Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Cocoanuts by George S. Kaufman, Irving Berlin, and The Marx Brothers

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to take on a play that is so associated with particular actors that it is essentially inseparable from them. Taking on the iconic Marx Brothers would seem to be all risk with a low upside.

Except that the Utah Shakespeare Festival has no end of chutzpah and the chops to pull it off.

The Cocoanuts featured all four of the Marx Brothers in lead roles - even the rarely seen Zeppo as the protagonist and straight man Robert Jamison. In addition, there is a goofy (of course) story by George S. Kaufman (see my review of You Can’t Take It With You which we saw earlier this year), and songs by Irving Berlin.

So, how to pull this off? Well, you need your actors to have the skills to imitate the Marx Brothers without it looking like a cheap rip-off. And boy, did they pull it off. 

Jim Poulos, John Plumpis, and Tasso Feldman
(Chico, Groucho, and Harpo)


The plot isn’t that important, but here it is: Groucho is Mr. Hammer, the owner of a failing seedy hotel in Miami during the 1920s land boom (which was followed by a crash, of course). His clerk, Jamison (Zeppo) is in love with Polly, the daughter of the wealthy Mrs. Potter. The Potter fortune is coveted by the slimey Harvey Yates, a broke scion of a high society family, and his co-conspirator Penelope. The plan is for Harvey to marry Polly, but she hates him. A conspiracy is hatched to steal Mrs. Potter’s valuable diamond necklace, and have Harvey discover it and win the family’s heart.

Of course, things go wrong. To begin with, Chico and Harpo, a couple of small time con artists, show up at the hotel. Hilarity and chaos follow, of course.

It is no use whatsoever to try to recount all of the many gags, terrible puns, and slapstick situations that fill this play from top to bottom. In addition, a number of the jokes were improvised, and thus different from night to night. My wife saw this play early in the run back in July, and then saw it again with us in September, and she said there were a number of lines which differed, and plenty of new jokes. (In some cases, these were aimed at the Utah luminaries attending, so they were intentionally specific to the performance.)

One in particular that stood out to me occurred when Groucho managed to work the Quadratic Formula into a joke. There were some scattered laughs, at which point Groucho broke the fourth wall and said, “I see there are some math majors in the audience…” And a few of us who paid attention in High School too, I guess.

I do have to tip my hat to John Plumpis, who played Groucho. It was an outstanding performance. On the one hand, you knew it wasn’t the real Groucho, but the voice and the mannerisms were so darn close, it was hard to tell. He also matched the comedic timing so well. In my experience, one of the biggest differences between an amateur play and a truly professional one is just how well the actors can gauge exactly how long to pause after a funny line. It is easy to jump in with the next too early, or look awkward in the interim. The best can make it flow as naturally as possible. 

Also amazing was Tasso Feldman as Harpo. I saw Tasso last year playing Charlie in Charlie’s Aunt. In that role, he was a bit overshadowed by Michael Doherty, who played “Babbs” and the faux-aunt. In The Cocoanuts, Feldman is allowed to showcase his talent more freely, and he very nearly stole the show. It was freaky just how well he mimicked all of Harpo’s mannerisms, facial expressions, and more. For a part that does not in fact have any spoken lines, he truly acted the part. If you ever want to understand the difference between speaking and acting, this is a good example. I was blown away.

My kids were introduced to the Marx Brothers at a young age, beginning with A Night At The Opera. I am, after all, trying to raise them right. Of all the plays we planned to see, I think this was the one that four out of the five kids were most looking forward to seeing. (The macabre daughter was most thrilled to see Julius Caesar, because of the higher body count.) In any case, they enjoyed the jokes very much indeed - and I think every year they get more of the bad puns.

I should also mention the music. This is a musical, after all. Irving Berlin is always a pleasure, regardless of the topic. In this case, there were references to the Anvil Chorus and Carmen - jokes that were not lost on this classical musician.

But the very best part was this: not only was the music live and not canned, the musicians were on stage! Yes, there was a small “orchestra,” consisting of five musicians. Piano, drums, upright bass, a guy playing guitar, ukulele, banjo, and typewriter as needed, and a violinist. (Bonus points for that!) They were at the center rear of the stage, and were essentially the hotel’s house band. So you could watch them do their thing. The coolness level for that idea is off the charts. 

 Because the Orchestra always needs more credit in stage productions. Well done, fellow musicians!

Anyway, we had a great time, and I must commend the Utah Shakespeare Festival for stretching beyond the usual repertoire to find gems such as The Cocoanuts and Charlie’s Aunt. Shakespeare is of course at the heart of what they do, but their commitment to variety shows, and the “other stuff” is so very fun.  

Monday, September 26, 2016

Lord and Lady Bunny: Almost Royalty by Polly Horvath

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

It was last year that the kids introduced me to Polly Horvath and the bizarre world of Mr. and Mrs. Bunny. Since then, we have listened to a few different books, some delightful, and one not so much.  They have been lobbying me to get the second book in the series, so we did so for our Utah adventure.

