True Crime Tales: The Devil in the White City

Show Notes for Episode 2.8

Check out the episode below:

His weakness was his belief that evil had boundaries

Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City

Quick links from the episode:

  • Folio Facts: This week Paige presents the world’s oldest novel, The Tale of Genji. Written in the earliest years of the eleventh century, this story is a classic of Japanese literature and it also happens to be written by a woman! To learn more, check out the Wikipedia article on the author, Murasaki Shikibu.
  • The Devil in the White City was published in 2002.
  • BBE Bookstore: Paige’s Bookstore pick for this week is Njal’s Saga, an Icelandic saga in which blood feuds and other shenanigans abound. The saga is believed to be describing events in the tenth and eleventh centuries.
  • Creatives’ Corner: This week Jennifer presents Bookish Realm, a bookish YouTube channel. Ashley is a librarian, which is awesome, and even has a series videos on being a librarian!
  • Can’t get enough true crime? Want to know more about H.H. Holmes? You’re in luck! Below are some documentaries available on streaming services right now:

The slideshow below was created using images from the Digital Public Library of America.

Coming up next time is the truly terrifying House of Leaves. Tune in October 26th if you dare. If you are enjoying the podcast, please consider leaving us a review or following us on social media (links above). If you’d like to support the podcast, you can buy books mentioned in this episode from our Bookshop store, or head on over to our Patreon for bonus content. Until next time, cheers!

A Bookish Lineup For Spooky Season

BBE’s October Sneak Peek

October is finally here, and with it, the start of spooky season! Bring on the pumpkins, the apple cider, the black cats, and copious amounts of candy. Here at BBE, we have tried our very best to reflect the scary and supernatural in our book picks for this month. This is all with the caveat that Jennifer literally *cannot* handle any kind of horror or even suspense, so you won’t be seeing The Shining or Rosemary’s Baby down below – though there is one exception. What you can expect is some true crime, serial killers, haunted houses that draw the reader into their own madness, and finally, some mind-bending sci-fi thrill. Hold on to your butts!

This month, Jennifer is bringing in the big guns, one of her favorite books of all time: The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson. A beautifully written historical account about the building of the World’s Fair of 1893 in Chicago, this story is also intertwined with that of one of the most sinister serial killers of them all.

Our exception to the tame scary books requirement, Paige’s pick for this month is Mark Z. Danielewski’s horrifying House of Leaves. Look any list of all-time scariest books, guarantee this one will make the cut. Hopefully our mere discussion won’t give Jennifer nightmares.

Finally, our bonus Movie Magic episode for this month will be on Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, recently turned blockbuster film starring Natalie Portman among others. One part sci-fi, one part thriller, one part mystery, one part horror, this book really does it all. Tune in to find out which one wins: book or movie.

And that is a wrap for our October Sneak Peek. To keep up with BBE this month, be sure to follow us on social media (linked above). If you are enjoying the podcast so far, we would dearly appreciate a review or you can send us an email. And finally, if you’d like to support the podcast, you can check out our Bookshop store, or our Patreon to get access to our full bonus episodes. Stay nerdy, bookish peeps!

The Women Behind the Curtain: Uncovering NASA’s Hidden Figures

Show Notes for Bonus Episode 2.3

Check out the free version of the episode below:

If you are interested in hearing the full version of this episode, head on over to our Patreon and sign up for the Book Ninja or Book Mage tiers!

Main Points from the Episode:

Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly (2016)
  • Learn more about our author of the week, Margot Lee Shetterly by visiting her website.
  • Paige Presents Fun with Comics: an exciting deep-cut pick that isn’t for everyone, Paige introduced Injection this month. A mix of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, this comic focuses on a government project gone wrong: mixing magic and technology together to produce one killer machine.
  • The Wikipedia article on the film has a section that addresses historical accuracy as well as some of the comments screenwriter Theodore Melfi made that Jennifer referenced in the episode. However, take this section with a grain of salt as some of the sources are blogs which may or may not have accurate information.
  • Surprisingly, we would actually prefer the movie over the book on this one. However, we still recommend giving the book a read because it has so much good contextual & historical information.

