Maddening and sobering—as comprehensive an account of the first year of the pandemic as we’ve yet seen.

THE PLAGUE YEAR

AMERICA IN THE TIME OF COVID

The Pulitzer Prize–winning author and journalist turns to an enterprise fraught with political implication: the rise and spread of Covid-19.

In 2019, the Department of Health and Human Services conducted an exercise premised on the scenario that “an international group of tourists visiting China” were “infected with a novel influenza, and then spread it across the world.” As Wright delineates, the results were not inspiring. The Trump administration admitted that the response was chaotic, with no clear chain of command and inadequate response. In the end, the influenza was projected to kill 586,000 Americans—not far from the mark of those who died in the U.S. in the pandemic’s first year. That report was buried. In China, where the virus first emerged, the government forbade doctors to wear protective gear, jailed those who tried to alert the public, and underestimated the number of dead in the first wave by tenfold. When Trump came into office, Wright notes, his administration “was handed the keys to the greatest medical-research establishment in the history of science.” Of course, it wasted the resource, politicized federal science, and tried to wish the plague away. In his characteristically rigorous and engrossing style, Wright documents innumerable episodes of ineptitude and malfeasance even as Trump officials such as Peter Navarro privately reckoned that “a full-blown…pandemic could infect as many as 100 million Americans.” The author also argues that Trump, infected with the virus at a rally in which he refused to wear a mask, was much sicker than was revealed and was terrified at the prospect of dying. Still, he consistently failed to develop a national response, so the “pandemic was broken into fifty separate epidemics.” Particularly compelling is Wright’s straight-line connection of the Jan. 6 Capitol invasion and Trump’s failed attempt to maintain power to the destabilizing effects of the plague.

Maddening and sobering—as comprehensive an account of the first year of the pandemic as we’ve yet seen.

Pub Date: June 8, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-32072-3

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 31, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2021

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

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY

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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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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