The world the Bunnies inhabit is one in which humans and animals rarely interact, but the animals are sentient and can use modern technology. It doesn’t make total sense, but that is part of the point. 


In this sequel, young Madeleine is back, along with her clueless hippie parents, Flo and Mildred (not their real names, which are so boring I can’t recall them.) Madeleine wants nothing more than to start a college fund (which her new upper-middle-class friend insists is necessary), but has little hope of doing so with help from her perpetually broke and incompetent parents. But then, a distant relative in England dies, leaving them a candy shop in a small town, as long as they are willing to leave immediately to run it.

At the same time, Mrs. Bunny is dissatisfied with her life, and wants adventure. Well, more specifically, she wants to be queen for reasons that neither she nor the long-suffering Mr. Bunny can quite figure out. So, it’s off to England. Can Flo and Mildred hold it together long enough to make a profit, despite their aversion to filthy lucre? Can Mrs. Bunny attain her dream of being made royalty? Or will the insufferable Mrs. Treaclebunny and her aristocratic hedgehog relative be able to gloat at their failures? And maybe Mr. Bunny really should just run off and play King Lear in a travelling Shakespeare production. All he needs is one of those masculine carrying pouch things.

This book is a bit different from the previous one in that it doesn’t involve a mystery - and nobody is kidnapped by foxes. There are also too few marmots, unfortunately. On the other hand, it is hard to tire of Flo’s perpetual, “Woah, that’s heavy, man!” and the witty jokes that older kids and grownups can find scattered throughout are well done. One recurring gag that I liked was the fact that in England, everyone blames the faux pas of the human and rabbit characters on them being “Americans.” Except that they are Canadian. One wonders if the Canadian author has had to explain the difference a few thousand too many times.

Look for some celebrity appearances too. The queen, of course, and Prince Charles, who appeared in the last book too. But also J. K. Rowling, and Horvath herself as the “translator” of the Mr. and Mrs. Bunny books.

As in the previous book, Horvath credits “Mrs. Bunny” as the author, and herself as the translator. In the audiobook version, Mrs. Bunny is the ostensible narrator as well, with some interesting vocal quirks. Throw in the disputes between Mr. and Mrs. Bunny as to who contributed what to the book, and there is a certain amount of uncertainty as to exactly how the two of them managed to put a story together in the first place.

As usual, the book is rather on the bizarre side, and doesn’t really resemble any recognizable genre. Horvath is at her best when she remains on the humorous rather than the serious side.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

For the last three years, my wife has attended the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City with a friend. (Since the festival lasts all summer and part of the fall, she times it during one of the camping trips the kids and I take.) This year, however, she also decided that it would be nice to plan a trip with the kids and me so that we could see some of the fall plays together. We timed it to see the last of the summer plays and the openings of the fall plays. That way we could see Much Ado About Nothing together.

Early in our marriage, we saw this play together at the local community college, and found that we were the only people under the age of 60 who laughed at the naughty jokes. Apparently, the art of the Elizabethan double entendre doesn’t come easy to the young folks. Or something like that. Anyway, we enjoyed it, and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity of seeing a truly professional company perform this, one of my favorite plays. I was not disappointed. And the kids loved it, even my youngest. (Special points to the staff for letting us slip her in even though she is technically below the age limit.)

The very title is a pun. In Shakespeare’s day, “Nothing” and “Noting” were pronounced the same way, and throughout, there is great importance to the matter of noting what is going on. It is the failure to take note which leads to disaster, and the noticing of that which was there all along that leads to happiness. “Nothing” is actually a triple entendre as well: in Shakespeare’s time, it was also used as slang for a woman’s nether regions. As in they form an “O” and there is nothing else between the legs. Thus, throughout the play, there will be puns on all three meanings. Nothing, taking note, and sex. Also note that it is “Benedick,” not “Benedict.” He isn’t a benevolent sort, he’s, um, been a dick in the past. Isn’t Shakespeare fun?

Much Ado About Nothing has two main plots, one comic, and one serious. On the serious side, Claudio falls in love with the beautiful young woman, Hero, but disgraces her at the altar after the villainous Don John and his henchman Borachio trick him into believing Hero has been unfaithful.

The comic plot involves two of Shakespeare’s best characters, Beatrice and Benedick. He is a worldly wise old soldier, determined never to be caught in the coils of matrimony. He is openly disdainful of the trickery and falseness of women. Beatrice is the old maid equally determined never to become the property of a man, convinced that no male is worth surrendering her freedom and self.

And, of course, Beatrice and Benedick are old frenemies, dating back to their youth. As soon as Benedick comes with Don Pedro’s troop to stay with Leonato, Beatrice’s uncle, the two are caught up in a war of words, each seeing who can come out on top in the sparring match. Leonato has to explain to those unfamiliar with the two that they actually don’t hate each other. This is just what they do.