Coming up next time is our September bonus Movie Magic episode! This month we will be comparing the book and film adaptation of Hidden Figures. If you are enjoying the podcast, please consider leaving us a review or following us on social media. If you’d like to support the podcast, you can buy books mentioned in this episode from our Bookshop store, or head on over to our Patreon for bonus content. Until next time, cheers!

Holy Feast and Holy Fast: How Metal Were Female Saints?

The answer is very.

Show Notes for Episode 2.6

Check out the episode below:

CW: eating disorders, disordered eating, irregular food behaviors

Quick Links from the Episode:

If readers leave this book simply condemning the past as peculiar, I shall have failed. But I shall have failed just as profoundly if readers draw direct answers to modern problems from the lives I chronicle…

Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast

Coming up next time is our September bonus Movie Magic episode! This month we will be comparing the book and film adaptation of Hidden Figures. If you are enjoying the podcast, please consider leaving us a review or following us on social media. If you’d like to support the podcast, you can buy books mentioned in this episode from our Bookshop store, or head on over to our Patreon for bonus content. Until next time, cheers!

BBE Jumps Into Their First Fall of Bookish Podcasting

September 2020 Sneak Peek

It is that time again somehow, bookish peeps. August has absolutely flown by and we are staring down September. With that in mind, it is time to reveal our lineup for the coming month. Click through the gallery to preview our book pics! Let us know what you think and if you are also excited for some serious fall vibes.

Jennifer is bringing you BBE’s first academic history with Caroline Walker Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast. How much does Jennifer love this book? Well she *willingly* wrote three papers on it in grad school…so you could say a lot. CW: we will be talking about restricted eating behaviors.

Paige’s Books We Love pick for the month is Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Bloodprint. An epic fantasy set in a Middle-Eastern inspired world, Paige loved this book for its world building and powerful female characters. Defeating a slave trade with the power of books? Sounds like an archivist’s dream.

BBE is SO excited to present this month’s Movie Magic episode: Hidden Figures. Margot Lee Shetterly’s book turned into a major motion picture. This could be our toughest call in Movie Magic yet.

And that is a wrap for our September Sneak Peek. To keep up with BBE this season, be sure to follow us on social media. If you are enjoying the podcast so far, we would dearly appreciate a review or you can send us an email. And finally, if you’d like to support the podcast, you can check out our Bookshop store, or head on over to our Patreon to get access to our full bonus episodes (link below). Stay nerdy, bookish peeps!

Show Notes – Episode 1.15

We Draw the Line at Laser Beams: Erich Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods

Quick Links from the Episode:

  • Erich von Daniken has his own YouTube channel, which could be great fun if you are able to read/speak German.
  • The Nazca Lines are enormous geoglyphs that have been carved into the Peruvian desert. Designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994, archaeologists go back and forth on why the figures were made, but the sheer size and precision of these artifacts has led many to theorize an alien influence. As late as last year, 143 new glyphs were discovered, some even by using AI. The Wikipedia article has beautiful photos of the most famous geoglyphs, some of which are featured below.
  • Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco in Spanish) is a rich archaeological site on Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. The Tiwanaku empire was a highly sophisticated civilization, as evidence by the monumental architecture of undeniably good craftsmanship. The Ancient History Encyclopedia article on this site includes photographs of the infamous Gate of the Sun which makes an appearance in Chariots of the Gods.
  • Unsurprisingly there is a rational wiki on Daniken. It is scathing and delightful.
  • Some notes on metalworking: Yes, we can heat up stone to a crazy high temperature, and we have been able to do so for quite some time. Alien assistance not required. This process is well documented by archaeologists (and blacksmiths) and there is no evidence that any special knowledge was imparted to our ancestors from an otherworldly source. Here is the YouTube video Paige referenced in the episode.
Chariots of the Gods, Erich Von Danicken (1968)

Weeks and weeks ago, in our very first episode on Zecharia Stichin’s The Lost Realms, we promised our listeners another book about aliens. Well, that moment has finally arrived. Erich Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods may be familiar if you’ve spent any time watching Ancient Aliens; the book is probably cited at least once an episode. In fact, that is how Jennifer recognized the title when Paige picked up this little number in the thrift store. A foundational work of the ancient astronaut field, Daniken takes the reader on a wild ride through an alternate human history, complete with alien overlords, little supporting evidence, and hot takes on the field of archaeology and beyond.

