Michaeline: Plague Books for Fun and Education

Medieval painting of people enjoying the country scene of The Decameron

Seven ladies and three gentlemen escape the plague-filled city to have some fun and tell some stories in The Decameron. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Pandemic. All the stuff stemming from the pandemic including death, illness, poverty and hardship. Murder hornets (remember murder hornets?). Asteroid misses. Earthquakes. Locusts. Oh yeah, tornadoes. I’m sure I’m missing a few.

I won’t count protest. It needed to happen. It still needs to happen, and unfortunately, it will continue to need to happen, I’m afraid. I could wish that everyone had gotten totally frustrated, fed up and ready to change the system for good when Trayvon Martin was murdered in 2012 (or any of the other times a black death at police hands sparked protest and outrage). However, I see why it is happening now, instead of last August. What with unemployment and staying at home, people have time to protest, maybe for the first time in their lives. And the pandemic’s side effects have certainly intensified everyone’s anger and outrage. Maybe this time, we’ll see a long-lasting change for the better.

But, back to the Corona. Oddly enough, most of the books I read in May ( 3 and 1/2 books . . . when will I be able to read again?) had something to do with The Plague. The Decameron (J.M. Rigg translation) was a bunch of really rich people who said, “Let’s escape all this crap, and sing and dance and eat good food in the good country air, and tell stories every night.” Two weeks later: “OK, bored now. Or going to get bored soon. Let’s go back to the plague-y town.” It took me a month and a half to read through two weeks of tales (with four days off for hairwashing and piety – on the characters’ part).

The Ozark tales sometimes borrow from The Decameron. (Image via Open Library)

It’s worthwhile to read this once in your life, I think. However, if you need something lighter, I would read Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozark Tales, collected by Vance Randolph. The best of the dirty jokes of The Decameron, but with down-home people. (Caveat: I last read this book in my 20s; it stuck with me, so it’s good. But there’s probably A LOT of problematic material in a dirty joke book that just didn’t register on my young radar. So, you have been warned.)

The new Penric story by Bujold, The Physicians of Vilnoc, was so good. Doctors working to solve the mystery of the plague, using cooperation and understanding and compassion and BRAINS. (The people of the Decameron did not apply their brains toward solving the problem at all. They applied their brains towards distraction, which is a good strategy, as far as it goes.)

I’ve been meaning to write a review of this, and it deserves one. Aside from the story of the plague (which is an engrossing mystery with higher stakes than any country house whodunit), it also provides justification for Penric’s

Penric and his demon, Desdemona, race to prevent a pandemic in The Physicians of Vilnoc. (Image via Goodreads)

path – he trained as a healer in his 20s, but suffered from a breakdown and almost committed suicide. In this story, he has to deal with his fears of burnout, and a reckoning of abandoning a healing path. He discovers that many of the doctors he runs into have heard of his translations of medical books. As a healer, he could have directly saved hundreds of people. But through his translation work, he indirectly saves millions over his lifetime and the future. This is a sideplot, if you can even call it a plot, but it’s an extremely satisfying aside.

Finally, by chance, I picked up an old novel (1909) called When a Man Marries. I picked it up mostly because one of the cover shots I saw was an omnibus with an unfortunate design, so it looked like the book was, “WHEN A MAN MARRIES THE MAN IN LOWER TEN” which sounds like a thrilling, ahead-of-its-time sort of book.

The author, Mary Roberts Rinehart, writes very well and has great characterizations, but also slaps the reader constantly across the face with the fan of casual, middle-class white racism. In this particular book, she writes crappy comments about a Japanese butler, South American native women, and the Irish. Her characters very obviously build their lives on the backs of lower class people, and so I feel I must include this as a trigger warning before I go into the pandemic part. She was definitely part of the problem.

That said, I was very surprised when this screwball comedy (and it IS very funny when it sticks to observations about its own class) centered on a smallpox quarantine. Jimmy Wilson is depressed because it’s the second anniversary of his divorce (in 1909). Kit, our narrator and Continue reading

Michaeline: The Power of Writing

"Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases" says an old poster announcing a U.S. Public Health Service Campaign. "As Dangerous as Poison Gas Shells -- Spread of Spanish Influenza Menaces Our War Production"

It’s said that the 1918-1919 Spanish Influenza pandemic killed more people than WWI. https://virus.stanford.edu/uda/ Image via Wikimedia Commons.

I have to share this piece of writing with you. It’s a Reddit post about how a foreign resident in China is dealing with food and cooking during the lockdown because of the coronavirus/COVID-19 outbreak. 

National Public Radio (US) has an article on how the lockdown is affecting the lives of Chinese residents.  NPR reports that families in Wenzhou (a coastal city in China) have been told to stay indoors, and only send one person out every two days to pick up groceries.

The Reddit post does so much in a relatively small space. Redditor u/mthmchris explains how he and his partner are restricted to the apartment, and how the constraints in finding ingredients and the luxury of time have contributed to better cooking. There’s a brief reverie about the degeneracy of modern cooking, that he attributes to perhaps lack of time, especially now that he’s been living through a period of deprivation (although, not starvation) for the past few weeks. And then there are the dishes he’s made.

I suppose I’ve always been morbidly curious about “Robinson Crusoe” scenarios. So, it teases my imagination – what would I do if we were locked down on our farm with a COVID-19 outbreak in town? The post moves my sympathy for people who really are in the situation, it educated me, and taught me new things about the human experience. These are the things I would love to see my fiction writing do for people. Continue reading