A timely, lucid look at the role of pandemics in history.



A long-view look at how viral and bacterial illnesses have influenced the course of human events.

The bad news is that today, heart attacks and strokes are the leading causes of death. The good news, writes development expert Kenny, is that this “is evidence of humanity’s greatest triumph: until recent decades, most people didn’t live long enough to die of heart failure.” Indeed, life expectancy has more than doubled around the world in the last 150 years, in part thanks to better diets and medical advances. The Covid-19 pandemic notwithstanding, infectious disease is not the devastating killer that it has been in the past, though it still kills plenty of people. The author charts the courses of those diseases, pegging their rising importance to the development of agriculture and the settling of humans in villages, towns, and cities, packed together to make a convenient target for such things as measles and cholera. “The more humans are loitering about,” writes Kenny, “the greater the chance of illness.” Some illnesses, such as trichinosis, have been all but eradicated, though in the case of that malady, Kenny hazards, it made for good enough reason for certain religious traditions to forbid the consumption of pork. New treatment methods, such as oral rehydration, have helped mitigate diarrheal diseases. Today, outside of Covid-19, many pandemic illnesses are lifestyle-related. As Kenny notes, these days, Chinese adults are about as likely to be obese as their American counterparts thanks to the availability of cheap processed food—and, he adds, “two out of five Earthlings have elevated blood pressure.” The downsides of the current pandemic are numerous, but, as Kenny demonstrates, revealing his developmental interests, the old Malthusian effects of plagues in reducing inequality no longer apply. Though the author’s popularizing approach is less scientifically rich than, say, David Quammen’s, it still stands in a long tradition of informative plagues-and-people books such as Hans Zinsser’s 1935 classic, Rats, Lice, and History.

A timely, lucid look at the role of pandemics in history.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-982165-33-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Nov. 11, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2020

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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A sweet-and-sour set of pieces on loss, absurdity, and places they intersect.


Sedaris remains stubbornly irreverent even in the face of pandemic lockdowns and social upheaval.

In his previous collection of original essays, Calypso (2018), the author was unusually downbeat, fixated on aging and the deaths of his mother and sister. There’s bad news in this book, too—most notably, the death of his problematic and seemingly indestructible father at 96—but Sedaris generally carries himself more lightly. On a trip to a gun range, he’s puzzled by boxer shorts with a holster feature, which he wishes were called “gunderpants.” He plays along with nursing-home staffers who, hearing a funnyman named David is on the premises, think he’s Dave Chappelle. He’s bemused by his sister Amy’s landing a new apartment to escape her territorial pet rabbit. On tour, he collects sheaves of off-color jokes and tales of sexual self-gratification gone wrong. His relationship with his partner, Hugh, remains contentious, but it’s mellowing. (“After thirty years, sleeping is the new having sex.”) Even more serious stuff rolls off him. Of Covid-19, he writes that “more than eight hundred thousand people have died to date, and I didn’t get to choose a one of them.” The author’s support of Black Lives Matter is tempered by his interest in the earnest conscientiousness of organizers ensuring everyone is fed and hydrated. (He refers to one such person as a “snacktivist.”) Such impolitic material, though, puts serious essays in sharper, more powerful relief. He recalls fending off the flirtations of a 12-year-old boy in France, frustrated by the language barrier and other factors that kept him from supporting a young gay man. His father’s death unlocks a crushing piece about dad’s inappropriate, sexualizing treatment of his children. For years—chronicled in many books—Sedaris labored to elude his father’s criticism. Even in death, though, it proves hard to escape or laugh off.

A sweet-and-sour set of pieces on loss, absurdity, and places they intersect.

Pub Date: May 31, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-316-39245-7

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: March 11, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2022

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