Review Catch-up #1 from 2018

I’ve got a pile of books I finished reading in 2018 that I haven’t reviewed yet. Some deserve their own posts, but here’s a pair of shorter write-ups.

The Atlas of Disease by Sandra Hempel

This is a curious book – ostensibly an ‘atlas’ produced using the latest data available, in which the author charts the epidemiological history of twenty of the nastiest, mostly killer, diseases – from the Spanish flu, measles and plague to Ebola and Zika. The diseases covered, whether bacterial or viral, are split into sections according to their method of transmission: airborne, water borne, insect or animal borne and human to human.

Each disease gets between eight and twelve pages. It begins with an introductory fact file (very basic – it lacks typical incubation time for instance). This is accompanied by four or more pages of text and illustrations, which include health posters, Hogarth engravings, the famous cholera map of London etc. These illustrations and the historical detail in the text that accompanied them were fascinating, but lacked much detail on the physiological effects and treatment.

Then there were the maps, usually two per disease: one charting the historically most known outbreak, and one giving the recent status of each disease were typical.

Dates of Smallpox eradication

The charts are where the book fell flattest for me. They tended to rely on a colour gradation, which in the largest section on airborne diseases ranged from yellow through to deep red or purple to indicate death rates; as the outlines of the various countries are not highlighted, the various reds blended into each other making it very difficult to distinguish areas unless your task lighting is very good. The yellow to red gradations are used in most of the maps for a variety of variables, (the water borne diseases are in blues/greens which are easier to distinguish). Also, you need to know your countries/states – there no text labels for the most part.

The writing is informed, but as the emphasis is epidemiological rather than medical, sometimes rather limited.  I’d have loved more on the medical side, but realise this isn’t the main aim of this book. So it was a slight curate’s egg for me – good in parts. I do worry that there are still two repositories of smallpox in labs in the US and Russia though, but rejoice that the end of polio is in sight. (6.5/10)

Source: Review copy. Sandra Hempel – The Atlas of Disease (White Lion/Quarto, Nov 2018) Hardback, 224 pages. Buy from Amazon UK (affiliate link)

Sight by Jessie Greengrass

I really wanted to love this book – everyone else has – but it just didn’t do it for me. The writing was beautiful, I agree, but I found it too intense, the narrator’s internalisations too frustrating.

For those unfamiliar with this novel, an unnamed narrator, a woman, recounts her story as she moves towards pregnancy and motherhood. She tells us of how she met her partner Johannes, of her mother and her malaise and eventual death, and the summers she spent when younger with her grandmother, a psychoanalyst. She also ruminates on three scientific events in medical history – from Röntgen’s first X-ray of his wife’s hand, to Freud’s work in England with his daughter Anna, and finally John Hunter’s work on surgery and the anatomy of pregnant women.

She is initially indecisive about whether to have a child – a second child – she already has one. As she vacillates, and Johannes pragmatically waits and supports her as she comes to her eventual decision, there is little mention of her existing daughter. She doesn’t seem to do much mothering to the child she already has – maybe she does – but Greengrass doesn’t bring that into the text often. We do get the sense that the narrator had been scared of being a parent: some years previously, she’d been talking to one of Johannes’ cousins about children:

– It is,

she said

– like having a piece of your heart outside yourself –

meaning I suppose that a child remains part of you, vital but detached – but this is not how it feels to me. Rather I think that it is like an amputation, something that was once joined cut off, as unrecoverable now as an object fallen from the side of a boat, drifting on the current further and further out of sight. […]

When my daughter throws her arms with thoughtless grace around my neck, I respond with an agonising gratitude that I must hide from her in case, feeling the heft of it, she might become encumbered and not do what she was born for, which is to go away from me.

This short novel is written in an almost stream of consciousness style, with some very long paragraphs and some very long multi-claused sentences that Anthony Powell would be proud of.

I just felt frustrated with the narrator and her internal struggle as she analysed herself. I wanted to see more of her relationship with her existing daughter to compare and contrast with those between her and her mother and grandmother. Although I enjoyed reading the scientific interludes and appreciated the in’sight’s they gave, I couldn’t quite see why Röntgen came into it first, apart from providing the first sight of bones without opening the body – surely the parallel was in sonograms later here?

Frustrations aside, Jessie Greengrass is an author to watch. I’ll be reading whatever she writes next. (7/10)

Source: Review copy. Jessie Greengrass – Sight (John Murray, Feb 2018) Hardback, 208 pages. BUY the paperback at Amazon UK (affiliate link)

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