I was going to wait a couple of weeks until I posted a June 2020 list of Books Most Recently Enjoyed by MillersTime readers, but since I have some free time and want to write more than three sentences (the limit for the next list posting), I want to draw your attention to Lawrence Wright’s just published The End of October.
You may recognize the author’s name as he writes for the New Yorker magazineand in 2007 won a Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for his book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. He’s written four other books, a script for Oliver Stone’s movie Noriega: God’s Favorite, and co-wrote a screen play, among other activities. Although The End of October was released at the end April of this year, Wright finished the writing of the book well before the current COVID-19 virus appeared in China, around the world, and in the US. It is his first novel as he has been primarily known for his nonfiction works.
It is riveting, entertaining, sobering, and filled with information about the science and history of earlier pandemics wound around the fictional story of a CDC scientist/doctor and his family and a novel pandemic (not COVID-19 but eerily similar and much more dangerous) that threatens the world.
Wright has done his research, after all he’s primarily been a nonfiction writer, and that’s what makes The End of October so rich and so frightening. Plus, Wright understands much about the world in which we live, its politics – domestic and international — its religions, the hopes and fears of all of us. He mixes the strong narrative and its characters with scientific facts. It’s written like a mystery: the pace of the book is literally heart-throbbing, and it doesn’t let up. (I listened to it, all 13+ hours) while walking on the treadmill, usually extending myself at least a couple miles beyond what I intended.)
I loved and admired the main character, built on an relatively unknown, or forgotten, British epidemiologist of the late 1800s and early 1900s. And I got caught up in the numerous plots and twists and turns of Wright’s story.
It is not a flawless novel by any means, but the reader can’t help but be amazed at how Wright has so accurately been able to foresee so much of what has been occurring over the last three to four months in this country and in the world. He has insisted he did not write The End of October as a cautionary tale but that he looked at the history of pandemics (particularly, but not only, the 1918 Spanish Flu), used what scientists and doctors told him, and added stress and his imagination to a story of an initially contained outbreak of what he termed the Congoli virus.
The result is 400 pages of reading or 13 hours and 26 minutes of listening to a story that mixes fiction and nonfiction in a book you will not forget.
“It’s the time you spent on your rose that makes your rose so important…You’re responsible for your rose.”
–Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince
Part I. The Purchase (Sept. 7-8, 2019):
It all started on the first Saturday in September, 2019. Over seven months ago. We were concluding one of our more memorable trips, nine days in Greenland (Greenland: In Words & Photos), with its remote, wild, and awe-inspiring landscapes, seascapes, marine life, the ‘magic’ of the Northern Lights, and where its Inuit population was hurtling from the Stone Age to the iPhone Age.
It was our final day and night there, and we were in the small town of Kulusuk (pop. 300), awaiting our flight back to Iceland and then back to DC. The foggy weather was threatening to strand us there, and it was likely our plane would not arrive, nor leave if it did arrive.
I walked by the very tiny souvenir shop in our modest hotel and saw a ‘model’ of an Inuit kayak. I was captivated. But the shop was closed, and when I pointed the kayak out to Ellen, she immediately said, “Don’t buy it. It’s too big, and we don’t have any place to put it.” Others in our group of 12 saw it too and remarked at how unusual it was. Several seemed to be quite interested in it also.
Most of the group went off to ‘explore’ Kulusuk, and I stayed behind trying to find someone to open the shop. I eventually found Jakob Ibsen, the gruff, no nonsense Danish (Norweigan ?) manager of the hotel who opened the shop and began to tell me about the Qajaq (the Inuit spelling for the word kayak, pronounced “kayak”). He told me it was a 50+ year old, hand-crafted, one of a kind, replica of an Inuit kayak with its ropes, harpoon, and various other adorning artifacts. He said the craftsman, Jess Thorin, had recently died, and somehow he, Jakob, had come into possession of it.
The price was more than I had ever paid for a ‘souvenir’ throughout all of our travels, including my prized Masai shield purchased in 1963 in Tanganyika. But I didn’t think the price of this hand-made artifact was exorbitant for what it was. Plus, when one is truly captivated (can one be ‘truly captivated’?), cost can more easily be justified. It was art, after all.
There were some hurdles, however. Ellen was quite clear that I was not to pursue it. When she left with our other travelers to explore Kulusuk, she gave me ‘that look’ that was quite clear: “Don’t. Even. Consider. It. ” Those of you who know her, understand she is not one to be easily disregarded. Those of you who know me, understand my quiet determination.
Then there was the size, approximately 65 inches in length, and Ellen had a point about where we could display it in our home, already ladened with crafts gathered (over the course of 50 years) from around the world.
And besides all that, how would we get this somewhat fragile piece of art out of Greenland and to the US? I certainly couldn’t take it with me.
All of these hurdles proved to have some validity. But when one is captivated…
When Ellen returned from her photo journey around the town, she took one look at me and said, “You bought it, didn’t you?” (Plus a few other choice, and now repressed, remarks.)
I told her Jakob had assured me he would send it to Washington (after he had one small part of the kayak repaired as he thought he knew an artist who could do the work). He promised to build a crate to house the kayak and keep it safe during transport.
Ellen remained skeptical, largely because she didn’t see a place for us to house this ‘treasure’ nor how it could possibly be sent. My view was that it would become obvious where we could display it once it was in the house. Somehow, it would ‘tell us’ where it belonged.
You can guess how well that went over with Ellen.
Part II. The Wait (Sept. 9, 2019 – Apr. 21, 2020):
Jakob had told me as soon as he had that one portion of the Qajaq repaired, it would be on its way to me, probably sometime in October, 2019.
I will spare the reader all the frustrating emails, phone calls, swearing, doubts, etc., but suffice it to say I never lost hope that it would arrive. Ellen, on the other hand, seemed quite satisfied with what became a seven and a half month saga, secretly, I think, hoping that it might never arrive.
Briefly, there seemed to be a ‘hold up’ every month. Once, it was finding the right artist to do the repair. Then it was getting the right materials to do the repair. Then it was building a box, crate actually, to house the kayak. then there was a long silence from Jakob, and he neither answered my emails nor could I reach him by phone. 2019 turned into 2020, and all I had was a picture of the empty crate.
Finally, in mid January (four months after the purchase), Jakob answered his phone and told me everything was ready, but there were no flights leaving Kulusuk because of the weather! I’m not sure what happened over the next month and a half, but it was not until Mar. 11 that he wrote to say, “The kayak left Kulusuk today on Air Iceland, slowed by Icelandic Customs and concern if anyone handling the kayak and crate had come in contact with COVID-19.”
Ah, my faith in Jakob was restored, but of course the wait for the arrival did not end there. Somehow, it was held up in Reykjavik before it finally arrived in the US, three weeks later on April 2nd.
Then the US Customs got involved. They needed proof of sale, a description of all the contents, including the materials used to build it, my social security number, and my mother’s maiden name. Following a week of document exchanges, it was held in Baltimore until the Fish & Wildlife people would release it. (This is not a joke. Perhaps that was because there were parts of the kayak made with reindeer antler?). Then it was the USDA folks who had to approve it, which they did after several exchanges between Chicago, Iceland, Greenland, Baltimore and Washington (Don’t ask.)
And what then? Just a small hurdle (a week) to get it trucked from BWI to DC and my house (32.8 miles). Something about commercial vs residential delivery. And behold, today, Tuesday, April 21st at 2:01 PM, the crate was delivered to our house and placed in the garage, exactly seven months and 14 days after its purchase.
Saint-Exupery and The Little Prince would be so proud of me.