Erich Von Daniken’s story is nearly as sensational as those he tells in his books. As a child, Daniken began to question his heavily Catholic upbringing, already fascinated with the possibility of alien encounters in the past. His rebellious spirit did not go over well in his Catholic boarding school and after he was suspended for theft, Daniken left school for a fresh start. Daniken began working in the hotel business, which we are surprised to learn is apparently a crime-riddled, dangerous endeavor. Daniken would rack up three convictions and serve several stints in prison for fraud, embezzlement, and theft while working for various hotels.

This checkered past is in stark contrast to his dazzling success as an author and speaker. His first book, Chariots of the Gods, was published in 1968, and has sold millions of copies and been translated into dozens of languages since. However, Chariots of the Gods was so close to never even existing. After being picked up by a small company now part of the massive German publisher, Ullstein Verlag, Chariots had to be rewritten in order to be palatable. Rewritten by whom, you might ask? None other than Utz Utermann, who had been a bestselling author of Nazi literature leading up to and during WWII. This adds a sinister layer to what would otherwise be an entertaining read. Today, Daniken is featured on a variety of TV shows, has his own YouTube channel, and largely seems to have transcended his previous transgressions.

Main Points from the Episode:

  • Racism has once again reared its ugly head in an ancient astronaut book. At first, Paige and Jennifer were willing to give Daniken the benefit of the doubt when using words like “savages” to describe ancient cultures before the alien overlords arrived. Perhaps this was a translation error? But given what BBE uncovered above about the providence of Chariots of the Gods, this word choice definitely takes a turn towards the sinister. Similar to Stichin, Daniken also uses almost exclusively examples from non-white civilizations. Chariots is replete with references to ancient Sumer, the Maya and Inca, ancient India, and even the Chinese. The few throwaway examples that are included from white civilizations (Stonehenge – a quite common one) do little to take away from the overall impression, especially when Daniken compares Sumer to ancient Greece and argues that since the Greeks did not have certain mathematical skills, ancient Sumer must have had extraterrestrial help. Could our eyes roll back further into our heads? Probably not.
  • Daniken is also plagued by a lack of definitive proof to support his theories. Daniken derides archaeological standards and practices, but provides nothing concrete in return other than his strident assertions. All of it sounds like it could be true, and there is, in fact, no way to prove that history did not happen like this. This is a variation of the appeal to ignorance fallacy. What is key, is that Daniken is not replacing current scientific consensus with anything concrete, just his own interpretations of the archaeological evidence. Reminiscent of what we encountered in The Lost Realms, Daniken also speaks confidently, even condescendingly, to his reader. When a lay reader is faced with such confidence and an occasional equation thrown into the mix, it could be hard to not take Daniken at his word.
  • Chariots is also rife with hypocrisy, which is one of Jennifer’s chief complaints with ancient astronaut theories. Daniken spends a great deal of time acknowledging the technological advances we have made in recent history – without alien help – but seems incapable of allowing that past cultures could also have had such a revolution outside the known realms of written history and without the help of aliens. Once again, this inspired Jennifer to talk about the false narrative of progress in history that dates back to the Enlightenment era.
  • The most positive point in Chariots is undoubtedly Daniken’s call to action, which actually comes across more clearly in this book than on his website. Daniken, at least at the time that Chariots was published, is a proponent of increased space exploration, as he argues we will likely need to expand from Earth due to overpopulation.

Extra Stuffins for the Episode

The below photos are examples from the Nazca Lines in Peru. All photos courtesy of Diego Delso, you can view more of his work here.

The Monkey

The Condor

The Spider

This is an awesome clip from Ancient Aliens that features two ancient astronaut heavy hitters that we have discussed this season: Erick Von Daniken and Zecharia Stichin!

Paige gave Chariots of the Gods two stars, but would recommend it, in the same way that you’d recommend a cheesy B-movie. Honestly, while ancient astronaut theories and books can be fun, when we review them as a whole, they come across as willfully ignorant at best and predatory at worst. They prey on people’s lack of knowledge, expounding with a forceful tone ridiculous notions as if they are facts, relying on the reader’s trust to pass off their theory as truth. It doesn’t take much digging further to realize many of these claims are unsubstantiated, but more worrisome is the impact they have on the unsuspecting reader. As we live in a world that is increasingly filled with an overabundance of false information, being able to analyze or critically assess what you read is more important than ever. Entertaining as they may be, ancient astronaut books are no exception.

