What to Read Next (No. 183): the literature of disaster
It’s hard to write about tragedy. How do you balance honoring victims while also exploring, on a deep level, the hows, whats, whens, and whys of a disaster? It’s a tall and delicate task. Two recent books have done it quite well.
Let’s jump right in, and don’t forget to let me know what you’re reading—I always love to hear!
P.S. My final Art of Manliness article was published yesterday: How to Make Coffee Like a Civil War Soldier. Check it out, and when I have writing elsewhere on the web in the future, I’ll be sure to let you all know!
A Few Bookish Questions With Bonnie Tsui
Bonnie Tsui is a woman who is irrevocably drawn to water. As a journalist, she wanted to uncover why. Tsui explored the question not only for herself, but for those people throughout all of time who have been entranced by bodies of water. Why are we attracted to it? Why do we propel ourselves through this blue-hued liquid? Why We Swim is not only a journalistic account, but also a warm and inviting personal inquiry. Naturally, Tsui is also a reader! I was thrilled to be able to ask her some questions about her reading and the books that have impacted her.
Fire in Paradise: An American Tragedy by Alastair Gee & Dani Anguiano
Published: 2020 | Pages: 250
“People prepared for the worst, but they didn’t always comprehend how awful the worst could be. . . .
The flames, when they arrived, were unstoppable, far beyond the capacity of any firefighter to control. In places they burned as hot as a crematorium. Cars turned into rivulets of molten metal. ”
In the last handful of years, it’s been impossible to live in the West (which includes my home in the Denver area) without thinking about wildfire on a constant basis during the summer and fall. Given this recent, quite literal explosion of fire, the books have followed. Titles like 2017’s Megafire have caught my attention, as did 2020’s A Fire in Paradise.
In 2018, the Camp Fire ripped through Paradise, California, taking 85 lives in the process. It’s a hard story to read. What started as just a windy November morning quickly became a maelstrom of fast-moving fire—“the speed of this one was inconceivable.” Consuming an unfathomable four football fields of vegetation per minute, the fire changed from wildland fire to urban fire, moving from house to business to house before residents had time to flee. Destroying over 10,000 homes in a matter of hours, the Camp Fire behaved in ways no other fire ever had.
It’s explaining those superlatives that the authors excel at. Why was this fire so bad? Why wasn’t the town better prepared? Was there any way the fire could have been less deadly? Is this type of fire the new norm, or an outlier?
As with everything in our modern era, especially during the Trump presidency, the tragedy quickly became political. Trump blamed the state of California for what amounted to environmental malpractice; the state put plenty of blame on Pacific Gas & Electric; the residents of Paradise cast blame anywhere they could while trying to recover.
The authors, as they should, don’t lay it at the feet of any single entity, but wisely reveal the complex interplay between climate change, politics, America’s aging infrastructure, and, of course, the freak, unique microclimate in Paradise on that day.
A Fire in Paradise is short, which means every page is potent. It’s hard to read at times, and yet necessary in order to understand the forces in our climate and our politics and our very philosophy of housing/living that make these types of fires if not the norm, then at least, quite sadly, less surprising.
The Plague Year: America in the Time of Covid by Lawrence Wright
Published: 2021 | Pages: 270
Lawrence Wright is a must-read author for me. His works—highlighted by Going Clear and The Looming Tower—are some of the most cogently written and deftly explored books on complex topics that I’ve ever read. Last spring, Wright published The End of October1, a novel about a worldwide flu pandemic (from a coronavirus, no less!). Eerie timing, to say the very least. That story required a ton of research into pandemics, so Wright was uniquely situated as a journalist to cover the COVID-19 pandemic, which he’s been doing for The New Yorker from the start.
That reporting has turned into one of the first book-length accounts of what the last year has wrought, particularly here in America.
In this short-ish book, Wright covers a lot of ground. From the incredible speed of the vaccine (and the surprisingly early roots of the anti-vax movements), to the virological details (a bit over my head), to the inevitable political squabbles, the reader gets a bit of everything (at times it jumps around too much). Perhaps most importantly, he compassionately tells stories of the people on the frontlines and a few of those who are no longer with us.
Reading about the Trump administration was particularly interesting. Wright is pretty objective throughout most of the book—to Trump’s credit, it was a very complex problem in a very big and heterogeneous nation—but then just skewers him towards the end: “By his words and his example, the president became not a leader but a saboteur.” That’s a bold assertion, but the argument he lays out is nuanced and convincing in a way that most other Trump-era writing has not been.
It’s not the most organized book of Wright’s; the jumps in time and geography are sometimes a little bit confusing. And his own forays in and out of the narrative with personal anecdotes felt a touch random (though certainly welcome at times). I chalk that up to the quick turnaround time of this writing and reporting.
There are destined to be many more books written about the era of COVID—dozens, perhaps hundreds, in fact. The Plague Year is quite obviously not a complete account, but provides a great starting point for readers interested in delving into our very recent history.
There’s something fundamentally different about taking in news in real-time versus taking a step back and looking at it in narrative form. The Plague Year was both a time machine to last year and also a reminder about how easily humans forget things—I hadn’t forgotten, per se, about last year’s strangeness, but I definitely normalized it to a degree that I hadn’t thought possible. Wright was able to put that utter strangeness into clear perspective.
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