Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371

I was a kid when AIDS hit America, and I didn’t begin to really understand what had happened, and why, until probably about 10 years ago. But pandemics are tricky (maybe you’ve noticed) and the experience that we hear about from news articles and retrospectives from the survivors — especially those who didn’t have AIDS themselves — can be very different from the lived experience of those who had (or have) AIDS and those who cared for them.

MK Czerwiec’s book is the story of a nurse who started in nursing by caring for those with AIDS, and whose heart has been there ever since. The book covers the time period from 1993 (essentially) to the closing of Unit 371 in 1999. It takes place in a hospital in Chicago. It explains how Unit 371 had to treat their patients differently from other patients in the hospital, and why… and what the consequences of those differences were for the patients inside.

For me, this book fills a gap in knowledge. I know the history of AIDS as captured in journalism and even in history books — Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present has an entire section dedicated to the AIDS epidemic. And I know how people like me who didn’t have AIDS or even know anyone with it reacted, because I lived it. MK Czerwiec fills the gap with what it was like to be there, to be immersed in it, and to come out the other side.

Unrig: How to fix our broken democracy by Daniel G. Newman

Having been raised in a mostly-white mostly-middle-class part of a purple state, I understood that the United States is a government for, by, and of the people. But for the last ten years or so that hasn’t felt like it was particularly true anymore… and it wasn’t just because of the presidential election or the current unrest. Nobody seemed to be able to tell me why, though, and the few that tried fell into traps of Democrat and Republican stereotype talking points and attacks on the other party.

Which didn’t make sense, really, because I know Democrats and Republicans and while everyone has points they differ on, we’re really not as far apart (on the whole) at the grass roots level as we believe. Heck, I was raised Republican, and the Republican party of today is definitely not espousing the same values as the one that existed when I was in high school.

So what the heck’s been happening? Why can’t we get along? Who the hell are the Koch Brothers and why do I care? How is Betsy DeVos in charge of education and why does it look like she’s purposely destroying public schools? Why are the elections swinging directions that we don’t expect, or don’t want?

When Scott McCloud mentioned Unrig: How to Fix Our Broken Democracy on Twitter I decided to give it a shot, and it’s done a very good job of describing the forces that are pressuring both our elected officials and the elections themselves.

Daniel Newman puts forth a case (with a sizable bibliography) that the ultra-rich in the US banded together and started playing a long game years ago with the intent to take control of the democracy out of the hands of common citizens like you and me. Dark money influences both elections and the elected. It changes how our electoral maps are drawn. It prevents fair elections. It increases the financial effects of corporate lobbyists to get what they want.

It’s a freaking mess.

But this book isn’t just an explainer for what’s happened over the last 20-50 years. It’s also an explanation for what we, the people, can actually do about it. It explains ranked choice voting, clean elections, the Voting Rights Act, gerrymandering, and many other political tools that we can use to make our democracy more or less fair, and then what we can do to wield those tools.

And look, if you’ve fully bought into the narrative that the government should be small and helpless and distrusted, or that people shouldn’t help each other or work together for better lives because it’s a dog-eat-dog world, you’re probably not going to be a big fan. This book assumes that neighbors help neighbors, we all want better lives, and we can work together to get them. It doesn’t ascribe to any specific ideology although it does make it clear that most of the dark money from the ultra-rich is going into the Republican party with the specific intent to undermine democracy.

This book is for disillusioned Republicans, frustrated Independents, confused Democrats, and everyone else who’s looking for an explanation of our current political and democratic situation in clear terms, with a compelling and precise visual and textual story. It’s for everyone that needs a graphic novel (graphic textbook?) refresher in that civics class you might not have had in five, ten, twenty, or thirty years. It’s for people thinking of getting into politics now, people thinking of getting into politics later, and people who are just sick of attack ads on television and always having the worst choices at the election box.

The book has an accompanying website for bringing people who want to unrig our democracy together. And it’s time.

Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists: A Graphic History of Women’s Fight for their Rights

If you’re looking for a graphic history (aka “comic book style”) book that explains the fight for women’s rights, Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists by Mikki Kendall and illustrated by A D’Amico, is the book.

The plot entails a class of young women, who disagree with what the women’s movement is, receiving a tour through history from a purple artificial intelligence.

They cover historical figures from multiple countries, as well as an outline of different systems of rights in different places and times.

They cover suffrage, equal rights, and how women’s rights movements intersect with minority rights, the labor movement, white supremacy, child labor laws, eugenics, misogyny, the civil rights movement, LGTBQIA rights movements, and many other important points in history.

I think Fredrick Douglass might be the only man mentioned by name.

They also cover historical activist figures you may not hear about elsewhere — especially Black, Native American, and Indian folks. I learned more names in this book than I did in 12 years of education. (Admittedly, that education was in the 80s and 90s. Hopefully we’ve come a ways since.)

Because it’s a survey more than a textbook, most of what you get is a name and maybe two paragraphs about a person or an event. It’s enough to pique interest and send the reader back to the library. (It’s also probably a good “pick one person from the book to do a report on” resource for teachers.)

I see this book making a place for itself on bookshelves for historians young and old, women who want to know they’re not fighting alone, and the home of anyone who wants to better understand how women fit into the history of the human race.

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

If you’re a botanist, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben is probably going to simplify things in irritating ways. It may anthropomorphize trees more than you’re comfortable with. It refers to trees “thinking”, which some botanists are going to agree with and others are going to be uncomfortable with because the term “thinking” makes it to easy for our primate brains to think that the experience of being a tree is closer to the experience of being a primate than it actually is. If you are determined to see faults in the writing here, as with all science writing, you’re going to find them.

On the other hand, if you’re the non-biologist who thinks trees are things that grow in the yard and fall on the house, well, this book is likely to very much change your view on trees. It certainly changed my view of trees, forests, sustainability, trees’ impacts on climate change, and a whole bunch of other misconceptions that I had.

Trees are social plants. They communicate. They protect and feed their young. Their lives are long, but also fragile. They get thirsty, they get hungry, they get sleep deprivation. (Now I know why my potted trees always died!) They rely deeply on the microorganisms that live in good soil, and they can’t just be dumped anyplace and expected to grow. They’ll rebuild both the soil and the air if given the opportunity, but they do both of those tasks best when they’re allowed to live in communities of their own creation.

This book made me want to live a thousand years so I’d have the opportunity to buy a plot of land and start a forest. It made me want to go outside and apologize to the ash tree I’ve been pruning violently for years. It made me want to plant more trees, walk in the forest, and think about life from a non-mammal point of view, however narrow and inaccurate my perception of that point of view might be.