Coming up next in Episode 1.16: Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades. If you are enjoying the podcast so far, please consider leaving us a review and following us on social media. You can also support the podcast on Patreon and get access to all our bonus episodes (all links below). Until next time!

Show Notes – Episode 1.13

BBE Gets Spooky with The Ghosts of Williamsburg

Quick Links from the Episode:

  • The Bruton Parish Church story was perhaps the most compelling mystery in Ghosts. Today, the Church website reveals nothing about the cemetery incident, only mentioning that you must be a member of the church to be buried there. This only increases BBE’s interest and suspicions. Articles contemporary to the 1992 dig (here and here) explain that Church officials were hoping to lay to rest any conspiracy theories over the vault existing in their cemetery. Archaeologists dug down twenty feet and a geologist from William and Mary took soil samples to come up with…nada. However, the belief still persists, probably much to the dismay of the Church.
  • Colonial or Georgian architectural styles dominated early America, and thus are mentioned numerous times in Ghosts due to hauntings that occur in older or restored homes of these styles. These two names are roughly interchangeable, as colonial architecture was known as Georgian in America, referring of course to the King of England. The Historic New England organization and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission have excellent summaries and descriptions of these styles along with photographs of historic houses that embody them. You can also scroll down to see photos of the houses Jennifer was making fun of in the episode.
  • Paige and Jennifer both mentioned possible scientific explanations for supernatural phenomena, but here are some articles that drain all the spooky right out of it from the Smithsonian and How Stuff Works.
  • If you are interested in learning more about the colonial period, Bernard Bailyn’s The Barbarous Years are a great place to start. Don’t let the size fool you, Bailyn prized readability and it shows. Or reads? Either way, it is a great book.

The Ghosts of Williamsburg, Vol. II, by L.B. Taylor Jr. ( )

Finally, at last, one of Jennifer’s favorite subjects has become the topic of our podcast. Another Thrift Store Find is The Ghosts of Williamsburg Vol. II by L.B. Taylor Jr., a historical romp through various supernatural phenomena in the Williamsburg, VA area. Jennifer is actually quite horror-averse in general. She can count on one hand the number of times she has seen a scary movie, and she has certainly never picked up a Stephen King novel. However, when it comes to reading about true accounts of the supernatural, she has always been fascinated. More recently that has translated into a love for supernatural podcasts, such as And That’s Why We Drink. It also explains why this was a no-brainer buy at Goodwill.

L.B. Taylor Jr. appears to have been an old school dude. Ghosts was published in 1999, but it some ways it still harks back to an older age of dime novels. For example, at the back of the book, readers are encouraged to write the author at his home address for autographed copies, only fulfilled if you included $3 for postage. If you’d wanted to schedule Taylor for a speaking engagement, you’d also have to write or call. Given statements in the introduction about the corrupting influence of technology, we highly doubt that he ever had a website.

Unfortunately, Mr. Taylor passed away in 2014, but not before he had two very different and successful writing careers. Taylor graduated with a degree in journalism from Florida State University and launched into covering America’s space programs. For sixteen years, Taylor wrote about rockets, ingenuity, and the imagination of man. It wasn’t until after he retired from a career in public affairs that he indulged in another passion: ghosts and local history. You’ll notice the full title of Ghosts includes “Vol. 2.” There are, in fact, twenty-five books in Taylor’s ghosts of Virginia series. Let this kind of dedication be an inspiration to us all!

