The Great Influenza by John M. BarryMy wife (and others) have been poking fun at me for some time now about my reading selection, but it wasn’t until I got about halfway through this latest tome when I realized just how weird my book selection has been the past half year or so. I’ve read books about what would happen to the world if humans disappeared, a poison gas attack, the assassination of a president, and a cholera epidemic. Needless to say, following it up with a book on the one of the worst pandemics in recorded human history seemed like a painful frosting on a depressing cake, but The Great Influenza was nonetheless next on my reading list.

As it turns out, this book by John M. Barry was a fascinating and often completely heartbreaking read. In terms of numbers killed, the estimates range from 40 all the way up to 100 million, and this damage was done in the incredibly short time period of roughly 18 months between the years of 1918 and 1919. The scale and scope of this particular flu was pretty much unprecedented, and due to bad decisions made by several different layers of both government and local officials, it spread completely out of control in a country that was trying desperately to maintain a patriotic fortitude while going into battle of the first world war.

Obviously, with so many people affected, this influenza wasn’t strictly limited to the United States, and while this book focuses in on domestic efforts to both combat (and seemingly ignore at the same time) the outbreak, it also spends a great deal of time talking about how it affected and spread around the world as well.

In leading up to the actual discussion of the pandemic itself, the book devotes entire chapters to the advancement of science and medicine in both Europe and the United States during the time period, giving a good background of how much progress was made in a short time. It’s this type of information that really makes the book an excellent read, capturing just how much progress was made in a short time (and under some fairly constricted circumstances in some cases).
Although it doesn’t go into great detail, the book touches on the fact that a pandemic flu could happen again at some point, and how we would be both better equipped (the evolution of science and industry to manufacture vaccines at a higher pace) and worse off (the greater prevalence of national and even world travel aiding the spread of the virus) in the event that it did.

In the end, the book was equal parts depressing and enlightening, with enough data and historical information to inform. With terms like “HN51” and “bird flu” being thrown around every six months or so with sometimes panicked overtones, this is a good book for historical reference.

The World Without Us by Alan WeismanWhen I first read about the concept of The World Without Us, I was intrigued immediately. For some reason or another, I’ve had a strange sort of obsession with everything from the apocalypse to zombie films the past couple of years. Throw in a bit of true treehugger-style guilt about my (and the rest of humankind’s) footprint on the world itself, and this book by Alan Weisman shot to the top of my wish list when I read about it being released.

Essentially, the title tells the tale, as the book basically takes on all the different angles of what would happen to the world if humans were to completely disappear. Weisman doesn’t specify how this would happen (to keep everyone happy he mentions everything from the Christian description of Rapture to a virus that wipes out humankind), but that’s not really the point. Instead, he focuses on the decay of human-built infrastructures, chemical compounds that we’ve created and how long it takes for them to break down, animals we’ve displaced (and pushed to near extinction), and ecosystems we’ve changed and/or destroyed.

While there are a few hypotheticals, the great thing about the book is that Weisman has really done his research. In many cases, he’s had the ability to study different things firsthand, as in the Exclusion Zone of Chernobyl, which includes several cities that were basically left completely abandoned by humans and the humans took over. He also takes a look at the demilitarized zone in Korea, and in these places one can see the steady advance of nature as it reclaims space slowly at first but then with wide flourishes that are sometimes hard to imagine. One of the most fascinating sections of the book deals with what would happen to a city like New York, New York, which is built largely upon marshlands that require non-stop water pumps to function lest basements fill with water and support beams buckle and surrender to corrosion.

Of course, there is a lot to be depressed about in the book as well. In a chapter titled “Polymers Are Forever,” Weisman describes a state-sized (Texas, to be nearly exact) swirling mass of constantly breaking-down discarded plastic in the Pacific ocean that is not only threatening aquatic life in that particular area, but slowly filtering into the microscopic level as the plastic breaks down to such a small level that algae can ingest it (which then in turn moves up the food chain and eventually could cause what is essentially a bottom-up choking-off of the food chain).

