Sunday, July 25, 2010

They call me Mellow Yellow

TheAmericanPlague I've had this book for a while and finally got around to reading it.

I've written before about how one of my favorite subjects is infectious disease and its effects on history. It has had a profound effect, from the obvious (the massive die-off of the native population due to smallpox when the Europeans arrived contributed to the Europeans' easy land grab of the Americas) to the sublime (powdered wigs, heavy face powder, and faux beauty marks of the 1700's, all designed to hide signs of mercury poisoning from syphilis treatments and syphilitic lesions). I love books like this, and The American Plague by Molly Caldwell Crosby focused on the 1878 yellow fever outbreak that stunted that city's growth as an expanding post-Civil War metropolis. At that time, Memphis was poised to become a major city in the South, but the massive deaths and frantic desertion of the city due to the epidemic brought that growth to a shrieking halt.

In that regard, that part of the book was interesting. I also enjoyed the tale of Walter Reed and his Yellow Fever Board that did research in Cuba at the turn of the 20th century. At that time, human experimentation was common, and not only among volunteers. A few members of the research team chose to infect themselves with yellow fever in order to study the transmission of the disease. That seems barbarous and inconceivable now, but such experiments were common in that era.

However, I was horribly disappointed in this book. I've read numerous books on the subject of disease and its effect on history, or on the threat of emerging diseases, and most were written by doctors or research scientists. Ms. Crosby's biography states that she has a graduate degree in nonfiction writing from Johns Hopkins. She's not a bad writer, but I found her endless adjectival descriptions a little much. There was much about how incoming storms looked, or the yellow color the fever's victims develop, or anecdotes about family outings in Cuba. (Maybe that's why last night I had a dream in which I was sitting outside and thought about the “blueberry pie sky.” Interesting phrase, but who really writes that way? She actually described one victim as having “eyes like sunflowers.” What a horrid, hyperbolic description!)

Maybe this would be an interesting read for someone who has a casual interest, but I wanted much, much more. Where were the descriptions of the virus itself, its virulence factors, and speculations from scientists about why the Memphis outbreak was so severe? Why not more narrative from Reed and his team about figuring out that the mosquito was the vector? Towards the end of the book, there was a jarringly out of place short chapter that spoke of a case in the States in 2002. There was no follow-up, no description of the CDC's inevitable and full involvement, and nothing but vague, ominous cautions about how viruses have taught us one thing throughout history: "that their will and ability to survive may be stronger than ours." Really? That's the one major thing that viruses have taught us? Nothing about DNA, RNA, transmission, vectors, immune response...just that their will to survive is stronger than ours? I call bullshit on that, by the way. Viruses have no will. They are not sentient organisms. They are packets of protein. They simply exist, and they exist by replication in humans. They have no ill will towards us; they merely do what they must in order to survive.

Another thing that bugged me was that when Crosby wrote about Reed and his team in Cuba, she began talking about the yellow fever virus...but this was well before any researchers knew that yellow fever was caused by a virus. The prevailing thought at the time was that it was a bacterium. I found it very out of place to read about these researchers thinking of yellow fever as a virus when they had no real idea yet what what actually causing it.

I know I'm a hard taskmaster when it comes to books about microbiology and infectious disease. I want details, I want analysis, I want to hear about research. I won't go so far as to say that non-scientists shouldn't write about such subjects; I thought Richard Preston did a great job with The Hot Zone. But I will say that Ms. Crosby should find a subject other than science. I found this book boring and uninformative and very unrewarding. Oh, and about 40 pages was devoted to detailed notes about her sources. It's one thing to provide a bibliography. I don't need a detailed description of where you found every single thing you wrote about in the book. I skimmed over all of that, but I might have missed how she was sipping an iced coffee at a charming little sidewalk cafe when she read one of Reed’s letters to his wife. Seriously…WAY too much background!

If anything, this book made me resolve to consider my words more, and to try to use adjectives, descriptions, and metaphors judiciously. I'm sure Ms. Crosby had several courses in creative writing during her college studies. If such courses teach you to write like that, I think I'll pass. If anything else, it made me think that if she can get a book like this published, I could certainly get one published, too.


  1. Nothing worse than a book that does not meet expectations.

  2. I feel you with this entry, Beth. It is not that the book has to meet a personal level of authenticity for my approval, but replacing content with flowery descripitions that sounded better with the author's 'inside voice' bothers me as well.

    Stephen King wrote about the trouble he went through to get details right about his short story 'Dolan's Cadillac'. It seems that Miss Crosby chose not to do that kind of research.

    That is sad. Not only because you and other people in the field of microbiology and infectious diseases know more about it, but that her writing would leave someone who is simply intelligent and have an understanding of how these events happen, disappointed in her book.

  3. I'm glad you reviewed this in detail; I saw it on your bookshelf and looked it up, interested. I'll pass.

    I "read" John M. Barry's The Great Influenza on audiobook a few years ago and wish I'd bought the actual book. Tons of detail there and I kept wishing I could page-back to take something in a second time. What did you think? Probably our the most important family narrative for my mother's generation and my own was built around my grandfather's experiences during the epidemic, so it had special meaning for me.

  4. See, I actually enjoy books with tons of description and scene-setting. It's transportive for me.

  5. I think it is possible to write in a nice balanced way using descriptive and scene-setting words and phrases and still get the facts across, even when the subject is a technical one, without over-burdening the reader with flowery prose. I don't even my fiction too full of that kind of writing.


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