Main Topics from this Week’s Episode:

  • Jennifer found that, perhaps unexpectedly, she really enjoyed the historical content behind each story, building, or area mentioned. Taylor was clearly very passionate about local history and for someone not usually interested in early American history, Ghosts was a nice change.
  • On the flip side, belying the name of the book, the ghost content was less compelling. While there were a couple stories here and there that raised some goosebumps, but Jennifer is a total horror noob and most of the ghost stories were run-of-the-mill at best. If you were looking for some serious spooks, this book will not satisfy.
  • Jennifer also takes some time to recount her one and only supernatural experience which took place in a restaurant she used to work at in Alabama.
  • Does BBE believe in ghosts? In the episode we come up with a nice, lukewarm maybe. Both Jennifer and Paige, to their equal surprise are open to the possibility of the supernatural. Neither would invalidate the experiences of so many people across the globe who are convinced they have gone through something otherworldly. After all, Jennifer has her own experience she cannot explain, but she does believe that these could someday be understood through scientific means. Throughout history various phenomena once thought to be mysterious have been revealed, who knows if ghosts will be the same one day? Paige and Jennifer talk a few other explanations for supernatural events such as alternate dimensions, and rifts in the time-space continuum.
  • What was distasteful in Taylor’s otherwise charming little book on Williamsburg was the casual racism and glorious South narrative that are sprinkled throughout. Given that Taylor was of a different generation, he could perhaps be forgiven for using politically incorrect terms for Native Americans, though his editor should have lent a helping hand there. However, most disturbing are his characterizations of Southern ‘heroes’ of the Civil War and their ‘murderous’ Union counterparts. Jennifer didn’t appreciate this South-will-rise-again fervor in her ghost stories.

This photo of the Raleigh Tavern is an example of that colonial style that is as dry as burnt toast. The tavern at least has the advantage of gables, a common feature in these homes.

Photo by Maggie McCain from Williamsburg, Virginia, USA.

Another example of the colonial or Georgian style: a brick box. A box shape is a dominant and super interesting feature of this style.

Photo by Rob Shenk from Great Falls, VA, USA

Jennifer vacillated back and forth on rating this book. Two stars? Four? On the one hand, stories from the Revolutionary War and humorous anecdotes were charming. On the other, the ghost stories were sparser than she expected from a book about ghosts and were tame for the most part. However, more sinister than she first realized, The Ghosts of Williamsburg was in fact haunted by something more insidious than any one supernatural story Taylor mentioned: the ghost of narratives past.

Typical of a different era, Taylor’s prose was filled with old assumptions and black-and-white portrayals. In his account Native Americans were savages that brutalized colonists and Confederate generals were dashing and honorable men who contended with simultaneously villainous and incompetent Union soldiers. Never mind that Europeans were invaders into Native American lands that they intended from the beginning to conquer, and that Lee and Stuart at their core stood for oppression. The reality of these stories is that they are far more complex than American exceptionalism will ever allow. This view of the past, truly, is the spirit that needs to be laid to rest.

Tune in next Monday for Episode 1.14 on Nicholas Spark’s Dear John. If you are enjoying the podcast so far please consider leaving us a review and following us on social media. You can also support the podcast on Patreon and get access to our bonus episodes (all links below). Until next time!

Show Notes – Episode 1.7

Long Live the King of Vodka: The Life of Pyotr Smirnov

The King of Vodka, Linda Himelstein

We are in high spirits this week for our next Thrift Store Find: The King of Vodka, by Linda Himelstein. Everyone knows the brand Smirnoff vodka, and if you haven’t found yourself waking up the next morning regretting your choice of flavored vodka the night before have you even been to college? But did you happen to know the wild ride that is the life story of the brand’s original founder, Pyotr Smirnov? Our guess is you haven’t, and boy are you missing out.

Paige took a shot on this book when we visited Goodwill many months ago, I mean, hey, alcohol = interesting. How Linda Himelstein, a respected investigative journalist, author, and producer, came upon this story in the first place is interesting. After graduating with a Master’s in Journalism from Columbia University, Himelstein went on to write for The Wall Street Times, Business Week, Legal Time, The New York Times, and more. Originally she began writing on legal matters, but would expand her repertoire to include business and tech stories. Beyond writing, Himelstein has also produced two documentaries, The Hunting Ground and The Great American Lie. The Hunting Ground, covering the prevalence of and response to sexual assault on college campuses in the United States, is currently available for viewing on Netflix. The legal background perhaps explains her original interest in the Smirnov story. After moving to the Bay Area, Himelstein learned of the recently resolved court case that involved members of the Smirnov family who were trying to sue the brand for using their family name and recipes. The extended Smirnov family members lost their case in court, but the story sparked Himelstein’s interest, leading to a discovery of the life and times of Pyotr Smirnov.