Don Pedro and Claudio decide to prank Benedick by arranging for him to overhear their conversation in which they assert that Beatrice is secretly in love with him, but is afraid to say so.

At the same time, Hero and her maid Ursula arrange the same thing for Beatrice. Unsurprisingly, they both fall for the trick. Actually, it is no real secret that they are meant for each other anyway, and the “trick” serves more to reveal the truth about their feelings than to create them.

After Hero is disgraced, Leonato is convinced by the priest to fake Hero’s death, as he believes there is some treachery going on. Since this is a comedy, there is a successful resolution, and happiness abounds to all except the evil Don John.

The treachery is revealed - accidentally almost - through and despite the hilarious bungling of the constable, Dogberry, and his equally moronic town watch. This part was particularly fun for my younger son (age 8) who laughed uproariously throughout the whole scene.

Dogberry is an early example of the Malaprop - a person who uses the wrong word. Richard Sheridan would create the best known version, Mrs. Malaprop, in The Rivals, but Shakespeare was there first.

After Conrade (another of Don John’s minions) calls him an ass, he makes sure it is written down, and later reminds Leonato of this:

[A]nd, masters, do not forget to specify, when time
and place shall serve, that I am an ass.

Yes, good times all around.

While in this case the humor is in the words, the real strength of this particular production was in the wordless acting. Much of the humor took place between lines. Benedick (Ben Livingston) was marvelous, hilarious to watch at all times. You couldn’t take your eyes off of him. He would have killed this part even without saying a word. The others too - Claudio, Don Pedro, Beatrice, and others - did a fantastic job at this as well. The choreography was well thought out, adding greatly to the effect.

Another facet of the production that I really appreciated was the choice in casting for Beatrice and Benedick. Both of them were (relatively) old, and neither was what one would call a traditional romantic lead. Benedick was grey, slight, and not terribly tall compared to the other soldiers. Beatrice was tallish (for a woman), with a deep and powerful voice. One suspected she could break him in half if she tried. At least in the figurative sense. And the two had great chemistry. 

Ben Livingston and Kim Martin-Cotten in the lead roles.
Publicity photo.  
Much Ado was notable in its time for its skewering of gender roles. There are many lines alluding to the need for female purity. In the case of Hero, these are played pretty straight. It’s horrifying how all the men are quick to assume she is playing the field, but it fits with the belief held throughout most of history in the West that women had uncontrollable libidos and would cheat in a heartbeat if they weren’t kept under tight control.

The other plot, however, turns this on its head, with the jester Balthazar asserting that it is actually men who play around, and women are left with the heartache.

Beatrice is hardly a feminine character, in the traditional sense. She is closer in spirit to Kate from The Taming of the Shrew, but never “reforms” in the sense that Kate does. One is left to believe that Beatrice and Benedick will continue engage in their “merry war,” and that the sparks will be verbal as well as romantic throughout their marriage. Even as they profess their love for each other, they can’t help but slip some barbs into the banter.

It’s also interesting that Hero, playing the traditionally feminine role, suffers immensely, while Beatrice remains mistress of her own fate.

Benedick gets what might be the most romantic line in all of Shakespeare. My lovely wife brought me back a shirt from the festival with this line on it, and I must say, I like it very much. It is a bit naughty, however.

I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes.

***

This play calls for some music - and some history.

Hector Berlioz was perhaps one of the most memorable figures in classical music, with grand visions involving thousands of musicians, an innovative and imaginative - if not always the most polished - style, and a personality which was far from stable.

A touring Shakespeare company came to Paris, and he fell madly (literally) in love with Harriet Smithson, an Irish actress who played Ophelia and Juliet in their respective plays. He became obsessed with her, following her around and bombarding her hotel with letters. In our age, he would have been hit with a restraining order. She rebuffed him until years later, when she realized he had written a whole symphony about her. They eventually married, which was as disastrous as one might expect, and they separated after having a child together.

The legacy of Smithson, though, lives on in three works. Berlioz would write a choral work based on Romeo and Juliet, an opera entitled Beatrice and Benedict, based on Much Ado, and the Symphonie Fantastique.

Ah, the Symphonie Fantastique, which eventually won Smithson’s heart. What a bizarre work it is. Based on an opium dream that Berlioz had, it contains a theme that represents Harriet, as the artist follows her with an obsessive gaze. They meet at a ball, in the countryside, and he pursues. But things take a dark turn. He murders her in his obsession, and is sent to the guillotine for his crime. In hell, he meets her at a witches sabbath, where she presides. It’s trippy stuff, and the music is rather descriptive. (Who doesn’t love the moment when his severed head plops softly into the basket?)