Like many books I’ve read lately, The World Without Us made me think about how I live my life personally, and the changes I can make to affect at least the small part of the world around me. It’s not a book that speaks specifically to the individual footprint of a single person in this world, but it makes you feel like a vital cog in the larger scheme of things, and for that I would definitely recommend it.

Two weeks ago, I went to a work conference in Rochester, New York with four co-workers of mine to help present on a massive site redesign that I was but one small part off. Because I don’t discuss my job on this site, I will leave it at that, but feel like I need to document the story of our travel there for future reference.

Our journey to Rochester looked to be rather uneventful on paper, leaving the Omaha, Nebraska airport late morning, then arriving in Detroit early afternoon for a short layover before hitting the second leg to arrive in New York in the late afternoon or thereabouts.

Things were rough from the start in Omaha, as we got on the plane and proceeded to simply sit in place for nearly forty-five minutes without much of an explanation for why it was happening. Soon, the pilot came on and told us all that we were going to be waiting a bit longer because there was a repair that needed to be made on a door of the plane (something about a washer). So, we sat for quite a bit longer, and as I watched out the window of the plane, I saw pavement damp with rain slowly dry completely before another light shower came through and made small puddles again. After approximately an hour and a half on the ground, we finally rolled out onto the runway and took off without any issues.

About three-quarters of the way into the flight (after drinks and overpriced snacks had been served), the stewardess walked to the front of the cabin and picked up the phone to receive a call. Sitting in an aisle seat, I watched her as she talked and saw her eyes widen just slightly as it went on for a couple minutes. Within seconds of her hanging up the phone, the pilots voice came on over the intercom and laid out the scenario.

He stated that there was a minor problem with the plane, but just to be on the safe side we would be making an emergency landing in South Bend, Indiana. He said that there was nothing to be alarmed about, but that we should listen to the stewardess as she explained the procedures for said landing.

After he had finished, the stewardess was in the spotlight, and she became noticeably more nervous. We were told to remove our glasses if we were wearing them, take any pens or sharp objects out of our pockets, and to return seatbacks to their upright position and store everything we had under the seat in front of us. After she explained these things, she came back to the emergency exit rows (one of which was right in front of me) and removed the safety covers from the doors so that they could be removed in case of any issues. While explaining this to the people in the emergency row, she became increasingly excited and reminded them several times not to open the doors and thrown them out until she explicitly gave the order.

She then returned to the front of the plane and went through the proper crash-landing position for everyone on the plane. We were to hold our arms crossed on the seat in front of us while resting our heads on our forearms. Then she explained that if there were smoke or fire in the cabin, that the emergency exits and the paths to them would be lit. At this point, we were still twenty minutes or so from landing.

With everyone braced in their positions (a position that isn’t exactly easy to hold for fifteen minutes, I might add), the captain again came on over the intercom and repeated his words about the landing being more of a precautionary measure than a drastic one. There was a problem with one of the engines, so instead of risking things he was shutting it down and we were going to make a detour. He also told us that we shouldn’t be surprised or scared to see emergency vehicles on the runway when we land, as they were just there for precautionary measures.

With all this in my head, I tried to keep calm. I breathed in through my nose and out through my mouth while looking out the window and trying to gauge how long it would be until we were on the ground. I looked over at a co-worker of mine (who was buffered by another passenger I didn’t know) and made some lame joke about how I, “maybe should have ordered a rum and coke earlier” but nobody heard me and I was left to my own thoughts again while looking out the window and watching the ground get closer and closer.

Because of all the information that I had been given (and my own feeble deduction skills), I figured that the plane wasn’t going to simply fall out of the sky, but if anything happened, it would be when we landed. Thoughts in my head ranged from videos of planes skidding across runways on their belly’s to the scene in the movie Fearless where the plane breaks apart and catches fire. I thought about my wife and my family and my dogs and really just tried to stay calm. I could hear muffled voices saying prayers around me, and tried to listen for anything mechanically that sounded out of order.