Once again the topic of popular vs. academic history came up in this week’s episode. For those of you wondering what that means, labeling a book as “popular” history is not necessarily a slur against it’s quality (though some do tend to use it that way, which is ridiculous). Usually the determining factors for a popular history are that is has not been published by an academic press – think Oxford University Press, for example – and that it generally has a more engaging style, free from jargon and theory, that appeals to a broader base of readers outside the historical field.

The iconic St. Basil’s cathedral in Moscow, the city where Smirnov first began to build his empire. The cathedral received it’s distinctive modern day colors during Smirnov’s lifetime. Photo byΒ Nikolay VorobyevΒ onΒ Unsplash

While Paige was at first thrown off by this style, her discomfort vanished after the prologue. The story of Pyotr Smirnov is an amazing one indeed. Paige suggested The King of Vodka be made into a TV series, and she’s right, the drama of this family’s history seem tailor-made for a creative interpretation. Pyotr Smirnov was not born into wealth or privilege, he was born a serf. We have included a few resources about serfdom down below, but as a quick recap: serfdom was a form of slavery that had its roots in the Roman Empire, and at one time was widespread across Europe. However, by the time of Pyotr’s birth in 1831, Russia remained the last stronghold of serfdom. Being born a serf usually consigned you to a life of hard labor, as you worked the land you were tied to for a master, almost exclusively a member of the Russian aristocracy. What set the Smirnovs apart was their admittedly limited education, and their incredible business acumen. Through the efforts of Pyotr’s uncles, and eventually his own, they were able to make enough money from selling vodka to buy the entire family’s freedom.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. Pyotr experienced several personal tragedies, and the company he created weathered several storms: the conservative regime of Czar Alexander III that tied vodka to immorality, and the Bolshevik Revolution that targeted capitalist ventures, to name a few. By the time of his death, Pyotr had indeed become the King of Vodka, but this title was hard won. After his death in 1898, it would be a title his heirs were hard-pressed to keep. The story of the Smirnovs is intimately connected to the story of modern Russia itself. The events of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that swept across the entirety of the country also played out in the internal family dramas of the Smirnovs. If you want to understand modern Russia, this is as good a place to start as any. Plus there’s booze.

Overall, this was the first book Paige read for the podcast that she truly enjoyed and would heartily recommend. Ignoring the hilarity that it took us seven weeks to reach a book that Paige liked, The King of Vodka has her endorsement and earned 4.5 out of 5 stars. If you are at all interested in Russian history, perhaps already having binged your way through Empire of the Tsars or The Last Czars on Netflix, then this is a book for you.

*PSA*: If you noticed some background noise – like scratching or bells or meowing – in this week’s episode, be advised you are hearing Paige’s gang of cats doing their best to break the door down and succeeding.

We are just buzzing about these links:

  • For more complete information about Linda Himelstein and her work, visit her website.
  • For a list of all flavored Smirnoff vodkas currently sold in the US, look here.
  • What is serfdom? We didn’t really talk about it in the episode but check out the Britannica article on the origins of serfdom to learn more about this specialized form of slavery entrenched in Eastern Europe as late as the 19th century. Britannica also has another short article on Alexander II and the emancipation of Russia’s serfs. If you are so inclined to learn a great deal more about this topic, Jennifer can recommend Orlando Figes’ outstanding work, The People’s Tragedy. Assigned as a book for Jennifer’s legendary class on modern Russia, this book is hefty, but engagingly written and incredibly comprehensive (5/5 stars).
  • For more on Czar Alexander II, his Wikipedia page is extensive, and includes sources for further reading – some of which are even kind of recent!
  • According to Himelstein in The King of Vodka, the annual per capita alcohol consumption in Russia at the time of Smirnov was 2.7 liters, while in France it was nearly six times higher at 15.7 liters.
  • Unfortunately Jennifer wasn’t able to find much on the Pavlov vodka brand (in English) and whether or not it is the same as from the time of Smirnov. Possibly the brand we can find in stores was named after a Russian psychologist, but Jennifer isn’t sure about the accuracy of this fact.
  • The toxic ingredients found in Smirnov vodka were fusel oil, ethane diacid, sulfuric acid, and aniline dye, all of which are known to cause stomach, mouth, and kidney problems.
  • The most recent data Jennifer could find on the top grossing liquors was from a Forbes article from 2018. According to this article, while Smirnoff only ranks #6 in terms of all liquor sales, including local and international brands, they do still rank as #1 in international brands.