The fact that this creepy tale told in music was attractive to her (in the romantic, rather than musical sense) indicates she may have been as crazy as Berlioz himself.

Here is the overture to Beatrice and Benedict, with the banter between the two portrayed in Berlioz’s typical sparkling fashion.



And here is the fourth movement of Symphonie Fantastique, the March to the Scaffold. The march builds as the artist is marched to the guillotine. The crowd quiets toward the end, and he briefly recalls the melody of the beloved, before the stroke of the axe falls, the head drops into the basket, and the bloodthirsty crowd roars its approval. Brilliant stuff. 

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

I have wanted to read this novella ever since I first heard about it. After all, it was touted as having an, um, unique approach to language. Having read it, I have to agree. Very creative, and well executed. The paperback version (which is what I read) gives this as the full title: Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel In Letters, but it is the hardback title that really captures the essence: Ella Minnow Pea: a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable. Some fun words there. “Lipogrammatic” refers to a game in which one must write without using one or more of the letters of the alphabet. More broadly, it can refer to any game where the use of letters is the challenge. And, obviously, the title itself is a reference to letters.




Here is the basic idea. The fictional island of “Nollop” exists off the southeastern seaboard of the United States. (Kind of where Bermuda is, I suppose. Or Cuba, in the metaphorical sense.) The island is named after the fictional “Nevin Nollop,” who is worshiped as the creator of the world-famous pangram, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” We connoisseurs of typography will be familiar with this as a sentence containing all the 26 letters of the English alphabet.

The inhabitants of Nollop have constructed a highly literate society that venerates language and letters. A statue of Mr. Nollop is the centerpiece of the capitol square, and his holy pangram adorns the statue.

The problems start when the glue holding the letters loosen, and the letters start falling. Rather than replace or repair them, the political powers that be decide that this is a divine message from almighty Nollop that they should henceforth stop using those letters in conversation or writing. In essence, this means censorship of the spoken and written word. Severe penalties are imposed, from shaming, to public whipping or the stocks, to lifetime banishment from the island. The penalties apply to all children above the age of 8 as well as adults, so the consequences are horrifying. Soon, the fervor sets neighbor against neighbor in a witch hunt that becomes more ludicrous as more and more letters fall.

Eventually, Ella and her fellow resistance workers must figure out how to stop the madness and restore sanity. Given the adoration of Nollop and his pangram, they must figure out how to fit all the letters into an even shorter sentence.

One reason the book is fascinating to those who are literate and witty is that Dunn writes it as a correspondence between the various characters, primarily Ella and her cousin. As the letters fall, the writers must - by government order on pain of exile - figure out how to communicate using ever fewer letters. At first, the letters seem merely stuffy and erudite. The characters are well educated, and in good command of the English language. Thus, for a less used letter, it is easy to find synonyms. However, as time goes on, there is so little left that it is extremely difficult to say anything at all, even with the use of phonetic substitutes (which are permitted in writing only) and numbers in place of letters. It must have cost Dunn some significant quality time with a thesaurus - and a lot of careful editing to be sure that that the forbidden letters were not used. Kind of like how the residents of Nollop had to slave over every utterance to be sure not to offend the authorities.

The fable works at two levels. On the one hand, there is a definite metaphorical reference to totalitarianism of all stripes. The use of the location does in that sense suggest Cuba or another Communist society, where the words of a long-dead philosopher are parsed and re-parsed to determine what is and is not permissible. (I recommend Anne Applebaum’s excellent book, Iron Curtain for more on the thought policing necessary.)

On the other, there is a definite intention to reference fundamentalist religion. Nollop is worshipped. Not merely venerated, but treated as a god, which he probably never intended. And disagreement with the interpretation of supposed omens is treated as rank heresy.

The key point here is that when you declare certain ideas and communication off limits, you end up destroying knowledge, and sacrificing the most intelligent and thoughtful people in your society. I certainly recognized some things from my own experience within a cultic group, where books were banned - and burned - certain ideas were off limits for discussion and questioning, and language itself had to be rewritten to avoid awkward truths that didn’t fit with perceived theological necessities.

Just a few quotes on this. From the Council, upon an appeal that the falling tiles are accidental:

We believe, further, that that Nollop does indeed speak to us from his place of eternal rest, through his manipulation of the tiles on his hallowed cenotaph, and that the Council serves only as has collective interpreter.
Why do we follow, without misgiving, the will of Nollop? Simply because without him this island would be a shallow shell, an empty conch compared to what it has, in fact, become: a beautiful, shady-shored haven of enchantment and delishmerelle.

Later, a scientist from the United States determines that the tiles are falling instead because the glue is weakening by natural processes. Ella’s cousin is optimistic that a presentation of these facts will sway the Council:

Nollop is not God. Nollop is silent. We must respect that silence and make our decisions and judgments based upon science and fact and simple old-fashioned common sense - a commodity absent for too long from those in governmental elevatia, where its employ would do us all much good.

