Epidemics and Society (2020)

Book Review

Snowden, F. (2020). Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present. New Haven: Yale University Press. 582pp.

Frank Snowden’s Epidemics and Society is a comprehensive examination of major epidemics in global history. The book does not provide a sweeping analysis of all epidemics, given lack of space and time, and acknowledges in the introduction the need to focus on specific changes in epidemiology, public and global health, political structures, and social welfare that have contributed to the development of and response to epidemics in human societies. Snowden focuses on plague, smallpox, yellow fever, dysentery, typhus, cholera, tuberculosis, malaria, polio, HIV/AIDS, SARS, and ebola to paint a vast portrait of the development of epidemics. The book excels at describing key historical frames, particularly how medical knowledge has evolved as a result of pandemic crisis. The paperback issue contains a preface about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and forewarns that much can be learned from reflecting on past epidemics.

Readers will enjoy the book in sections – for fear of intellectual fatigue, given the tome’s breadth. Nevertheless, Epidemics and Society aspires to make the content accessible for the general public and thus maintains an accessible register that provides greater nuance to an otherwise daunting subject. The book is richly research (as part of years of teaching materials for coursework at Yale University), which will serve both the lay reader and the scholar well in their endeavours to understand ongoing epidemics in society. A highly recommended text for those new to the field of infectious disease or interested in learning more about the social history of health and illness.

The Rules of Contagion (2020)

Book Review

Kucharski, A. (2020). The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread – and Why They Stop. London: Profile Books.

Adam Kucharski’s The Rules of Contagion is perhaps nicely and equally poorly timed in its release, amidst the COVID-19 global pandemic. The text offers insight into contemporary sources of contagion, first, using simple and accessible language to demonstrate the utility and effectiveness of epidemiological approaches to disease pandemics, including ebola, HIV, and influenza. In the latter half of the book, Kucharski attempts to tie disease pathology into economic, behavioural, psychological and technological analyses, extrapolating epidemiological knowledge into formative societal structures and historical events (e.g. the 2008 financial crisis). Most notable about this latter half is the author’s delineation of social media contagion, carefully balancing both the benefits and dangers of online contagion – “going viral” on social media vs. computer viruses. Largely, the book broaches a huge range of epistemological assertions, placing it firmly in the domain of popular science. The book loses steam around chapter three, despite an attempt to create a wide-ranging theory of contagion. As other reviewers have aptly noted, the final two chapters read more like a confirmation and reiteration of contagion – sort of doctoral “case studies” following rigorous and tightly-woven theory. Readers invested in the evolving COVID-19 pandemic will be especially drawn to chapters 1-2. Enthusiasts of pandemics, medical historians, epidemiologists and other pop-science readers might find the book as a whole interesting as a ruminative, though small, addition to academic scholarship on global networks, virality, social media and the Internet.

Gay, Straight & the Reason Why (2010)

Book Review

LeVay, S. (2010). Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Orientation. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 264 pp.

Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why (2010) explores the psychobiology of sexual orientation. It examines and reflects upon a century worth of research about sexual desire, attraction, physiology and genetics. The book reads largely as a meta-analysis of the field, but LeVay maintains that in order to understand discussions about the “gay gene,” we need to look at how discourses about biology and sexuality have shaped our understanding of both human desire as well as the sciences that study those desires. LeVay is a notable neuroscientist whose research about gay and lesbian genetic variation has helped to develop theses about the evolutionary significance of homosexuality. The book is, at times, frustrating because it acknowledges the relative lack of replicable research to support claims about the biological nature of homosexuality (and largely absents bisexuality within its discussion of human sexuality). Thus, the book serves as a reminder that much of the research is still speculative and theoretical. Nevertheless, it provides an interesting look into contemporary developments in neuroscience, social science and psychology, all seeking to understand the exchanges that occur between the social values of sexuality and some of their biological underpinnings.

The Monogamy Gap (2012)

Book Review, SRE

Anderson, E. (2012). The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love, and the Reality of Cheating. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 231 pp.

The Monogamy Gap (2012) is a sociological, academic text that explores the realities of monogamy, cheating among male-identified people, and cultures of sex and sexual intimacy. Anderson provides a broad range of approaches, across sociology, anthropology, evolutionary psychology, neuropsychology and biology, which makes this study accessible not only for sexologists and sociologists of sexuality, but also scholars interested in theories of social desire, the psychology of sex, and cultural theories of sexuality and polyamory. His theory of dyadic dissonance (referring to the cognitive dissonance that occurs within monogamist cultures) is generally accessible beyond academic circles and provides a helpful foundation for budding research and personal development in non-monogamies and open relationships. I highly recommend this text for the lay reader interested in learning more about the realities of monogamy and the cultures of hegemony that oversee social scripts of human sexual desire and intimacy.

How to Have Feminist Sex (2019)

Book Review, SRE

Perry, F. (2019). How to Have Feminist Sex: A Fairly Graphic Guide. London: Particular Books. 144 pp.

Flo Perry’s How to Have Feminist Sex (2019) is a graphic novel cum sex-ed book which explores the ins and outs of sexual health, intimacy and desire for an increasingly feminist sexual society. Funny and in your face, Perry navigates issues of consent, monogamy, relationships, period sex, body image(s) and biological traits, to name a few, in a succinct and timely narrative about how to have safe, fun and sexy fun. Perry’s book is a great companion text to other sex-ed books like Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy’s The Ethical Slut (1997), Cacilda Jethá and Christopher Ryan’s Sex at Dawn (2010), and Eric Anderson’s The Monogamy Gap (2011). It is recommended for teens and adults, and is a good illustrative tool for parents, teachers or researchers exploring sexual health education, pleasure and intimacy, and human reproduction.

