Tag Archives: plague

I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter – Lynn Cullen

Cornelia van Rijn lives in dire, dirty poverty with a genius who acts more mad every day. Her mother is dead of plague, her beloved brother Titus marries well and leaves her to look after Rembrandt. The painter is incorrigible and the only attention he pays to his daughter is to criticize and to foil her at every turn. Cornelia knows everything there is to know about painting but girls don’t paint. And girls whose fathers paint strange, dark, thickly-pasted work that no one will buy have few prospects. Then Cornelia meets Carel, the son of a wealthy shipping family, who loves painting and who is attracted to the proud, shabby girl with more on her mind than fans, gloves and flirtations.

Lynn Cullen has sketched a world rich in detail and rife with tragedy for her 17th century heroine. I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter is a convincing historical YA that is a pleasure to read and fascinating to unravel. Who is the strange man Cornelia sees wandering past their house so often while her mother is alive? Why does her father ignore her and why did he never marry her mother? How does he keep painting, day after day, claiming to channel visions from a God he doesn’t even believe in? How hard would it be to turn out the light, smooth paintings that collectors would actually buy? And why does Rembrandt forbid Cornelia to see Carel, the only bright spot of hope in her drab life?

Plague revisits the city. Rembrandt’s paintings are refused and he has only one pupil left, the earnest Neel who worships him and is drawn to Cornelia. As she is pulled deeper and deeper into a mystery about her life she can’t begin to unravel, she discovers a nude portrait of her mother hidden in the attic and is shocked at the impropriety and the implication. Her beloved mother was just Rembrandt’s nude model and lover. No wonder the painter treats her with disdain. And yet, more complex explanations seethe just under the surface.

Very good YA. The historical is the reason for the story so this is not just a mindless boyfriend novel to hook teenage girls. Cornelia has more than a prom date at stake and the deaths in her world aren’t just a reaction to dysfunction. Yet her issues, the impossibility of claiming a career as an artist, the uncertainty of her place in a family, the confusion about who she really is, are as urgent and inescapable as any coming-of-age story. This one gains some heft from its undeniably serious core. A fairly quick read and an enjoyable one. I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter is a book title that contains a clue to the momentous choice Cornelia will have to make.

I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter   Lynn Cullen | Bloomsbury   2007

Flu – Gina Kolata

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In the vague chronicles of family history acquired piecemeal in childhood there are always mysterious bits that get added in later or never quite seem to fit. My maternal grandmother told me once, when I was complaining about my little sisters no doubt, about her sister—a young woman named Josie whom she adored. Josie loved the theater, an ethnic, vaudevillian, song-and-dance entertainment that appealed to immigrants at the turn of the century in New York. And she had a talent for it and could sing, all aptitudes destined to go unremarked in the conservative Catholic world in which she came of age.

“What happened to her?” I asked, imagining a relative to claim who became famous on Broadway or in the Ziegfeld Follies. But there was no celebrity grand-aunt shining on my family tree. Josie died in 1918 in the great flu epidemic. Her young husband died, too. Years later I would find out from my mother that Josie’s two-year-old son was taken in by my newly married grandmother and raised as her own child. The 1918 flu claimed more than 19,000 young people in New York in the space of a few months, half-a-million in the U.S., more than 21 million worldwide. In that deadly year, the flu killed more people than World Wars I and II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined.   

Gina Kolata’s dramatic reconstruction of the lethal influenza pandemic and the late 20th-century scientific struggle to isolate its cause is a real page-turner. Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It adds up the staggering human cost of a virulent killer that struck overnight and altered the course of history. The facts of the suffering and death, the instantaneous spread of the incurable, horrible plague and the futile efforts to contain and cure it are stunning. The contemporary race to find the DNA of the virus in decades-old tissue samples stored in warehouses, or harvested from exhumed bodies beneath the northern permafrost is as theatrical as science gets.