Alas, no dice. The Council rules that there is no room for alternative interpretations. Any disagreement is in fact heresy. In a chilling moment, the Council also says what so many of us have heard before, in another context: “Adhering to the commandments of Nollop leaves no room for fear of punishment or forfeiture. He who walks in the light has no fear of darkness.” And also that there is no such thing as an accidental slip: just failure - refusal actually - to obey. I’ve heard these. Many times.

One more appeal remains, and they make it. It is the appeal that the science of the situation is not in opposition to Nollop. “Might not Nollop be working through the science? The science, in point of fact, actually serving his specific purposes?”

I think this is a crucial point. There has been a lot of unnecessary assertion of a tension between faith and science, and it does come down to a battle, not between faith and science as such, as between religious dogma and perceived theological needs in opposition to scientific discoveries, requiring ever greater levels of denial. Furthermore, there is this idea that blind obedience to dogma is the requirement of faith, and that reevaluation and change are heresy, rather than necessary approaches to changing circumstances and increased understanding.

In fact, though, Ella and her companions have it right: there is a need to reevaluate theological interpretation (as we have so often done throughout history) in light of new facts. Particularly the common-sense observation that a particular dogma is causing destruction. We would never have abolished slavery or polygamy, for example, without a wholesale rejection of long standing dogma. I’ll leave it at that for now.

The Council, as one might expect, cannot do its enforcement without help. It relies on citizens to report each other, which happens at first, because people tend to take the selfish way out rather than risk themselves. Naturally, this breeds distrust and leads to a breakdown of society. Very much like in the real life totalitarian regimes of all sorts the world has experienced.

The search for an alternative pangram becomes the all-consuming goal of the characters, and many fun sentences are interspersed as they seek to whittle the number of letters down to 32. I won’t give away the final solution, but I will mention one: “Six big devils from Japan quickly forgot how to waltz.” Fun stuff.

It’s a fairly light hearted book, with breezy language. But it has a sharp edge beneath. The suffering of the Nollopians is real, and the optimism of the characters cannot hide the brutality necessary to repress ideas and thought. Ultimately, once thinking and learning are forbidden, brutality must necessarily follow.

An interesting short modern work, and worth the while to read.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

My wife actually checked this out for a trip she was taking, but didn’t end up listening to it, so I poached it later.

I will admit right away that I am a serious Mary Roach fan. Ever since I read Bonk (not reviewed - I was too chicken to review a book about sex back then - even a scientific one) I was hooked. Her next book, Gulp, about the alimentary canal, was every bit as good, and by then I didn’t care what people thought quite as much, so I reviewed it. Earlier this year, I read and reviewed Spook, Roach’s wry exploration of the paranormal.

To explain Mary Roach, the best start is to say that she is the least squeamish person imaginable, she has a very, very dry and deadpan sense of humor, and an inability to resist following the rabbit trails of the bizarre whenever investigating a subject. I mean, she even uses pictures of cockroaches on her website. There is literally nothing too gross or ridiculous for her, as far as I can tell. Attend a training for psychics? Of course! Investigate fecal transplants? Why not! Volunteer for research that required her to have sex with her husband on MRI? Yes, even that.




And, in the case of this book, she went up on a zero-G flight (aka the “Vomit Comet”) and wrote extensively about motion sickness, discussed in detail the problems of body odor on spaceflights, practiced positioning on the Shuttle toilet, researched cubed food (and worse), observed the Japanese program for identifying suitable personalities for astronauts, examined the results of tests of survivability of impacts, and much more. And made fart jokes whenever appropriate. No, this book is not for the faint of stomach. Which is pretty much the disclaimer for all her books.

The best thing about all this, though is how amazingly deadpan her writing is. To paraphrase a famous line, the sarcasm is strong with this one. There is no good way to describe it, other than to recommend you read her books. Or at least look up one of her TED talks or other interviews.

Just as a small example, when she takes her zero-G flight, she notices the sign on the door says “Reduced Gravity Office.” She imagines that inside all the items are flying around randomly. And then she decides that every bit as likely is that it is a place where nothing is taken seriously. Which is very much the sort of remark I would make.

I wish I could remember more exact lines, but it is hard to write them down while driving.

Equally delightful in this book, perhaps even more so than in her others, are the many interviews she did with astronauts and other people who work or worked on the space program. She also quotes plenty of more serious books on her subjects - then follows up on any juicy stories to find out if they are fiction - or fact.

The best part of the book, though, in my opinion, is the sheer wealth of intimate detail about the realities of space travel. This isn’t the heroic aspiration, the supermen and -women and the triumph of the human spirit and all that. (Although Roach clearly admires the space program and those involved.) Rather, it is the everyday, mundane challenges that are the primary challenges of humans in space. The fine detritus of dead skin that floats in the air. The difficulty of spending weeks - or months - at a time in close company with other humans, with no personal space or privacy. The crazy ways our human bodies react to motion and acceleration, and deprivation of what our psyches need.