Queer Books – In Review (2019)

Book Review, LGBT

Following academic tradition, I’m posting a list of some of my favourite queer books read in 2019. Not all books were written in 2019. These books have – in some fashion – characters or themes across the LGBTQ+ spectrum(s).

For other books in my 2019 in-review, please visit my Goodreads reading challenge page.

Nurses on the Inside (2019)

Book Review, HIV/AIDS

Matzer, E., and Hughes, V. (2019). Nurses on the Inside: Stories of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic in NYC. Cincinnati: Tree District Books. 242 pp.

Nurses on the Inside (2019) is a multi-testimonial account of the AIDS crisis in New York City, USA. Haunting and prosaic, the book provides anecdotes of nurse-patient interactions, with a penchant for clear, technical language that helps to make sense of 1980s and 90s medical discourse(s). Matzer and Hughes, two seasoned nurses in some of NYC’s most trafficked AIDS clinics, demonstrate an unusual sense of emotional clarity and empathy. They impart a nostalgic, but commemorative, focus on the lives of their patients, attending to the most characteristic and rich elements of their interactions with those who died from AIDS-related complications. More than a graphic narrative about the immense loss of AIDS crisis, the authors illuminate the importance and impact of individuals (including patients, doctors, and other nurses) as they careen in and out of their professional and social lifeworlds. Perhaps most interesting about this collection is the ways in which the authors recall their involvement in patient lives. For example, in the final chapters, the authors return to the empty spaces of hospital wards, calling upon the dead to remember the at-times excruciating, but generally provoking, experiences of human resilience and determination.

Nurses on the Inside is an excellent portal into the histories of HIV/AIDS in the United States, particularly because it remains attentive to the time(s) and place(s) of affective, medical, scientific, social and cultural advances, which we now understand as seminal moments during the AIDS crisis. Nurses, doctors, and students of history, sociology, and medicine, will find this book appealing. Additionally, scholars interested in the discursive layers of HIV/AIDS histories will find this book useful for understanding how AIDS crisis is narrated using memory, testimonies, and technical expertise.

The Journalist of Castro Street (2019)

Book Review, HIV/AIDS, LGBT

Stoner, A. (2019). The Journalist of Castro Street: The Life of Randy Shilts. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 266 pp.*

Andrew Stoner’s (2019) biography follows the life of American journalist Randy Shilts. Notorious for his critically-acclaimed, and also critically-lambasted, book And the Band Played On (1987), Shilts was also known for being one of the first openly gay journalists in the United States. Stoner’s text provides a wide-ranging history of Shilts’s life, including testimonies from his siblings, professional journalists, gay activists, scholars and historians. The first half of the book reads beautifully, with a narrative that recounts his childhood and early career.

When Stoner recounts Shilts’s journalism coverage of the AIDS crisis, things get messy. Stoner provides extensive reflections on Shilts’s AIDS-related writing and seeks to defend his journalistic integrity over the questionable image of the mainstream (hetero-centric) “AIDS scribe”. Alas Chapter 10 (“Strike Up the Band“) reads as if it’s been lifted directly from a PhD thesis in its attempt/s to follow previous academic scholarship. As such, it sometimes seems unreadable. Elsewhere, his descriptions of academics, activists and medical professionals (e.g. Dr. Richard McKay) vary so widely as to be introduced to the same thinker/s fifty different ways throughout a single chapter. The book could use some polishing in a second edition. Overall, the text provides some helpful insights into the life of the “AIDS scribe” and details important – often conflicting – responses to Shilts’s mythology of “Patient Zero”. Readers interested in journalism history, gay and lesbian history, and HIV/AIDS history will enjoy this book. It is a good companion text with Richard McKay’s (2017) recent book Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic.

*I was commissioned to review The Journalist of Castro Street for Media History in October 2019. Full review available here.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011)

Book Review, LGBT

Winterson, J. (2011). Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? New York: Knopf. 230 pp.

Jeanette Winterson’s autobiography explores her chaotic upbringing as an adopted child raised by Pentecostal parents in northwest England. She follows a linear trajectory, smattered with historical context, disturbing memories of neglect and abuse, humorous anecdotes to cope and tie together the narrative under the banner of “I am not a lost cause,” indeed, that she is and always has been loved. There are mundane moments when the text flexes between psychoanalytic and philosophical musing, and others when Winterson’s anger toward her upbringing blows the box off respectability politics and writing family histories. The text is not queerly, per se, but provides a nice approach to integrating – that is, making intelligible – her desires for women through the retelling of her personal history/ies. Especially surprising is her excellent grasp of working class conditions and how this class consciousness, in the end, drives her understanding of self even when she is faced with her origins. Why Be Normal is a light, easy read, compelling for its attention to historical detail and natural-sounding prose.

HardWear (1994)

Book Review, HIV/AIDS, SRE

Rigby, H., and Leibtag, S. (1994). HardWear: The Art of Prevention. Edmonton: Quon Editions. 176 pp.

Hugh Rigby and Susan Leibtag’s (1994) collection HardWear: The Art of Prevention presents a range of condom adverts, copy campaigns, and product packaging from the 1980s and 90s. It demonstrates rigorous tactical approaches for exposing sexual cultures to the necessity and usefulness of condoms. In addition to an excellent, short history of the condom in the introduction, the authors reflect on the purpose and centrality of condom use to sexual health histories. They then leave the various adverts and images to present their messages. Moving from issues of gay male substance use to the severity of AIDS illness among heterosexual couples, the collection compiles a variety of compelling materials for scholars and readers interested in the development prophylactic history and media representation. In short, HardWear is a simple and powerful collection of sexual history imagery. It is a very good companion for research and studies about HIV/AIDS and STIs.