book reviews

Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider: A book review

Historical photo of the 1918 Spanish influenza ward at Camp Funston, Kansas, showing the many patients ill with the flu- U.S. Army photographer

After the wonderful histories of Alfred Crosby and John Barry, readers might wonder if there is truly anything new left to write about the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed between 50 and 100 million people world-wide, at a time when the world’s population was much smaller. Laura Spinney’s detailed, beautifully written and insightful work shows how much study can yet be done on this topic.

As Spinney describes in the opening to her book, in the 1990s much of the writing on this pandemic had been done on Europe and the United States. Of course there were exceptions. In Canada Eileen Pettigrew created a rich narrative of people’s experiences from survivors accounts, while Betty O’Keefe and Ian MacDonald told the story of how medical officer Fred Underhill fought the disease in Vancouver, Canada. There were similar accounts of popular experiences with the pandemic in other countries, such as Australia and New Zealand. But voices in Asia, Latin America and Africa were often not included. Since the 1990s there has been a plethora of work in many different nations, at the same that scientific advances have made it possible to have a much better understanding of the pandemic.

Spinney’s history takes full advantage of this study. She also has a gift for seizing upon the lives of individuals to tell a broader story, whether it was a young man in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil or a scientist in Republican China. She weaves together these narratives to create an overarching view that is truly global. After reading the work I find myself curious to learn more details on individuals, such as a woman affected by the pandemic in South Africa, who then created a religious (and perhaps millenarian) movement.

While such individual accounts are powerful, I particularly like chapter fifteen, in which she described how the same virus had dramatically distinct impacts in different places. Why would the same disease cause mortality rates in excess of 80 percent in some remote Alaskan and Labradoran villages, and far lower rates elsewhere? Of course, the flu was not unique in this respect. I wrote an entire book trying to understand the diversity of HIV epidemics in Latin America. What is perhaps most striking to me is that after a century of earnest study, many of these questions remain unanswered.

What is clear was that the pandemic utterly devastated some locations. In Western Samoa, twenty-two percent of the population died. In the Pacific, on the island of Vanuatu perhaps 20 languages died because of the heavy mortality that the virus brought. Given Brazil’s catastrophic response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the disproportionate impact that the virus is having on Brazil’s Indigenous peoples, might something similar happen in the Amazon rain forest now? As Spinney states, there was a strange paradox to the virus. Cities often saw high mortality rates, but isolation caused terrible vulnerabilities in remote communities.

What was also striking to me was her discussion of the influenza’s aftermath. In part, this was reflected in such societal trends as a loss of faith in science. Will we be struck by a similar trend with COVID-19? But there was also a physical legacy of the virus, as many people suffered either psychological trauma over the loss of loved ones, or debilitating physical effects that lingered long after the virus was gone. Of these, perhaps the most famous was encephalitis lethargica. While it cannot be proven that the 1918 influenza pandemic caused this disorder -again so much remains unknown about this tragedy- the onset of the one was accompanied by the emergence of the other, as some people remained paralyzed -but apparently aware- for decades. Will COVID-19 have similar health effects that linger for more than a generation? The thought is chilling, given that one recent pre-publication from Korea just reported that up to 90 percent of COVID-19 survivors still report symptoms months later.

Still, what most struck me is that we are now having the same debates now that we had over a century ago: “One 2007 study showed that public health measures such as banning mass gatherings and imposing the wearing of masks collectively cut the death toll in some American cities by up to 50 percent (the US was much better at imposing such measures than Europe).” While now it is the US struggling to persuade its citizenry to wear masks, there is a haunting quality to the debates from this time. Some challenges that faced public health authorities then echo during the COVID-19 pandemic now, although (as far as I know) the death threats and public vilification of public health leaders was uncommon in America a century ago. So perhaps things have gotten worse. Spinney’s last two chapters are remarkably prescient for a book that was published in 2018.

