Wednesday 18 November 2020

Non-Fiction November - Week Three


Week 3: (Nov. 16 to 20) – Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert (Rennie of What’s Nonfiction): Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

This is one of my favourite weeks with Non-Fiction November. It's the week my wishlist really explodes!

I've been going through a Plague Lit phase recently. 
It took a while though. 

At the beginning of the Covid lockdown I read about how Albert Camus' classic The Plague (La Peste) had suddenly hit the bestsellers list again in France. I was amused and curious, but as the lockdown restrictions increased, and the virus got upgraded to a pandemic, it all felt too close, too real and too soon. 

But by June/July, the new Covid-normal was starting to feel, well, normal. My reading mojo returned and I found myself becoming obsessed to learn more about how previous generations had survived and thrived during and after a plague event.

I wanted to see if history could teach us some lessons.

It seems, though, that the main lesson history teaches us is that we fail, time and again, to heed the lessons of history!

My list of books is mostly full of fiction titles. I would now like to expand that into non-fiction. I'm particularly interested in learning more about the Spanish Flu of 1918-1920.

I'm hoping to learn more about the Russian Plague of 1770 - 1772 when I read Robert K Massie's book about Catherine the Great, but would be keen for more recommendations.

The Polio outbreak in the US (and elsewhere) is also something I'm curious about (after seeing a fascinating bio about Roosevelt a few years ago). Any Australian books that talk about what happened here during the 30's, 40's and 50's would be of interest.

Live Science, back in March of this year, listed the 20 worst epidemics and pandemics in history. My non-scientific explanation for the difference between a plague and a flu is that a plague is usually caused by a bacterium whereas the flu is viral. Both cross over from animals to humans. The concern right now is that antibiotics work on bacterium but not on viruses and that as we, as humans, encroach on more and more land once the sole domain of animals, more viruses will cross over.

In the list below you will also notice that most flu events last, on average, 2-3 years and that viral flu epidemics have been on the increase over the past 100 years.

1. Prehistoric epidemic: Circa 3000 B.C.
2. Plague of Athens: 430 B.C.
3. Antonine Plague: A.D. 165-180
4. Plague of Cyprian: A.D. 250-271
5. Plague of Justinian: A.D. 541-542
6. The Black Death: 1346-1353
7. Cocoliztli epidemic: 1545-1548
8. American Plagues: 16th century
9. Great Plague of London: 1665-1666
10. Great Plague of Marseille: 1720-1723
11. Russian Plague: 1770-1772
12. Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic: 1793
13. Flu pandemic: 1889-1890
14. American polio epidemic: 1916 - 1956
15. Spanish Flu: 1918-1920
16. Asian Flu: 1957-1958
17. AIDS pandemic and epidemic: 1981-present day
18. H1N1 Swine Flu pandemic: 2009-2010
19. West African Ebola epidemic: 2014-2016
20. Zika Virus epidemic: 2015-present day

My Previous Plague/Pandemic Reads:

My Current Plague Reads:
  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century | Barbara Tuchman (non-fiction The Black Death)

Up Next:
  • Pale Horse, Pale Rider | Katherine Anne Porter (Spanish Flu)

Plague/Pandemic Fiction Books On My Radar:
  • Station Eleven | Emily St John Mandel
  • Blindness | José Saramago
  • The Last Man | Mary Shelley
  • Nemesis | Philip Roth (Polio)
  • Love in the Time of Cholera | Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • The Years of Rice and Salt | Kim Stanley Robinson
  • The Dog Stars | Peter Heller
  • The Pest House | Jim Crace
  • The Children’s Hospital | Chris Adrian
  • Severance | Ling Ma
  • Fever 1793 | Laurie Halse Anderson (Philadelphia Yellow Fever Epidemic
  • The White Plague | Frank Herbert
  • The Passage | Justin Cronin
  • Company of Liars | Karen Maitland (The Black Death)
  • The Decameron | Giovanni Boccaccio (The Black Death)
  • The Decameron Project 2021 | (Covid-19)
  • The End of October | Lawrence Wright

Non-Fiction On My Radar:
  • The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World | Steven Johnson (Cholera pandemic 1846–1860 - obviously not bad enough to make the top 20 list above!)
  • Black Death | Philip Ziegler (The Black Death)

I'm happy to learn about the science around each and every epidemic, pandemic or plague, but I'm more interested in the human stories. 