Roach’s willingness to ignore taboos and ask the questions most of us would hesitate to ask enables her to go deeper into the truly human dimension of her topics.

Like her other books, this one is an excellent read, provided you aren’t easily grossed out.

***


***

This particular audiobook was read by Sandra Burr, who did a decent job. However, if you can, find one where Roach reads her own books. I would never be able to do it without cracking up, but she pulls it off.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

Source of book: Borrowed from the Library

I have wanted to read this book for some time, but, you know me, I have a list of “books I want to read” that grows ever longer despite my best attempts to catch up. As the author of Ecclesiastes once said, “Of the writing of books, there is no end…” If only he had seen the 21st Century!



In the annals of human development, there have been many watershed moments. The discovery of antibiotics, for example, or of vaccinations. The discovery of fire if you want to go really far back.

But it is pretty hard to argue against the development of germ theory and the realization that contaminated water was the cause of some of humanity’s worst diseases.

This book tells of the pivotal moment in this realization - one that led to a revolution in sanitation and city planning.

The story itself is fascination. Cholera was a scourge of the Victorian Era, killing vast numbers of people. It’s pretty hard to truly understand the terror these days, when a few dozen killed by terrorists leads to mass hysteria. Back then, your entire extended family could - and often would - be wiped out completely in a matter of days. Half your neighborhood could be dead in a week. And (adjusting for population), it would be a common occurrence in New York City for the number that died on the September 11 attacks succumb to disease in a few weeks. Over and over. All the time.

And some outbreaks were even worse. The one described in this book killed 10% of a neighborhood before it was stopped. And one of the last outbreaks of cholera and typhoid in a major city in the United States occurred in Chicago in 1885. Ten Percent of the population died.

In modern numbers, imagine if within a few weeks, one million people died in the greater Los Angeles area. Imagine the panic and horror.

That is how life in major metropolises was a mere 150 years ago. Yet, despite the exponential growth of cities, these plagues are unheard of today.

What caused this problem, and how was it solved?  

Cholera itself is believed to have originated in India, where it infected plankton in the Ganges delta. Two things contributed to its evolution into a devastating human disease. The first was that a strain arose which had deadly effects on humans, killing them quickly. The second was that humans began to congregate in cities, which had water systems which were capable of transmitting the germs to many new hosts. After all, a disease that kills quickly often dies out, because victims are unable to transmit the infection, enabling the organism to reproduce. But the close spacing and poor sanitation of cities made transmission easy.

Cities had grown up by chance, rather than planning. People migrated for the usual reasons: opportunity, a diminished need for farm labor, and access to markets. While urbanization accelerated in the aftermath of the agricultural and industrial revolutions, city planning did keep pace. By 1854, the time of the outbreak described in this book, London was, to quote the author, “a Victorian metropolis trying to make do with an Elizabethan public infrastructure.”

If you want an all-too-realistic portrayal of London in the Elizabethan era, C. J. Sansom captures it pretty well in his murder mystery, Dark Fire, which I read recently. For that matter, the state of the city in the 1850s is described pretty well in Dodger by Terry Pratchett: the title character is one of the waste recyclers that the city depended on.

Many of the problems faced, of course, still trouble us today, from the ills of industrialization, predatory capitalists, collective bargaining, and urban poverty. Many of the philosophical and political ideas we discuss today date from this era. But there is one problem that tends to be forgotten by most people.

It’s true enough that the Victorians were grappling with heady issues like utilitarianism and class consciousness. But the finest minds of the era were also devoted to an equally pressing question: What are we going to do with all of this shit?

The Ghost Map spends a good bit of the early part of the book describing all of this, from the urban recycling which was being strained to the limit, to the depressing statistics. Once upon a time, not that long ago, life expectancy was a good bit lower in the city than in the countryside. This is now reversed, as city dwellers have better access to lifesaving medical treatment. Driving the high death rates were the deaths of small children - 62% of all deaths were those under age 5. Life was hard.

It was against this background that the central drama of the book played out.

Prior to our modern understanding of germ theory, there were a number of competing theories as to what caused disease. Some of these had significant merit. For example, malnutrition and overwork do indeed make one more vulnerable to a variety of illnesses. Likewise, rotten food can make you sick, as humans have known for millennia. Likewise, there is a strong taboo on the eating of excrement.

Other theories were not quite as useful. The chief of these also happened to be the one that most dominated the scientific minds of the time: the “miasma” theory of disease. Essentially, this was the idea that “bad, malodorous air” caused disease. This wasn’t completely wrong, of course. It is true that many bacteria and viruses are transmitted through the air. But it wasn’t the smell, but the germs themselves.