I’ve spend much of the last twenty years working on public policy and infectious disease, first with my book on HIV/AIDS, and more recently with Zika and avian influenza. Some factors are constant, such as the fact that conspiracy theories emerge with every pandemic. One of the most common human urges when faced with an outbreak is to find someone to blame. But what depresses me is that I don’t think the historical studies or public policy achievements make much difference in the long run. In 2018 I published an article on wet markets in Hong Kong, which recommended that the special administrative region consider closing them. Of course, COVID-19 did not emerge in Hong Kong, but likely from a wet market in eastern China. One of the reasons that I hate conspiracy theories is that the distract from the real actions that could make people safer. They also make pandemics and outbreaks seem mysterious and unpredictable.

In fact, people have been studying coronaviruses in China since SARS emerged in 2003 precisely because such an event might take place. This was entirely predictable. As I said in an earlier blog post, how much human suffering might have been avoided if China’s wild game markets -which particularly cater to an older and wealthier clientele- had been closed. Yet even the Chinese government -with all its power and influence- either would not or could not do this. And now social media accounts spread tales that this outbreak is caused by 5G, and people in Britain burn cell towers. Two million people have died globally and winter is drawing closer in the northern hemisphere. We all know what happened in November 1918. Now we must now hope that a different virus will have a dissimilar impact.

Yet behind the scenes scientists have laid the groundwork that will allow for vaccines to be more quickly developed, because much basic science work has been completed. For all the frustration with sciences’ failures and limitations, the hope that we have now doesn’t come from conspiracy narratives -which don’t lead to any constructive steps- but from the often ignored work by nearly anonymous scientists in global laboratories. This work lacks the drama of the conspiracy theories, but the time-consuming and methodical study has laid the groundwork for the greatest vaccine push in human history. Conspiracy theories are easy to create. Real public policy or scientific advances are far more difficult, time-consuming and (often) difficult to understand. Spinney’s work is built upon a detailed examination of both the historical and scientific literature that has been built up over the last century, particularly the last twenty years.

It has long gone out of fashion in academia to look for lessons or a moral in history. But if this line of thinking is taken too far, it might lead people to question the value of history entirely. If historical study cannot give us lessons for the present period, isn’t it little more than a hobby for the affluent few? Laura Spinney’s brilliant book shows how a careful understanding of history can provide us the context to better understand current challenges. Sadly, in this current moment, it’s probably difficult to interest people in reading a work about a past outbreak. Spinney’s magisterial, carefully researched and beautifully written book deserves a broad audience. Highly recommended.


Spinney, Laura. Pale Rider : The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World. First US Trade Paperback ed. New York: PublicAffairs, 2018.

See also the following works for more reading on this topic.

Barry, John M. The Great Influenza : The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. New York: Viking, 2004.

Crosby, Alfred W. America’s Forgotten Pandemic. West Nyack: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Canadian popular histories:

O’Keefe, Betty, and Ian Macdonald. Dr. Fred and the Spanish lady: Fighting the killer flu. Heritage House Publishing Co, 2004. (Full disclosure: this press also published my history of an evil spirit in Algonquian belief. Please note that I have no control over the price of physical copies of this book on Amazon, which sometimes surges to hundreds of dollars for mysterious reasons. So if you click on this link for my book, please don’t send me unhappy emails to complain about the book’s price).

Pettigrew, Eileen The silent enemy: Canada and the deadly flu of 1918. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1983.

Shawn Smallman

Lines of Light: a book review

Dan Nott’s brilliant graphic novel

Lines of Light is a graphic novel by Dan Nott, which examines the “history and geography of the internet.” I was fortunate enough to meet the author at the Massachusetts Independent Comic Expo, which was held at Lesley University. This quarter I am teaching two courses on related topics (Digital Globalization as well as CyberWar and Espionage), so I was curious to view this work. This graphic novel is exceptional not only because it is visually engaging, but also because it takes a completely unexpected view of something that we all assume we understand. With his clear, concise prose to describe a physical world that we all rely upon, this book is filled with unexpected facts and insights.