How did the plague or epidemic affect the lives and livelihoods of the average person? How did it spread? How did the people and their governments react to the crisis? What myths and propaganda grew up around them? What methods did they use to control the spread? How did each one eventually end? What was the price that the town/city/country/continent paid during and afterwards - economically, culturally, spiritually, artistically and medically?

Non-fiction is the name of this game, but if you also know of any fabulous fiction not already on my list, then please add that in the comments below as well.

My 2014 Holocaust and Coco Chanel Be the Expert post is here.
My 2017 Holocaust Be the Expert post is here.
My 2018 Napoleon & the French Revolution Become the Expert post is here.
My 2019 Japan Be the Expert post is here.


  1. I'm not sure what it says about me that I've always been intrigued with pandemics of the past, but it is true. Here are some I've read: Influenza: The Hundred-Year Hunt to Cure the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic by Jeremy Brown; Flu: The Story Of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It by Gina Kolata; and Influenza 1918: The Worst Epidemic in American History by Lynette Iezzoni. Here are some I've had recommended to me: The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic that Shaped Our History by Molly Caldwell Crosby; Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer L. Wright; and The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time by John Kelly.

    1. Thanks for the great list Deb!
      Of the ones you've read, which is the one that stands out as the best for readability and depth of knowledge.

  2. I am so impressed that you have immersed yourself in pandemics! Sometimes, knowledge is power but sometimes when I don't understand it (like this COVID thing until very recently) it just keeps me up at night! I am sorry I don't have any titles to add to this list though.

    1. As you say, knowledge is power, and it's the first thing I do when confronted by something big, scary & unknown. Then, as Matt Damon's character says in The Martian, I research the shit out of it!
      My fiction reading has given me the human story wrapped in previous plagues and pandemics, but now I'm ready to dig deeper for the facts and figures.

  3. Wow, what a great post! I tend to stay away from plague and pandemic topics even though they fascinate me. Reason being is that I then get freaked out. LOL But seriously, this is a fascinating topic and despite the morbidity, there's that curiosity as to how others have survived it and what are their stories.

    1. I think when something freaks me out it’s the motivation I need to learn more; to understand. It’s the only way for me to ease that sense of freaking out!

  4. Depressing subject....but that is what we are living through.
    Camus: The Plague excellent book. You feel the sickness creeping in the streets
    and the population becoming numb to the crisis. Sound familiar?
    Thanks for all the references.

    1. Curiously I haven’t found it depressing Nancy, but as you know I can become rather obsessed with a topic when I turn my mind to it ☺️

  5. What a list! yikes.

  6. Spillover by David Quammen is a fantastic overview of diseases that spillover from animals to humans. He talks about coronaviruses as well. And I also read Pale Rider in the mid-spring lockdown. Informative. Distant Mirror has been on my list forever. I try every now and then but it's pretty big and I get distracted easily. Lol. I've been reading about the French existentialists and Albert Camus's The Plague is also on my list. You've read some great fiction books on topics. I don't read a lot of historical fiction so my history usually comes from nonfiction. But some of those fiction books are on my list! Good luck.

    1. Thanks for the tip about Spillover, I'll add that to my wishlist.
      Distant Mirror has started off fine, but as I said in my Week One post, I suspect I will still be reading it for next year's Non-Fic Nov!!

  7. What a list! One would certainly have some expertise after reading all that.

    I am not drawn to the topic at the moment but may be in the future. Knowledge is the only way to counter fear, even if it means learning about scary things.

    1. I haven't been looking into the science of it per se, it's more the human reaction that I'm trying to understand. I see all the blundering, the propaganda and the denial by so many about Covid, I'm looking for examples in previous plagues. And there's LOTS of them. Every outbreak throughout history has had it's deniers, it's doom and gloomer's, it's fake news. Now I just have to work out why this happens...every single time!