The problems this erroneous idea presented were manifold. On a scientific level, of course, chasing the wrong culprit allowed the right culprit to go undetected longer than it should have. But sociologically, it was even worse. Bad smells were, naturally, associated with bad neighborhoods. (The rich could afford to live further away from the smells.) And bad neighborhoods were (in the view of many) caused by the badness of poor people. Hey, we still love to engage in a lot of class snobbery! For some, this led to efforts to improve the lot of the poor. (See Charles Dickens and especially Henry Mayhew) For others, it just led to moralizing. “If they wouldn’t live like animals, they wouldn’t die so much.”

I’ll just give a summary of the events. I doubt I am playing the spoiler, because this is history that everyone should know.

The SoHo neighborhood of London, then a mostly rough and lower class area, experienced a horrific outbreak of cholera. Within a couple of weeks, a tenth of the residents were dead, and many more would have died if not for the efforts of a doctor, John Snow, who managed to convince the neighborhood board to remove the handle of a well pump on Broad Street.

Snow would already have been a man remembered by history for his remarkable work with anesthesia. He took a procedure which was more art and guesswork than anything else, and made it a scientific discipline, going so far as to invent and build devices to standardize the administration of ether and other substances. Probably it was this fame that enabled him to gain a hearing at this crucial time.

Snow had speculated for several years that cholera was spread by contaminated water, but he had never had an opportunity to do a real experiment. He lived just a few blocks from SoHo, and sprang into action as soon as the outbreak was reported. Using a combination of maps and old-fashioned investigation, he concluded that the source of the outbreak was the pump. After the pump was shut down, the outbreak stopped. And the rest is, as they say, history. 

John Snow's famous map.

But the story neither began nor ended there. Snow’s theories were largely disregarded before this event - and were dismissed even after he showed the results of his investigation. In fact, the official report of the incident disregards Snow’s theory completely. Snow himself would die before the revolution he predicted came to pass.

It was another man who would play a crucial role in both the investigation and the aftermath who would live to see the acceptance of water-transmission as the explanation for cholera. That man was Henry Whitehead, a clergyman who served the SoHo area, and knew its residents well.

Whitehead was an interesting character. He was a truly admirable curate, choosing to work among the poor, and well beloved by everyone. He knew just about everyone in the neighborhood, and knew more about their lives than anyone else.

The real breakthrough in this case came when Snow and Whitehead joined forces. I find it fascinating how that happened. Snow’s publication was widely circulated (and also widely mocked), and it came to the attention of Whitehead, who instinctively rejected Snow’s ideas. He felt they were like the miasma theory, based as much on prejudice as on fact. The problem was, when Whitehead started doing his own investigation, he came to the inescapable conclusion that Snow was right: the Broad Street pump was indeed the one thing the victims had in common.

Furthermore, Whitehead put the final piece of the puzzle together. Snow had a compelling statistical case, based on the mapping of the deaths, and his interviews of people who had escaped the plague. But he had no “patient zero,” the first victim who spread the cholera to the well.

Whitehead found her: an infant girl that somehow had survived for a week after first becoming ill. She had been missed, because nobody lived that long, let alone an impoverished infant. But she did. And once Whitehead realized that her house abutted the Broad Street well, he and Snow knew they had found the answer. The well was mere feet from a cesspool in the basement of the apartment block, and the mother had thrown the water used to wash the linens of the infant into that cesspool. The old bricks had crumbled, and the contaminated water had a clear shot into the well.

This was the final piece needed to solve the case. It didn’t happen immediately, but inexorably, public - and more importantly, official - opinion shifted. A couple of years later, the “Big Stink,” a heat wave caused city-wide miasma, failed to produce an epidemic of cholera. The resulting statistics were the final straw for the miasma theory, and Snow’s ideas took hold.

There are many amazing projects of the Victorian Era that thrill us today, from great buildings to the Eiffel Tower and more. But one project that is little known and less appreciated is the great London sewer system designed and built by engineer Joseph Bazalgette. It was this project, which removed the sewage of London from the Thames and the groundwater which ended the recurring cholera outbreaks - and made the city smell nicer too. It is hard to believe, but central London is still served by the 150 year old infrastructure.

It was a final incident that occurred shortly before the completion of the sewer that provided incontrovertible evidence that John Snow was right. An outbreak of cholera - the last major outbreak in London - was unmistakably traced to a particular water company. Which just happened to serve the area that had not quite yet been connected to the sewer system. Supposedly, the water was filtered by a state-of-the-art system. While it is debateable that the filters would have purged the cholera germs, there is no doubt that the filters were, um, not working optimally: customers reported finding live eels in the tap water. (Then as now, profit tended to take precedence over public safety…)

The sewer project was a success. With its success came an important idea, which we tend to take for granted today: public health is a public problem, and requires the investment and power of a strong government. Edwin Chadwick, although he never quite accepted Snow’s theory, and retired before the outbreak in this book, he built the government infrastructure at the General Board of Health, which was really the birth of a vital part of the public sector worldwide.