Tune in next Monday for Episode 1.8. If you’re enjoying the podcast so far, please leave us a review and follow us on social media (links above). Be sure to check out our Patreon for bonus BBE content as well, including bonus episodes. Until next time!

Show Notes – Episode 1.5

A Hypochondriac’s Nightmare: Discussing John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza

The Great Influenza (2004)

Another Thrift Store Find pick for this season is John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza. A hefty doorstop of a nonfiction book, Jennifer was originally intrigued because she’s always been interested in epidemiology, and with the chosen topic of the deadly 1918 influenza pandemic, this combined with her love of history as well. Turns out Paige and Jennifer are basically the same person because Paige is also interested in diseases, so this was a fortuitous pick. The 1918 pandemic, more commonly known – and mislabeled – as the Spanish flu, was the kind of disease that nightmares are made of. Modern medical science had just come into its own in the early twentieth century, with amazing discoveries being made at an incredible pace after the general acceptance of germ theory among the most educated medical professionals and researchers. However, despite this enormous step forward in medicine, the 1918 flu could not have hit at a worse time. A small conflict called World War I happened to be in full swing and in a time before commercial flying was available to the general population, the war necessitated an unprecedented amount of travel and contact between people from across the globe. The flu, possibly originating in America, would follow troop movements across the Atlantic, cross enemy lines, and eventually spread over the entire globe to disastrous consequences that modern medical science could only attempt to contain at the time. The sheer scale of this crisis was overwhelming. With the current threat of coronavirus constantly in the news, who knew months ago when BBE visited a Goodwill bookstore that this pick would become so relevant!

John M. Barry is a highly decorated author of nonfiction, but has worn many hats over the years: football coach, journalist, activist. Barry began studying for a PhD in history at the University of Rochester, but would drop out of the program after receiving his MA. This background in historical research and theory is clearly evident in the complexity, depth, and overall scholarly rigor of his work. Though the PhD route may not have been for him, Barry had a successful career coaching football, even rising to the position of assistant coach at Tulane University. Later Barry would move to Washington D.C. and write for publications such as The Washington Post before turning to nonfiction books. The Great Influenza is not the only book Barry has written on a scientific topic, and his efforts have been recognized by those in the scientific and policy-making communities.

A military hospital at Camp Funston, Kansas. Soldiers were often housed in makeshift buildings because camps were unable to keep up with the number of sick. c/o National Museum of Health and Medicine

Wow was there a lot to fit into a single episode this week. Jennifer did her best to cram in as much information from the book as possible, but despite an extra long recording session so much remained to be discussed! If you are expecting a book solely about the events of the pandemic of 1918 to 1920, forget about it. Jennifer was surprised to find that Barry takes the reader wayyyyy back. Back to Hippocrates and Galen, in fact, to discuss the foundation of Western medicine. While this may seem like quite a jump, and Jennifer was frustrated at times by the meandering path Barry took to 1918, providing the wealth of contextual material for the pandemic is A+ historical work. In case you were lacking a scientific background, never fear because Barry provides that as well. Jennifer learned how the flu virus acts differently from other viruses, what causes pneumonia, what makes pneumonia a deadly secondary infection, and what the H’s and N’s stand for in H1N1. The real heart of the story, though, are the individuals involved in fighting the disease. Barry is clearly invested in the stories of the scientists and researchers drawn into the flu pandemic, and by the end, chances are you will be invested in their stories, too. While some of the more speculative prose on the emotions or thoughts these individuals may have been experiencing at the time is a little outside the realm of academic history, Jennifer overall believes this technique really brings the story to life, inviting the reader into the lives of William Henry Welch, or Oswald Avery. You may not recognize either of these names in the slightest, but reading The Great Influenza, you’ll walk away seeing them as heroes.