With all this tension built up, I strayed from the crash position and looked out the window until we were several hundred feet off the ground, then finally turned my head away and braced myself with all my might for the moment of landing.

When it finally came, it was remarkably uneventful, albeit with a whole heck of a lot more wheel braking than engine thrust reverse (obviously). There was a split second where I imagined the wheels and landing gear ripping off due to sheer force, but they held and we eventually slowed down and taxied to the waiting emergency vehicles. Nervous laughter and sighs filled the cabin and there was a noticeable bit of euphoria in the air.

While waiting in the very small airport (which ended up turning into a saga unto itself), my co-workers and I watched as the flight crew (including the pilot and co-pilot) walked by us and we gave them a small round of applause. They were all very young (a quarter century or less by my guess), and they nodded a small acknowledgment and went on their way.

Personally, I wanted nothing more than to get in a car and simply drive home at that point, but we instead waited until the plane was fixed before finally making it to our initial destination (Detroit) nearly ten hours after we were originally scheduled to be there. The last legs of the journey were far less eventful, and despite the reality of a rather calm landing (and diversion), we became known by the end of the conference as “those guys whose plane just about crashed.”

It seems like this spring was rather mild in terms of the amount of severe weather that we got around these parts, but the past week or so has made up for things with an astounding blast of late summer storms. Monday night, we had massive gusts of wind that downed tree branches throughout the neighborhood, along with heavy rain and a portion of pea-sized hail. Last night, a massive, low-flying dark cloud turned things almost instantly from day to night when it rolled by, and I stood out in the backyard with a camera trying to capture the swirling edge of it with a camera as cracking lightning and instant downpours threatened.

Fortunately, the hail was not damaging to our garden or our property in general, and after a long three weeks of super-hot temperatures, everything seems to be going through a last-gasp of lush green before the heat tapers off and we head into fall (my favorite season).

the leading edge of the storm

Underworld by Haruki MurakamiTo some, it would probably be a bit odd that the first book I’ve read by Haruki Murakami is his only non-fiction work, but that’s exactly the route I’ve now taken. While my wife has managed to read a good portion of his fiction work, I’ve continued on my non-fiction binge that started last year and shows no sign of letting up. Oddly enough, Underground was at least partially inspired by the work of Studs Terkel, and finds Murakami interviewing survivors of the Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks that took place in 1995.

At the time that the attacks took place, I was in my spring semester of college. I remember reading about them quite a bit at the time (on the fledging internet and in newspapers), but didn’t have any real personal stake in them other than wondering how large the Aum cult was within the Japanese society and whether there would be more attacks like it.

Because the context of the book was so specific and horrific, it seemed like an interesting (and probably quite sad) book to read, but I was nonetheless drawn to it. Although the different accounts get a bit repetitive at times, Underground is an absolutely fascinating book in terms of a look at a society. There are people who have survivor guilt, others who seem to have forgiven all the perpetrators, and others who obviously (and for good reason) still harbor a lot of hard feelings about the attack. In an odd way, I also felt like I got a slightly better idea for at least a small slice of Japanese society.

Although he adds his own thoughts in places, Murakami largely stays in the background, allowing the victims (and even a few members of the Aum cult, who had no direct ties to the subway plot) tell their stories. As mentioned above, it’s not exactly an uplifting read, but at the same time is one of those books that gives you a bit of hope for humankind.

American Dreams: Lost And Found by Studs TerkelAs is probably completely apparent by now, I’m a really big fan of Studs Terkel. Over the course of the past couple years, I’ve read just about every book of his collected interviews that he has released to date. Of these, I would have to say that Working, Race, and The Good War were easily my favorites, although there were certainly inspiring and even essential parts to everything else he’s written as well.