When Kolata researched and wrote her book, scientists were deeply immersed in isolating genetic information to identify the cause of the rapid deaths from the 1918 flu. People who complained of a fever and headaches sickened so rapidly that they were often dead within days—or hours. They died painfully as their lungs filled up with blood-tinged liquid and suffocated them. Their skin darkened and feet blackened and there was no relief for their agony. So many people died so quickly that there were no morgues, undertaker parlors, cemetery plots or caskets to handle the bodies. “Plague” victims were sometimes left on door steps for collection like garbage and disposition in mass graves. Survivors were terrified of becoming infected.

The flu took young adults in the healthy prime of life. It often spared babies, toddlers and the elderly, typically the first victims of flu outbreaks. No one understood the mysterious killer but the world reeled under the impact of rapid spread and massive death counts. In a sense, our panicked reaction to flu outbreaks like SARS and Swine Flu stems from the indelible terror impressed on every society by the 1918 flu. Kolata creates vivid images of expeditions to find tissue samples, meticulous and arduous laboratory procedures, years of disappointments and the rare breakthrough that advanced the quest for knowledge. The book is an amazing read.

Some of the scientists conducting experiments and research when Kolata wrote Flu have since concluded that the epidemic of 1918 was a cause-and-effect killer. In 2008, they announced that the strain of flu in 1918 stripped the nose and throat of its protective cells, allowing deadly strains of bacterial pneumonia to invade the body and destroy its host. Modern medicine had not advanced enough at the time to find and stop the virus or protect those who first sickened from deteriorating further. The researchers speculate that a large number of people would have been saved if there were antibiotics to counter the bacteria infections.

In 1918, as WW I raged and the disease decimated military bases, cities and industries, the blow dealt by the flu pandemic was not easily absorbed. It had far reaching economic and human consequences. Most families can trace losses to the devastating outbreak. I wonder what difference Josie would have made to our family had she lived well into her eighties, like my grandmother. Some of the questions raised by contemplation of a plague can never be answered in a lab, or a book.

Flu : The Story Of The Great Influenza Pandemic  Gina Kolata | Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2000

A Murderous Procession — Ariana Franklin

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Adelia Aguilar is a medical doctor in the court of Henry Plantagenet. It is 1176 and Henry’s 10-year-old daughter with Eleanor of Aquitaine, Joanna, will be making a perilous journey through Europe during a time of wars, Catholic persecution and plagues. Joanna is betrothed to William of Sicily, a political tactic to ensure loyalty and peace on Henry’s southern flank. Henry has chosen Adelia, a native Sicilian and the only real doctor at his disposal, to safeguard Joanna en route to the wedding. In order to ensure Adelia’s return, Henry places her 9-year-old daughter in the care of the imprisoned Eleanor.

In A Murderous Procession, Ariana Franklin sets the scene for adventure and mayhem and serves up an impressive amount of both. A psychopath travels with the entourage, bent on exacting retribution for the death of his rapacious outlaw lover. The sword Excalibur, discovered by Adelia and presented to the king, accompanies them as a gift to the King of Sicily. Along on the journey are Adelia’s lover Rowley, the father of her child, and a puzzling sea captain with his own motives to subvert the outcome of the trip.

People begin to die and Adelia diagnoses murder, not accident. Then she becomes suspect as a dark enchantress; someone is setting her up for a heinous crime. As disasters dog the expedition, slowing progress and keeping Adelia from returning to England and her child, various of Henry’s sons make their appearances, Joanna proves to be a resilient and affable child, and Adelia reluctantly accepts that her life is in danger and that she may never make it home.

The subterfuge essential to maintaining respectability involves Mansur, an Arab eunuch posing as the doctor to cover for Adelia who is forbidden to practice medicine because she is a woman. The princess’ ladies-in-waiting are a flitty, venomous lot, with one useful exception. The intricate strategy that implicates Adelia in the disturbing deaths that slow and frighten the procession is a net that tightens around her. The threat of burning at the stake is all too real and the travelers fall victim to lethal physical ills that nearly wipe out the entourage.

