damned_colonial: Convicts in Sydney, being spoken to by a guard/soldier (Default)
[personal profile] damned_colonial posting in [community profile] readingthepast
So, this is the first theme ever for [community profile] readingthepast! I'm kind of making this up as I go along.

The theme for July will be Plagues and Pandemics. It's a broad theme, not tied to any particular period of history, but obviously quite topical right now.

Some Wikipedia background:

Pandemic tells us about what a pandemic is. In short, it's an epidemic that spreads across a wide geographical area and through much of the population. The Wikipedia page has a list of pandemics and notable epidemics, including:

* Plague of Athens which killed 25% of the population in 430BC
* Black Death, a pandemic of bubonic plague in the 14th century
* Great Plague of London ca. 1665 (bubonic plague again)
* Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793 which killed 10% of the population of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (then capital of the fledgling United States)
* Various cholera pandemics in the 19th century, starting with the First Cholera Pandemic which mostly hit Asia. The second pandemic hit western Europe (you may have heard of the Broad Street cholera outbreak of 1954), and there are numbered pandemics up to 7, which lasted until the 1960s.
* 1918-1919 Influenza epidemic aka Spanish Flu, in the wake of WW1
* AIDS pandemic ca. late 20th century to present

There are plenty more links to follow!

But now onto the historical novels. We had many suggestions, set during various epidemics/pandemics. Let's take them in historical order!

Connie Willis, "The Doomsday Book" is an SF novel about a near-future where Oxford University's history department has time travel. It follows the adventures of the first student to travel to the 14th century, and the difficulties face in the "present" as they deal with an outbreak of an unknown disease.
Amazon | Powells | Worldcat

Geraldine Brooks, "Year of Wonders" is about a village that quarantines itself through the Great Plague of 1665. The protagonist is a woman who tends to the dying in the isolated village.
Amazon | Powells | Worldcat

Laurie Halse Anderson, "Fever 1793" is a YA novel set during the yellow fever outbreak in Philadephia. I grabbed this from my library the other day, and it's a quick read and well written.
Amazon | Powells | Worldcat

Barbara Hambly, "Fever Season" I haven't read this one, but was looking for more varied perspectives. Looks to be a historical mystery novel with a black surgeon as protagonist, set during a cholera epidemic in New Orleans in the 1830s.
Amazon | Worldcat

Anne Roiphe, "An Imperfect Lens" Another one I found when searching for plagues and pandemics outside of Europe and the US. Cholera in Egypt in 1883. Looks like literary fiction, I think.
Amazon | Worldcat

May Agnes Fleming, "The Midnight Queen" is a late 19th century Gothic novel about the Great Plague of London. I know nothing more about it!
Gutenberg | Worldcat

Daniel Defoe, "A Journal of the Plague Year" is an early 18th century account of the Great Plague of London. Reads like non-fiction, but is actually fiction. See Wikipedia for details.
Gutenberg | Worldcat

Allesandro Manzoni, "The Betrothed" is an early 18th century novel which contains a description of the plague in Italy (ca. 1630) in chapters 31-33. Wikipedia compares Defoe's novel to it, and has a plot summary which may be useful as the novel is long and the plague only appears at the end..
Free online version (non-Gutenberg) | Worldcat

The above list is basically what I'm going to try to read. (Hey, I'm ahead, because I have read the first three already! It's my theme, after all!) Other books mentioned in comments on the theme suggestion post, but about which I know little or nothing and didn't have time to investigate, include:

O'Nan, "Prayer for the Dying"
Ann Benson, "Plague Tales" and "The Physician's Tale"
Naomi Wallace, One Flea Spare (play)
Kim Stanley Robinson, "The Years of Rice and Salt" (post-Black-Death Alternate History)
John M. Barry, "The Great Influenza" (non-fiction)

Perhaps those who recced them can offer a little more detail in the comments. And please, if anyone has any more suggestions, keep them coming.