Unfortunately, American Dreams: Lost And Found is probably the weakest volume of Terkel’s that I’ve read to date. As with his other books, there were a lot of individual stories that were worth reading, and a couple quotes or observations that made me feel like I wasn’t wasting my time, but at the same time it was really the only book of his that I’ve read that felt like a chore at times. Perhaps it’s because the guiding principle of the book itself is a little more subjective than some of his others, but other than some of the more historical stories I didn’t feel like I was getting as much substance as I usually do out of one of his books.

The most interesting part of the book were interviews with two people, both of whom have taken completely different routes over the course of the past nearly three decades; Arnold Schwarzeneggar and Dennis Kucinich. The interviews were conducted in 1979, and in the former you can picture a star-struck young immigrant still enamored with his new country and the possiblities that it holds for him, while the latter finds a young politician close to the end of his first term as mayor of Cleveland (he wasn’t re-elected, but it’s easy to glimpse the ideas that he’s become known for today).

Even the Terkel books that don’t hold my interest quite as much still have some noteworthy stuff in them. Really, that’s more than you can say for most.

Manhunt by James L. SwansonI’m not even sure where I stumbled across this book, but for some reason it seemed really intriguing and I ended up purchasing it on a whim and deciding that it would be the next book that I’d read. As I’ve mentioned many, many times before on this site, I’m kind of an idiot when it comes to history, so I figured this book would help to fill in a few more gaps in knowledge for me.

Using an absolutely heaping amount of transcribed witness events both from the event and the ensuing chase, James L. Swanson has put together an incredibly interesting read with Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer. The writing style is fairly loose, but doesn’t seem to contain quite as much “guessed” perception as a book like The Devil In The White City by Erik Larson. To me, it felt like it had a nice balance of doling out a lot of very specific historical information alongside a lot of the aforementioned personal recollections of the time.

Because of the above, it was an informative book that was also quite entertaining. Over the course of high school and college I’d read little bits here and there about the murder of Lincoln, but had never really gotten the full background. This book gave me just what I was interested in, and also provided me with a bit of a nudge to possibly start the massive (3 volumes, 3000 pages) set on the Civil War by Shelby Foote that’s still sitting shrinkwrapped on my bookshelf.

I hinted at it during my last post, but I’ve been thinking a lot about lyrics lately, both in regards to the musical project I’m working on as well as the music that I listen to.

I’ve always been sort of a casual absorber of lyrics in songs, and while I appreciate well-penned lines, bad lyrics aren’t something that will kill a song in my mind if the music surrounding them is good enough. There are, of course, a few exceptions to this rule, but it’s rare to find a song with lyrics so absolutely awful that they obliterate well-crafted music.

On the other side of things, there are artists whom I appreciate for their solid word crafting skills but whose music leaves me feeling absolutely bored. From this angle, it’s near-impossible for great lyrics to rescue a song that’s poorly written, so perhaps I am a bit biased towards the musical side of the quotient.

Great lyrics are fairly subjective, but it’s a part of the current musical project that we haven’t been willing to ignore or even take shortcuts on. In some ways, it’s held us back at times, looking not only for a good phrase, but the perfect phrase for every moment (not only in descriptive ways, but at phonetic and other levels as well). In doing so, there have been levels of analysis and research that I haven’t found myself working at since I was in college.

In saying the above, I know that many of the references and lines and phrases used within our songs won’t be understood by a good portion of those who listen to our music. That’s not to say that we’re working at a higher level than other lyricisits, although on an immodest level I am very proud of them. Instead, I think it simply goes back to that notion that a good portion of people (including myself at many times) appreciate great lyrics, but at the same time aren’t going to spend a great deal of time poring over lines and then making connections between phrases to find threads of ideas that run through songs and even albums themselves.