Characters in A Murderous Procession are complex and interesting. Adelia is a likable and real protagonist and her companions are fully drawn and believable. The descriptions of the towns, countryside and people encountered by the royal party are as compelling as the plot. And the Church, with its backward clergy and horrifying consequences, is wickedly depicted and as dangerous as the madman biding his time to commit his final crime.

Ariana Franklin has written an entertaining murder mystery with a credible historical setting that is woven seamlessly into the plot. A Murderous Procession, second in the series A Mistress in the Art of Death, is a perfect escape book. I will definitely place the first novel on hold at the library to see what led to the challenges Adelia encounters in this one—and to slip back into her world for the space of a few pleasant hours.

 A Murderous Procession  Ariana Franklin | G.P. Putnam’s Sons   2010

The Changeling of Finnistuath Kate Horsley

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Kate Horsley’s The Changeling of Finnistuath throws a harsh light on the quotidian of a dark time in Ireland, that period of western European history with scant records to document its cataclysmic changes. The changeling of the title is a girl-baby passed off as a boy to fool a half-wit goatherd father who has threatened to kill any more female infants in his half-starved household.

The baby is named Gregory for her father as his “first-born son” and nicknamed Grey. She is carefully minded by her mother and the close-lipped village midwife who keeps the secrets of the whole populace. Grey grows up wanting to be a warrior and learning the arts of a son, not a daughter. She thinks she is deformed and cooperates with hiding her true gender from her peers and the adults.

The small Irish village, really a scattering of peasant dwellings around a noble’s manor house, is a backward place of illiterate households, inchoate longings, garbled religion and pagan superstition. A traveling tinker brings trinkets to trade and sell and news of the outside world. A bailiff keeps careful records of the impossible debts people owe that keep them enslaved. The arrogant noble family rides roughshod over the countryside. Grey is eventually traded to the local priest in repayment of the debt for baptizing him/her.

The priest,  who claims bits of cow bone he collects are holy relics, begins the practice of offering Grey as a sexual object to elicit favors from high places. She is veiled and set naked for the noble’s sensitive son to encounter by a sacred spring for the priest’s benefit. She is traded to a botanist-monk from a nearby monastery, again for advantage to the priest. The monk deploys her in the monastery for the same purpose, only now she is passed off as a deaf-mute, blindfolded so she cannot see the monks who make use of her. Grey begins to respond to one anonymous monk whose emotional needs affect her as much as his sexual fumblings.

Plague hits Ireland and England hard and decimates the monastery population. The religious community has already been fatally weakened by a visit from a brutal papal emissary who threatens to close it down. Worse, the abbot is missing a Church treasure entrusted to him by the Avignon pope, a jeweled box stolen by the tinker, containing a handwritten account that could irreparably damage papal claims about the divinity of Jesus. As the abbot’s congregation lies feverish and festering with fatal sores, Grey discovers that her sympathetic lover has been the abbot himself and the power in their relationship shifts.

Pregnancy, plague, motherhood, travel, abandonment, sanctuary, searing loss and disillusion twist Grey’s tale this way and that. Her years as a mis-gendered child have both strengthened her and fatally severed her sense of self. Her child is the first anchor to an identity that allows her some peace.

But life was brutish, nasty and short in that dark age and no one escapes unscathed. The tinker reenters Grey’s life as does the noble’s son—both have a profound effect on her. She endures loss, dislocation, betrayal and confusion and finds solace and security that are tragically short-lived.

The Changeling of Finnistuath is a densely woven tapestry of history and human emotion. The account is disturbing for the inhumanity evidenced by the wealthy and powerful members of its cast and the intolerance of a nascent Catholic Church amassing power and riches as it crafts a religion to serve its worldly ends. Resourceful and resilient peasants adapt, thrive, fall from grace, survive and adapt again. Horsley’s writing is evocative and beautiful and her characters capture the human spirit in all its many guises. Even as it delivers a revelatory history lesson, Grey’s story and the events of her time, make you think about the legacy of that age in our own.    

The Changeling of Finnistuath: A Novel  Kate Horsley  Shambala  2003