As I understand it, the plan now is for us to get hold of these books and start reading them, with the discussion of them officially running through the month of July. Though if you have thoughts/comments prior to that, please feel free to post them, and tag them with "theme: plagues and pandemics". In a week or two, when I've got a bit more of a handle on the books I haven't yet read, I'll be posting some thoughts on possible areas of discussion.

Happy reading! And remember, wash your hands regularly.

Date: 2009-06-09 05:34 am (UTC)
epershand: "Geek" (Geek)
From: [personal profile] epershand
Yay, I'm excited for the first theme. I mentioned "The Great Influenza" in the theme post, so I'll share a bit more about it. It's a history of the Influenza pandemic of 1918, with a hearty share of turn-of-the-century epidemiology and viral biology. It primarily follows the careers of several medical researchers attempting to isolate influenza before it was known to be a virus.

It's really readable, and covers a lot of ground, so I'd suggest it as background material for anyone who, like me, is interested in the subject matter but doesn't have a lot of background in the way influenzas (or, for that matter, medical research) work.
Edited Date: 2009-06-09 05:34 am (UTC)

Date: 2009-06-09 07:45 am (UTC)
melannen: Commander Valentine of Alpha Squad Seven, a red-haired female Nick Fury in space, smoking contemplatively (Default)
From: [personal profile] melannen
This is not a topic I'm well-read on (too many childhood nightmares!), but here's a few suggestions anyway:

The Secret Garden and the Veleveteen Rabbit are two classic, out-of-copyright kids' books that deal with epidemics as a major plot point.

"Path of the Pale Horse" by Paul Fleischman is another YA novel about the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic; it did, in fact, induce nightmares when I was nine.

Boccacio's Decameron should probably be on the list...

And for a slight change, the first book of Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novel deals with the 1920s "sleepy sickness" (encephalitis lethargica) epidemic (which is also a major theme of some of Oliver Sacks' nonfiction, and the movie "Awakenings" based on it.)

I would love to find a good historical novel dealing with the Spanish flu. Or with the polio epidemics. I keep thinking I've read a ton of novels about epidemics, but when I think harder, they all turn out to be non-historical SF/Fantasy. (Epidemics come up a *lot* in my SF, it seems.) Or Highlander fanfic. *cough*

BTW, Hambly's Benjamin January mysteries are very highly recommended; I haven't read them, but have had glowing reviews from people whose opinions are generally good. And Hambly's vampire novel They Who Hunt The Night has quite a bit of (hauntingly done) reminiscences about the plague years from the older vampires.
Edited Date: 2009-06-09 07:48 am (UTC)

Epidemics in kids' books

Date: 2009-06-09 09:01 am (UTC)
cesy: "Cesy" - An old-fashioned quill and ink (Default)
From: [personal profile] cesy
I remember the Velveteen Rabbit from when I was younger.

I don't remember epidemics in the Secret Garden - illness, yes, but which bit counts as an epidemic?

Re: Epidemics in kids' books

Date: 2009-06-09 09:41 am (UTC)
melannen: Commander Valentine of Alpha Squad Seven, a red-haired female Nick Fury in space, smoking contemplatively (Default)
From: [personal profile] melannen
The very beginning - Mary is in India, and everyone is getting sick around her, and she gets locked in her room and forgotten, and when she wakes up the house is empty. Everyone she knows in India is dead - that's why she ends up at Misslethwaite.

When I read it at Mary's age, that whole section just freaked me out; I didn't understand what was going on any more than Mary did, but re-reading it as an adult, it's stated outright by some of the grown-ups talking over her head that it was a cholera epidemic. I think maybe the most fascinating thing about it is the child's POV: both the way Mary's is drawn, and the fact that most of us probably read it at that age, too.

Date: 2009-06-09 03:07 pm (UTC)
vass: Jon Stewart reading a dictionary (books)
From: [personal profile] vass
Here's another good book:
Kerry Greenwood, "A different sort of real : the diary of Charlotte McKenzie, Melbourne 1918-1919"

It's a YA novel about the flu pandemic. The protagonist is a teenage girl who wants to be a doctor.