I think that the aforementioned sentiment has a lot to do with what kinds of lyrics I myself find to be the most engaging. I like lyrics that tease me a bit and give me clues and provide themes without spelling things out in always-obvious ways. Albums like OK Computer by Radiohead have always drawn me in due to their sometimes obscure references mixed with pop culture commentary and reflections of human life in general. I don’t want things to be spelled out perfectly, rather I want something that I can interpret a bit and come to my own conclusions about while having some lines that stick in my head at the same time.

Some people will call that pretentious, and that’s fine to me. I’m sure that the lyrics I’ve had a hand in will come across as obtuse to some and obvious to others, but as mentioned above, I will say that the process in writing them has (so far) made for some some of the most frustrating, interesting, and creative writing moments that I’ve had in the past ten years. It’s all a learning process, and that’s a good thing.

A Technique for Producing Ideas by James YoungI’m not sure where I stumbled across reading about this book, but somewhere along the way during the past two months it found its way onto my Amazon wishlist and finally into my personal library. Originally written back in the 1940s, A Technique for Producing Ideas is basically exactly what the title states. James Young put it together at the time as a way to lay out the creative process for advertisers, but it really pretty much applies to any discipline.

I bought the book because I was feeling like I was stuck in somewhat of a creative rut and thought it might provide a slightly different perspective on things, but after spinning through the short book (in about thirty minutes), I realized that the process layed out on the pages within was actually remarkably similar to the one that I already use.

The basic gist of it is to work on your idea by throwing out any and all related thoughts during the first part, then trying to visualize ways to bring these (sometimes somewhat disparate) pieces together. If you run into a figurative wall, clear your head with something unrelated, then try things from a different angle.

That’s the basic framework of the book, and it’s better stated within, but I guess I was hoping for a slightly different angle. Fortunately, I feel like I broke free a bit from my slump since before I even read it. My solution was about the same cost as the book itself; a bottle of wine.

Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael PollanAfter seeing the book recommended by many a people, I decided to check out Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In the past couple years, I’ve read several titles on both food and food production (including Fast Food Nation, Diet For A New America, and others), but I’d heard from many people that although Pollan touched on a couple of the same sorts of themes, that his book was also very eye-opening in other areas as well.

As I mentioned in a previous post on this site, I have to say that I feel like I learned more from this book than I have in most books I’ve read in the past couple years. Obviously the historical books I’ve read have filled in my knowledge gaps significantly, but The Omnivore’s Dilemma is the sort of book that not only gives some great new information but shatters some of the things you might think you know about food production in the United States.

Obviously this sort of a book isn’t always an easy read, but unlike Fast Food Nation, which focuses in on food that most people already at least mostly know is bad for them, Pollan sets his sites on food that people like myself thought was being held to a higher standard.

I’m speaking of course, of organic food, and the problems with industrial food of this nature seem like they’d be pretty obvious, yet they were ones that I hadn’t thought of before. Despite USDA regulations (and perhaps because their regulations are so lax, and largely because they have to be), organic food is really not that much different than its non-organic counterparts at the store. Sure, they don’t use pesticides, but all large-scale organic operations still use the same types of labor practices, crop techniques, and of course consume the same (and sometimes more) amount of fuel in their production and transport.

An even more eye-opening section of the book focused in on organic milk, eggs, and chicken, and despite not having eaten meat (other than occasional fish) since 1998, this is the section that made me feel the most guilty. Like organic crops, there is actually very little difference in the actual production techniques of these items, with animal overcrowding and other similar problems haunting the production facilities.

The implied solution behind the book seems to be that when possible, buy local (and organic). Living in the midwest, it’s hard to do this due to long, hard winters that pretty much chop growing seasons in half of what they’d be in more moderate places, but his central idea also makes me appreciate our garden and the local farmer’s market that much more.

With melamine contamination and other food scares cropping up in the United States all the time, it sometimes seems like it’s not even worth the struggle to eat healthy, but this is the sort of book that gives you just a bit more knowledge to help keep up the good fight. Although the final section is a bit tangential, I can still say I recommend this book highly to anyone who’s interested where their food comes from and what it means for our environment.

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