Once Barry does finish setting up the political, social, and scientific background for the 1918 pandemic, the book starts to get rough. We don’t mean that Barry’s writing starts to flounder or the story loses coherence, we mean it is tough to read about the path of destruction that the 1918 virus (H1N1, coincidentally) wrought across the globe. The story of this pandemic is not for the faint of heart, the squeamish, or hypochondriacs (Jennifer is one, unfortunately). The descriptions of the horrific conditions that people faced in cities such as Philadelphia, New York, or Boston are better suited to a sci-fi horror movie than to real life. At least that is how it appears to us today in our mostly sterile and disease-free existence, where imagining bodies piling up in houses because the sick are too weak to remove them is so far outside our experience. Reading about the suffering and fear people across the world faced, and the heroism that emerged despite dire circumstances, brings home how privileged most of us in industrialized countries are today. But it also reveals how fragile and tenuous that privilege truly is. While the virus itself was lethal above and beyond normal limits, the scale and the speed of the 1918 pandemic were what broke societies down completely. Faced with the new threat of coronavirus today, how will we respond if it escapes containment? Just some big questions that neither Paige nor Jennifer have answers for.

Despite the many advances medical science had made around the turn of the century, it could not come up with a solution for the flu pandemic. This left the way open for more traditional remedies to advertise their miracle cures. Shockingly, Pluto Water did not prove effective against influenza. c/o Wikipedia.

In conclusion, The Great Influenza is a hypochondriac’s nightmare. Barry’s afterword is particularly sobering as he assesses our preparedness for the next pandemic. Unfortunately, we are woefully ill-equipped to deal with anything like the magnitude of the 1918 flu. In 1918, the federal government was very nearly criminally negligent in its apathetic response to the flu. The incompetence of government officials was compounded with their reluctance to listen to medical professionals and a president focused only on the war effort. The lack of centralized support as well as scarce resources were critical factors contributing to overall death toll. We will not have the luxury of this response again. Barry is emphatic in his assertion that government needs to seriously reconsider how much money is currently being spent on medical research, particularly the flu. It is also hard to comprehend the harshness of measures that might need to be taken to prevent a pathogen’s spread. The communities that fared best in 1918 were those who instituted strict quarantines, because in reality it is highly unlikely that during an epidemic help will come from a newly created vaccine. The best way to prevent deaths is to prevent infection. So while China’s steps taken to prevent movement in and out of the Wuhan epicenter may seem extreme, in reality this will save many lives as long as we continue to keep the coronavirus contained.

Despite the doom and gloom, what Barry has been able to accomplish through the weaving together of individual storylines with larger political and social developments is masterful. Even though The Great Influenza did not quite follow the path Jennifer had at first anticipated, it was a pleasant surprise. Despite some disagreements over stylistic choices Barry made with his writing, Jennifer gives this read 4.5 out of 5 stars and would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of disease, epidemiology, or the American medical profession.

Don’t miss out on the links mentioned in this week’s episode:

  • The CDC has a small online exhibit about the 1918 pandemic, complete with links out to more resources.
  • To learn more about the four humors theory of medicine, but also about other systems of medicine in the ancient and medieval period, check out this Crash Course History video. Also, you should just check out Crash Course in general, they make awesome content.
  • Heinrich Hermann Robert Koch was the German scientist who was a founder of modern bacteriology and who’s name Jennifer couldn’t remember in the episode. And I mean with three first names, who is going to keep that straight?
  • To learn more about viruses in a digestible format, Jennifer has rounded up some relevant YouTube vids: general virus info, the flu specifically, and where viruses came from. The last video is produced by PBS Eons, an awesome channel if you are interested in paleontology, geology, or other early earth science stuff. Basically, it’s nerd heaven!
  • To keep up with the latest coronavirus news, check out CNN’s live updates.
  • Don’t miss out on the drama over Barry’s science in The Great Influenza. It is fascinating to see others in the scientific community weighing in on whether or not this book is accurate, whether or not it needs to be entirely accurate when portraying scientific ideas to the public, and more.
  • Visit John M. Barry’s personal website to see more of his works and read this excellent NYT article on Barry’s work as an activist suing Exxon over destruction of Louisiana coastline.

Tune in next Monday for Episode 1.6. If you’re enjoying the podcast so far, please consider giving us a review. Follow us on social medial if that is your thing (links above), and be sure to check out our Patreon for extra BBE content, including bonus episodes!