Chadwick helped solidify, if not outright invent, an ensemble of categories that we now take for granted: that the state should directly engage in protecting the health and well-being of its citizens, particularly the poorest among them; that a centralized bureaucracy of experts can solve societal problems that free markets either exacerbate or ignore; that public-health issues often require massive state investment in infrastructure or prevention...Most of us today accept that the broad movements of Chadwick’s campaigns were ultimately positive ones. You have to be a committed libertarian or anarchist to think that the government shouldn’t be building sewers or funding the Centers for Disease Control or monitoring the public water supply.

Just a few minutes ago, I turned on my tap, and I drank a glass of water. And I knew that it was free from cholera. And from other contaminants. How could I know that? Well, because it is something that I can take for granted here in 21st Century America. (Well, most of the time - see note below.) That didn’t come about easily, though. The infrastructure that provides that water makes it possible. The sewer systems which keep my neighbor’s shit from getting in my water. The multiple sterilization and filtration systems that my water company uses. The government agency that tests the water regularly. The regulations that force the water company to remove the arsenic from the water. And so on.

The strength of this book isn’t just in the storytelling - although Steven Johnson is a good writer. It is in the way he brings together so much relevant background facts and stories to make sense of the greater picture. The chapter at the end on the nuclear and bioterrorist threats to modern cities - and the ways that we can evolve to meet them - is a good one too.

I highly recommend this book (with one caveat below), and have put several other books by the author on my list for the future.

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One caveat:  While the research in this book is generally very good, there is one false note. As usual, this occurs, not in the main story of the book, but in a bit of “dicta,” as we lawyers say. (For those who didn’t go to law school, this is the part of a court opinion where the judge or justice talks about something outside the facts of the case at hand - such remarks are “dicta,” meaning they are non-binding and not necessarily relevant to the case or other future cases.) In this case, there is a remark during an otherwise interesting discussion of the role of alcohol in ensuring safe water. Johnson remarks that aboriginal groups lack the gene to process alcohol like other (read: white) societies. This idea has been debunked, due to the lack of evidence of differences in drinking rate or a genetic difference related to the processing of alcohol. We all process alcohol the same way, and populations tend to binge drink at the same rates. The evidence does strongly suggest, however, that addictions of all kinds are far higher in persons who have suffered trauma.

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Flint Michigan: You knew I would bring this up. Just as in the case of the East London Water Company, the water company for Flint made a decision based on money that endangered those who depended on the water. After being warned that switching to water from the Flint River would corrode the old lead pipes, leading to lead poisoning, the decision makers decided to do it anyway, then faked the tests to show the water was “safe.” Recently, there have been criminal charges brought against a number of those involved. You can read a pretty good summary from NPR here. On the plus side, it is good to see real consequences for those involved. On the bad side, it is awful to see people so calloused toward a deeply impoverished population.

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Haiti: Speaking of cover ups, a really recent incident occurred in Haiti. Remember the earthquake and its aftermath? Well, one of the causes of death afterward was our old friend cholera. And anyone with a knowledge of the same investigative procedures used by John Snow and Henry Whitehead can figure out where the epidemic started, which was the UN peacekeeper camp - specifically the Nepali division. You can read a bit about this here, which, coincidentally is the place I first heard about this book. You want a reliable source for the underlying claim? Here is the study from European journal, Clinical Microbiology and Infection.

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Some other cholera stories:

Tchaikovsky: The famous Russian composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (of Nutcracker fame) died under mysterious circumstances. He was prone to bouts of depression, and during one of these, he drank unboiled water during a known cholera outbreak. Was it suicide? Recklessness? Or just carelessness? Who knows for sure? But if you want to think of famous cholera victims, his name has to be near the top. (Also Hegel and U.S. President James Polk.)

W.E.B. Du Bois: I read his best-known work, The Souls of Black Folk, a few years back. (Highly recommended!) By far the hardest part of the book to read was Du Bois’ description of the death of his young son from cholera. Johnson gives a pretty harrowing description in The Ghost Map, but it is even worse when told from the perspective of a father watching his son slowly dehydrate and die. My hands were shaking after I read that chapter.

The worst part was, this boy did not have to die. By that time, they knew that it quite possible to survive cholera, as long as the fluids and electrolytes were replaced as fast as they were depleted by the diarrhea. The problem was, DuBois couldn’t obtain medical care for his son. Why not? Because he was Black. There were very few African American physicians at the time - medical schools generally wouldn’t take them - and not a single White doctor within possible travel distance would accept a Black patient. And so a little boy died.

Remember that whenever you read about current and proposed laws intended to allow doctors to refuse to treat LGBTQ people and their children… 

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Music:

What else? The lacerating finale movement of Tchaikovsky’s final symphony, the Pathetique.