One of the approaches that Nott takes is too look at how we use metaphors to talk about the internet, which can sometimes be misleading. The book starts with Senator Ted Stephens at the net neutrality hearing of 2006, where he tried too use a failed metaphor to describe the internet. From this moment, the work moves to consider more broadly how we all talk about the internet, and how accurate that language may be. While it might be easy to mock Senator Stephens, most of us also wrestle to describe something so abstract. Nott’s brilliance is being able to take these metaphors and place them into both a historical and a physical context, which is grounded by the detailed maps and imagery of the infrastructure that supports the internet. …

Book Review of Diniz’s Zika

Diniz, D., & Grosklaus Whitty, Diane R. (2017). Zika : From the Brazilian backlands to global threat. London: Zed Books.

This brief book is built upon extensive ethnographic fieldwork with mothers, doctors and scientists during Brazil’s Zika outbreak. The translation from Portuguese by Diane Grosklaus Whitty is masterful. Translation is always hard, and I have read too many books by Brazilian authors that suffered from overly formal wording, or endless run-on sentences. On a very small scale I understand this challenge from translating quotes in my first two books, for which I could easily spend an hour for a single statement. Of course, a developed narrative -with multiple voices-  is an exceptional challenge.  Diniz was very fortunate with her or the press’s choice for a translator. The prose is clear, energetic and yet still carries the feel and beauty of Portuguese. …

A book review: A Great Aridness

Colorado River Basin Map. By Shannon1 (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
DeBuys’ book, A great aridness: climate change and the future of the American southwest, examines how the West will adapt to drying and warming in an era of climate change. Despite the complexity of the issues involved, deBuys is able to convey his key ideas in poetic language, while never oversimplifying his topic. This is a book written by someone with a deep knowledge and love of the southwest. He begins his work by discussing the earlier peoples of the Southwest -such as the Ancestral Puebloans/Anasazi and Hohokam- and their own experience of drought and water management. He then moves on to discuss the central issues of water distribution in the modern era. Why are Arizona’s water rights junior to those of California, so that that in a crisis California will receive its allocation of water, while Arizona’s will be cut? The answers are as fascinating as they are strange.

The central theme of denial runs throughout this work. People don’t want to know the details of how they receive water, or how vulnerable Lake Meade may be. Real estate developers in particular do not want an informed community discussion of this topic. Meanwhile, pragmatic water managers are working to build a water intake drain at the very bottom of Lake Meade. While the book focuses on the American southwest, its central issue is that of climate change, which is why I am reviewing it in a course on global studies. The American southwest is a case study for the future, with applicability from Portugal to Iraq.

The U.S. southwest faces sustained warming and drying, even as more people move into the sunbelt in coming decades. The environment that these people enter will change drastically within their lifetimes. In Chapter 2 “Oracle: Global Change Type Drought,” deBuys examines the impact that climate change will have upon entire ecosystems. On page 46, deBuys has a map of Western forests that are being decimated by the spruce beetle, the mountain pine beetle, and the Piñon Ips beetle. The damage extends as far north as the Yukon. My own family lives in British Columbia, where entire swathes of the north have turned red with the needles of dying trees. De Buys describes what may lay in store for the north: …

Shadow Government

Tom Englehardt. Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World. Preface. Glenn Greenwald. Chicago: Haymarket books, 2014.

“Yes we scan – Demo am Checkpoint Charlie.” By Digitale Gesellschaft (DSC_0121 Uploaded by NoCultureIcons) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Tom Engelhardt’s book Shadow Government is an engagingly written and interesting critique of the U.S. National Security state, which he compares to a religion (p. 6). He begins his work with a colorful description of U.S. military power, which he contrasts with the nation’s military failures. In his eyes, U.S. citizens have abandoned fundamental rights to an unaccountable elite, without any real threat to justify these choices: “Had you been able to time-travel back to the Cold War era to inform Americans that, in the future, our major enemies would be Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Libya, and so on, they would surely have thought you mad” (p. 39).