Date: 2009-06-09 04:41 pm (UTC)
isis: (books)
From: [personal profile] isis
I'm planning on getting the audio version of the Defoe book from NetLibrary, and I shall try to find the Willis and Barry books as well as they sound like something I would enjoy.

Date: 2009-06-09 06:45 pm (UTC)
legionseagle: (Default)
From: [personal profile] legionseagle
Rats, Lice and History by Hans Ziesser is a compulsively readable (non-fiction) account of typhus, touching on a number of the other great plagues.

The Vizard Mask by Diana Norman has some great scenes involving the onset of the Great Plague of 1665 in a St Giles brothel, starting with the scene where the madam suddenly discovered her poxed charges are especially in demand, because of a belief that syphilis kept off the plague.

The Last of The Wine by Mary Renault has the great line "And it is seldom a many can say, either of the Spartans or the plague, that he owes them life instead of death" in one of the opening paras, though the plague does not play a great role after that.

What Happened to the Corbetts by Nevil Shute probably doesn't count as historical fiction; it was published in 1938/9 contemplating WWII, which plays out rather differently than the historical war. However, the very powerful scenes when ariel bombardment destroys Southampton's sewerage system and cholera breaks out in the city are extraordinarily powerful (Shute later credited civil defence actions based on his book as being the reason the actual facts did not support his scenario in the event, which I personally think counts as having it both ways).

Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer and Thank Heaven Fasting by Em Delafield both have plot developments turning on the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, as does A Sailor of Austria by John Biggins.

Date: 2009-06-09 08:18 pm (UTC)
katemonkey: Cougar looks downwards his face obscured in darkness and his cowboy hat. (mr ghost is going to town)
From: [personal profile] katemonkey
I didn't rec it, but I do rather love Hambly's Fever Season.

It's only nominally about epidemics, but it has some fantastic descriptions of an empty, miasmal New Orleans, where death stalks every alleyway.

And then bring in Madam Lalaurie, the convoluted racial and cultural standards in New Orleans at that time, and the wonderful character of Benjamin January, and it's wonderful.

Date: 2009-06-10 09:48 pm (UTC)
holyschist: Image of a medieval crocodile from Herodotus, eating a person, with the caption "om nom nom" (Default)
From: [personal profile] holyschist
Does anyone know of historical fiction (or nonfiction) about the "Tudor disease"/sweating sickness?

Date: 2009-07-08 02:02 am (UTC)
coffeeandink: (Default)
From: [personal profile] coffeeandink
Elizabeth Wein's The Sunbird/The Lion Hunter/The Empty Kingdom deal with the political effects of plague in medieval Ethiopia -- the POV is from characters in cities that have imposed a quarantine on the cities where the plague is present, so there isn't much description of the plague itself.

M.T. Anderson's Octavian Nothing I: The Pox Party spends a substantial section on the smallpox during the Revolutionary War.

Louise Erdrich's The Birchbark House starts off with an Ojibwe village almost entirely killed off by disease (I think smallpox?) and there is a later recurrence of it in the book. (children's book, historical, Native American writer and characters.)

I believe Marguerite Yourcenar's The Abyss (medieval Europe, the study of natural philosophy) and "Anna, Soror ..." (in Two Lives and A Dream) both have sections dealing with plague, but I may be misremembering.

Not read, but relevant: John Edgar Wideman, The Cattle Killing: Amazon description: "Set in Philadelphia in 1793, when the city was afflicted by an epidemic of yellow fever, Wideman's novel is narrated by a young black preacher whose mind seems unhinged by the terrible events he is witnessing. His apocalyptic visions reflect the confusion and delirium around him. The rich white citizens of the city are mostly shutting themselves in and sending their black servants out into the fever-ridden streets. One prominent historical figure, Dr. Benjamin Rush (Dr. Thrush in the novel), is portrayed in a very ambivalent relationship with a black servant girl. Wideman, who has dealt in a more documentary style with the epidemic in a previous collection of short stories, Fever, here combines vision, hallucination, dream, and African legend in a complex metaphorical novel."

Laurie Halse Anderson's Fever 1793 deals with the same outbreak as the Wideman, in a YA historical novel about a white servant girl.


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