Reading Challenge 2018 – What Books Did You Read This Year?

It is the love of books that made me want to write one of my own.

I am one of those writers who firmly believes that reading is essential to good writing, even if the books you read are purely for research and education. For the past several years (I’ve lost track) I’ve been participating in the Goodreads Reading Challenge and setting a goal for the number of books I’d like to read within the year. This year’s goal was 26 books –one for every two weeks of the year. I surpassed it easily, reading 39 books in 2018. However, that figure represents a decline in the amount of time I’ve spent writing –not exactly the goal I had in mind. Call me easily distracted!

I always vary the types of material I read: fiction, non-fiction and poetry. For  the exhaustive list of all the books I read this year, you can follow the link above to Goodreads if you want to have a look.  Here are some of the highlights of this year’s list:

In my ongoing research into World War One I read:

  • A Short History Of World War One – James L. Stokesbury
  • Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania – Erik Larson
  • The Spy – Paulo Coelho (about Mata Hare, alleged spy for the Germans)

In the realm of psychology and philosophy I read:

  • The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror – Thomas Ligotti (a real downer, let me tell you…)
  • The Divided Self: An Existential Study In Sanity and Madness – R.D. Laing (fascinating!)

And the other assorted non-fiction I read included:

  • Fear: Trump in the White House – Bob Woodward
  • Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil DeGrasse Tyson (fabulous read; very disappointed to hear the news regarding the author’s behavior)
  • In Cold Blood – Truman Capote (reads like a novel, but the story is true)
  • The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way – Bill Bryson (this author makes everything he writes about interesting!)

I indulged in several works of science fiction this year:

  • The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood (my new hero)
  • Artemis – Andy Weir (big disappointment)
  • Ubik – Philip K. Dick
  • A Pack of Dogs – Andrick Schall (fellow blogger and indie author)
  • The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick (nothing at all like the TV series, but I love both)
  • The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch – Philip K. Dick (my favorite of the three works by this author; a real mind bender)

Finally, I read a few classics that I never got to in required reading for school:

  • The Trial – Frank Kafka (such an excellent but frustrating read)
  • Metamorphosis – Frank Kafka (prompts pity and self examination)
  • Waiting for Godot – Samuel Beckett (so oddly compelling… nothing really happens)
  • Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
  • Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes (broke my heart)
  • The Golden Ass – Apuleius (translated from Latin, the only work of fiction to survive in entirety from antiquity and totally readable and entertaining!)

I am assembling my list for 2019 and setting my goal at 30 books. So tell me what books you read and enjoyed (or despised) this year.

Happy reading and writing in 2019!

Research Notes – The Great War (21) The Influenza Epidemic of 1918

Reworked and edited from an earlier post:

In researching for my story Here Lies a Soldier, I needed to educate myself on The Spanish Flu Epidemic: the plague that killed some 50 million people worldwide in 1918, more than 10 times the number killed by The Great War. I found an excellent book about the flu:  Living With Enza -The Forgotten Story Of Britain and the Great Flu Pandemic Of 1918. The author, Mark Honigsbaum, has compiled and sifted through a huge amount of data to write this book. Here are some of the things I found interesting and frankly, horrifying.

Some facts about influenza:

Influenza viruses spread aerially, usually in small droplets expelled when someone coughs or sneezes, and tend to be more stable in cool dry conditions. Researchers have also discovered that at around 5 degrees C (41 degrees Fahrenheit) the virus transmits for about 2 days longer than at 20 degrees. A popular (and morbid) children’s rhyme of the time may actually be spot on. It goes like this:

I had a little bird
Its name was Enza
I opened the window
And in-flu-enza

The Spanish Flu in particular:

The Spanish Flu was so virulent because of its genetic makeup. There are 3 types of influenza viruses: A, B, and C. The B type produces classic winter flu while the C type rarely causes disease in humans. The A type, however, is the one responsible for the great pandemics of history. Because viruses are not cells, they do not have DNA to organize their replication. Rather, they use 8 delicate strands of RNA which codes for proteins and enzymes on the surface of the virus. Trouble arises during replication because the RNA cannot copy perfectly. Errors called ‘antigenic drift’ occur when the avian or swine strain of the virus is exchanging genes with the human host.  The result is a new subtype of the virus. Then once inside the new host, the 8 strands of RNA randomly shuffle, generating an entirely new virus for which the human immune system has no antibodies. With no defense, the virus can spread like a wild-fire.

The rate of mortality fell disproportionally on young adults, usually the least vulnerable of a population. The 1918 flu struck suddenly and without warning. One moment a person was up and about, the next day they would be lying incapacitated, coughing up greenish-yellow sputum. The final stage came when their lungs filled with fluid, prompting the heart to leach oxygen from the head and feet, resulting in a dark purple staining across the lips and cheeks of the victim.

spanish_influenza.2e16d0ba.fill-1200x630-c0.jpg
Courtesy Philly Voice

Possible contributing factors:

The effects of gas attacks during the war.  Gasses like phosgene and chlorine were not only capable of disabling and killing on contact, they also acted as soil contaminants denying valuable ground to the enemy. In all, it is estimated that some 150,000 tons of poison gasses – the equivalent of a modern day supertanker – were dumped on the killing fields of Flanders and Northern France during the last 2 years of the war, saturating the soil to the point where it became impossible for attacking troops to hold territory without large numbers of men having to retreat to field hospitals with suppurating blisters, damaged lungs, and eyes.

The most mutagenic of all gasses – mustard gas – 12,000 tons of which was dumped on the Western Front in 1917, accounted for 400,000 casualties. According to John Oxford, Professor of virology at Queen Mary’s Medical School of London and military historian Douglas Gill: these agents may have prompted ‘stepwise mutational changes’ in the influenza virus. And in combination with the bitterly cold conditions that prevailed at the Western Front in the winter of 1917, and the stresses and strains of war, it is possible such contaminants would have lowered men’s resistance to the flu.

Though this particular strain of flu was traced to a United States Army barracks in Kansas (for more on that see Patient Zero: The Spanish Flu) it quickly spread all over North America and Europe. Some of it’s famous victims included: American President Woodrow Wilson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, German Kaiser Wilhelm II, Spain’s King Alfonso XIII, the future Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie, artist Edvard Munch, and celebrities Walt Disney, Lilian Gish, and Mary Pickford.

Header Image: courtesy health dot.am

Research Notes – The Great War (19) Isaac Rosenberg, War Poet

Isaac Rosenberg was one of six children born to Russian Jewish immigrants in London in November of 1890. He is known as an English poet, a Jewish poet, a war poet and a poet-painter. His career was cut short by The Great War and his body of work is thus thin. Many scholars believe the work he left behind was flawed but showed great promise had he been able to continue. Rosenberg fought in the war and was killed on April 1, 1918 in the Battle of Arras. His final poems written during his time in the fields of France have shown the potential for greatness which he was never able to fully realize.

“The tragedy of war gave [his] affinities full expression in his later poems, and as war became the universe of his poetry, the power of his Jewish roots and the classical themes became the sources of his moral vision as well as his poetic achievement.” – Thomas Staley, Dictionary of Literary Biography. Here is his poem: Break of Day In the Trenches:

Break Of Day In the Trenches

The darkness crumbles away–
It is the same old druid Time as ever.
Only a live thing leaps my hand–
A queer sardonic rat–
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German–
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver– what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and we are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with dust.

Header image: Self portrait 1915, Isaac Rosenberg