A key focus of the book is the vast scale of the U.S. security state, and the virtual autonomy that security agencies have acquired. These organizations no longer conceal their activities behind a veil of “plausible deniability.” Instead, they publicize drone strikes (p. 26-27). His ultimate argument is that the U.S. is a rogue superpower, which has vast powers even though it is ultimately ineffective. Chapter four is titled “Mistaking Omniscience for Omnipotence.” …

A very expensive poison, a book review

“The reception room in the building of the Federal Security Service.” RIA Novosti archive, image #98400 / Vladimir Fedorenko / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Luke Harding’s, A Very Expensive Poison, describes how Russian security services murdered dissident Alexander Litivenko in 2006. While the study of the assassination itself is detailed, riveting, and depressing, the true horror is the picture that the book paints of the Russian state. According to Harding’s detailed and well-sourced account, Russia’s senior leaders -including Vladimir Putin himself- are deeply involved in corruption and organized crime. As such, the book is not the story of one man’s death, but also an indictment of an entire government.

The FSB is the successor agency to the much feared Russian KGB. Litvinenko had served as an agent within the organization, and even briefly met with Putin itself. Disillusioned with the FSB’s criminality he defected to the West with the aid of a Russian oligarch, and began to work for the British intelligence service, M-16.

The Russian state had many secrets to keep. I’ve made an academic study of conspiracy theories related to everything from the 2009 H1N1 “Swine flu” pandemic, to (with my colleague Leopoldo Rodriguez) the death of Argentine prosecutor Nisman. This man died hours before he had been scheduled to testify before Congress regarding the 1994 AMIA bombing. Conspiracy theories are interesting, because sometimes conspiracies do happen. Whether a narrative represents an accurate depiction of facts, or is part of an irrational worldview characterized by paranoia, is always a judgement call. In the case of Russia, there are numerous examples of conspiracy narratives of uncertain validity. For example, Harding discusses (50-51) the apartment bombings that provided the justification for the Russian invasion of Chechnya. Litvinenko argued in a book, Blowing Up Russia, that the Russian FSB itself had undertaken this attack as a false flag event. To the best of my knowledge no important new information to support this argument has emerged since the book’s publication, and the truth of this assertion is unclear. Given the seriousness of this allegation, however, it’s unsurprising that Litvinenko would fear Russia’s security services. Still, what drew him to Russian attention, Harding suggests, was not his work with M-16, but rather Spanish intelligence services. The Spanish state was investigating Russian organized crime’s activities (money laundering, bank fraud, real estate purchases, etc) in their own country. The Spanish authorities found evidence of close collaboration between Russian criminals and government authorities in their home country. …

Nanjing: the Burning City

Nanking bodies 1937. Originally by Moriyasu Murase, 村瀬守保 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
China’s relationship with Japan has been strained ever since World War Two by what it has perceived to be Japan’s failure to acknowledge and atone for its wartime crimes. Iris Chang wrote a wonderfully researched academic book on this topic, “the Rape of Nanking.” This is still perhaps the best scholarly study of this event, although it was published in 1997. I love, however, graphic novels. Earlier on this blog I discussed Shigeru Mizuki’s Showa, a cycle of graphic novels examining war-era Japan, which is a richly researched and moving account of this time. Recently I also came across Ethan Young’s Nanjing: the Burning City, published by Dark Horse Books. This beautiful and well-written book tells the story of the Rape of Nanjing through the eyes of one individual soldier. This work describes the pathos and chaos of a world in which individuals had to choose whom they could help, and difficult moral choices awaited people at every step. Be warned that this book deals with graphic and disturbing material, including sexual violence, as one would expect. When one finishes the book, one understands why the memory of this event continues to haunt Chinese-Japanese relations. The book also speaks to issues that are relevant to more recent conflicts, such as events in Syria. Strongly recommended.

Shawn Smallman, 2016

The Beauty of Strange Things Done

My sister, Ellen Wild, has a mystery novel set in the Yukon, which will be released tomorrow. Check out the Dawson Daily, for the latest Yukon news, with a strange twist. And if you are a mystery lover, please watch the trailer for Strange Things Done.

