Scary Read: Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy

RabidA tip o’ the hat to my friend Kate, who pointed me to a podcast about the most fascinating story in this already-fascinating book a couple months ago.

Rabid, by veterinarian Monica Murphy and her husband, Wired editor Bill Wasik, examines rabies from a cultural standpoint — but you probably got that much from the title. I went in with the my knowledge of rabies confined to that one episode of The Office, something about twenty shots in your stomach, and a settled dislike for raccoons.

Now on the other side, I’ve got a better handle on the whole subject. The rabies vaccine is only four shots in one’s arm, for one thing. And rabies is the most deadly virus identified, with 100% human mortality (as far as we know) if the disease goes untreated. And 55,000 people die from rabies every year. I guess it’s only a joke if you live in Scranton.

The best chapters in Rabid deal with Pasteur, who invented the rabies vaccine, and with human survivors of rabies, Jeanna Giese in particular (whose case is the subject of that podcast), and how an island community like Bali deals with a sudden outbreak of the disease.

Less mesmerizing are the book’s forays into literary subjects the authors associate with rabies (the bit about the Iliad is particularly unfortunate); the authors are much better equipped to deal with the scientific and veterinary aspects of the disease’s history. Based on the last three chapters alone, Rabid is worth a look. And you’ll definitely look twice the next time you see a raccoon. Or a skunk. Or a stray dog.

Recommended Reading: Life Class and Toby’s Room, by Pat Barker

One of the many gifts my father has given me is sharing his lifelong interest in World War I, that brutal period in history that often disappears into its sequel’s shadow. The war was terrifying in its intensity, its stagnation, its sheer totality. And it also produced some of the finest poetry of the twentieth century before an entire generation of young poets, novelists, painters — an entire generation of young men — was wiped out.

[Which is not to say that that women didn’t suffer didn’t the war, or that there were no incredibly talented women writers and artists of the period; see my earlier post on Anna Akhmatova.]

Some other time I’ll write a post on my recommended reading on the war, but for now, let’s talk Pat Barker.

If you haven’t read Ms. Barker’s Regeneration trilogy (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road), drop everything and make a run for your neighborhood bookstore. The trilogy is complex and marvelous, focusing especially on the war’s psychological effects on soldiers. Particularly masterful is the way Barker blends fact and fiction; her characters interact with historical figures like Owen, Sassoon, and Graves. Readers with STEM proclivities will appreciate her fine understanding of scientific and medical concepts.

As you might imagine, I was delighted to run across Ms. Barker’s lastest book, Toby’s Room (2012), in our local library a few weeks ago. It wasn’t until I read the jacket copy after I finished the novel that I realized that Toby’s Room is a sequel of sorts to Life Class (2007), which I promptly found and read next. I say ‘a sequel of sorts’ because the timelines in the two books overlap, as do the characters, though the focus shifts among them. I would describe the two novels as companion pieces.

Both are concerned with trauma—emotional and physical, resulting from war and from domestic life—and its relationship to art. Once again, Ms. Barker’s characters blend seamlessly into a landscape populated by very real figures. Of particular interest is the work of Henry Tonks, which I won’t say much more about in order not to spoil the plot of the books.