  8. Oh someone else has just done a request for Japan books - did you see it? You can just aim them at your last year's post!

    And this is fascinating - not something I want to read about personally but a great resource yet again!

    1. Thanks I spotted that too & shared my Japan list 😊

  9. A timely choice of subject :)
    The only nonfiction I’m aware of that focuses on events in Australia is Pandemic: The Spanish Flu in Australia 1918-20 by Ian Shaw, but I haven’t read it.
    I did read The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue recently which is centered on a maternity ward in the middle of the Spanish Flu outbreak which I thought was good.

    1. Thanks Shelley, I'll check out the book by Shaw.

      The Donoghue was rather good, wasn't it? The birthing scenes were harrowing, but the 3 day glimpse of the Spanish Flu in Dublin was fasinating.

  10. Oh, I have the perfect book for you! Get Well Soon by Jennifer Wright. An old classmate who's now a librarian recommended it. I absolutely loved it! I think it will be in my top ten books of the year. The author explores 13 plagues throughout history, some of the science around each disease, but mostly she writes about the ways they were (mis)handled and then she focuses on one person who was a hero of the time. It was excellent! My friend highly recommended the audio version if you listen to books. I do but I don't absorb nonfiction very well that way so I read it in print.

    1. Thank you! Adding it to my wish list now. It sounds exactly what I was looking for.

  11. Fiction: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks...

    1. I read it so long ago now, I do wonder if it would hold up to a reread (see what I did there?) 🤣

  12. I got an error message from blogger when I posted here. :( Not sure what's happening, pfft. Hope you receive this one!
    I've liked The Plague, Station Eleven and Oryx. In a similar vein, take a look at Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, and the Korean movie "Train to Busan" on Netflix. It seems to be an unfortunate part of human reality that trying to hide our mistakes and trying to save ourselves at the cost of others leads to the very end we want to avoid.

    1. Thanks for the suggestions - I’ll look into both the book & the Netflix movie. We’ll be looking for something new after we finish the last 3 episodes of The Queen’s Gambit.

  13. By accident we have ended up with the same subject! I've made a note of the recommendations above from Debbie - as soon as the university library re-opens I'll be trying to get copies of these.....

  14. I'm not one of the people who's been interested in reading about plagues during our experience of one, but I know Rennie has read some and so has Shay at if you're looking for more current publishing on the topic. I read and enjoyed Pandemic by Sonia Shah a few years ago and remember really liking that too. It seems like you've put together a really great, thorough list already though!

  15. I love this list/topic! I actually completely surprised myself by becoming interested in reading more about epidemics and the spread of viruses and pathogens this past year, as normally I would be completely avoidant of them. But information overload has really helped!

    The new book Apollo’s Arrow ties in a lot of the behavior that’s characterized past epidemics and although it’s more sciencey than the personal element you’re looking for I found it very relevant and helpful. Spillover by David Quammen was a fantastic and readable look at previous incidents of spillover of zoonoses and it was a good combination of science and personal. Biography of
    Resistance by Muhammad Zaman is about the ways we’ve created antibiotic resistance through misuse and overuse. Each chapter looks at a different significant incident and it spans the globe. It has a very personal element as well.

    The Ghost Map and Catherine the Great were both fantastic (but I can’t remember how much of that one dealt with the plague). Jeremy Brown’s Influenza and Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider are both on my list.

    Thanks for sharing all these suggestions!

  16. I did read The Plague by Albert Camus, but find it too depressing in times like these. I have one fiction book about the plague to recommend though. I read it many years ago, and it is one book I have saved on my shelves. It is called 'The Plague Tales' by Ann Benson. It has two parallell stories of past and present. Excellent book.

    1. Thanks for the tip Lisbeth, I'll look into it :-)

  17. I thought of you the other day, Brona, when I came across my copy of Laurie Halse Anderson's, Fever 1793. And I see you have it on your list. It is YA and a very good account of the yellow fever epidemic that hit Philadelphia as told by a young girl. I really enjoyed it. I hope you get to it.

    1. Thanks for thinking of me Laurie :-)

    2. I just realized I connected you with the plague. Perhaps I should have worded that comment better? haha!!


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