Shawn Smallman, 2016

The art of Strange Things Done

I love mystery novels, and northern mysteries in particular. My sister, Ellen Wild, has a new book Strange Things Done coming out this September. The lead character of the novel is Jo Silver; after a body is found in the Yukon river, she is drawn into a mystery that leads her to fear for her own life. You can hear about the local reaction to the body’s discovery in this brief video. I love the visual look of the website for the book, with the superimposed photos of an old Yukon building and a cemetery. This aesthetic carries through to the trailer for the book, which she filmed in the Yukon. The imagery -the woman’s hair in the river, the ice, Brandy Zdan’s music, the quirky northern bar, the barking dog- create an atmospheric glimpse of a town with secrets. Think a northern Twin Peaks. The book already has won an impressive set of awards:

2015 Unhanged Arthur Award for Best Unpublished First Crime Novel ― Winner
2014 Telegraph/Harvill Secker Crime Competition ― Shortlisted
2014 Southwest Writers Annual Novel Writing Contest ― Silver Winner
2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award ― Longlisted

You can find preorder the book (in the United States for October 18, 2016 or Canada for September 24, 2016) before “the freeze-up hits and the roads close.”

Shawn Smallman, 2016

Strange Things Done, quote by Ian Hamilton

The frightening truth of Area 51

Dwight John Zimmerman has authored Area 51 in collaboration with artist Greg Scott, to tell the location of this key aeronautical research location in Groom Lake, Nevada. Of course, Area 51 is a favorite of UFO buffs and conspiracy theorists, and both these topics are covered (p. 3-8, 15, 51). These ideas, however, are not the core of this work of graphic non-fiction. Instead, this is a sweeping historical study, which describes the successes and failures that the U.S. intelligence and military services experienced while developing new aviation technologies at Area 51.

What is impressive is the quantity of material that Zimmerman is able to cover in 91 pages. Greg Scott’s realistic style works well with this content. Many of the black and white sketches remind one of period photographs. Scott is equally adept at capturing the look of advanced aircraft or a battle field. The text and images meld well together.

What most interested me about the work, however, was its extensive discussion of drones, particularly their early history (p. 42-50). Today global powers are discussing creating drone submarines, and even drone submarine hunters. In Northwest Pakistan and Yemen the United States has been carrying out an undeclared war. With a recent drone strike in Libya, the scale of the conflict seems to be expanding. This technology has developed with amazing speed.

As Zimmerman discusses, the United States invested vast amounts of time, funds and expertise into drone development in the early 1960s. For example, in 1964 the United States used drones to carry out “160 reconnaissance missions over China” (p. 44). Remarkably, in 1962 the United States began work on a Mach 3 drone, which proved unsuccessful (45). The scale of American investments is fascinating, but in the end Zimmerman argues that the U.S. failed, because the key technology to enable drones to work had not yet been developed.

By the 1980s, the situation had changed. Zimmerman describes (p. 65-73) how the rapid increase in microprocessor speeds permitted the U.S. air force to create a new generation of drones. The first drone was used in a combat theater in 1999 during the conflict over Kosovo. Scott’s images (p. 73) capture the rapid evolution in drones’ capabilities, from being tasked with aerial reconnaissance, to being used to accurately deliver laser guided bombs upon particular individuals. As Zimmerman makes clear, the U.S. is currently developing a host of new drones, which even include helicopters (p. 88).

In an earlier blog post I reviewed the book Ghost Fleet, which described a hypothetical future conflict between the United States and China, in which drones played a central and horrifying role. The groundwork for these robotic conflicts is being laid now. While cyberwarfare -such as the Stuxnet attack on Iran’s nuclear program- has attracted the attention of security theorists, I believe that drones merit equal attention or more. Few people are regularly being killed in cyber warfare, but this is not the case with drones. While the United States took an early and impressive lead, other countries are now rapidly developing these technologies, particularly in Asia. The area of the world that is now seeing the most sustained and significant growth in military spending is Asia, and these expenditures are largely being driven by the issue of the South China sea. If one were to see the emergence of a major conflict in which drones played a central role, this would certainly be the most likely location. If so, doubtless some of the drones involved will have been designed in Area 51.

Scott and Zimmerman’s book is well-written, beautifully illustrated, and compelling. Highly recommended for anyone interested in military technology and Area 51. The truth is out there.

Do you want to read about a true historical mystery? Please read my post about the ghost ship the Baltimore, and the mystery woman who was found aboard after the entire crew disappeared.

Shawn Smallman, 2016

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