Bookworm: 'What now?' in the time of COVID-19

Terri Schlichenmeyer

"Unprepared: America in the Time of coronavirus"

  • Introduction by Timothy Egan, complied and edited by Jon Sternfeld
  • c.2020, Bloomsbury
  • $28.00 / $38.00 Canada 355 pages
'Unprepared: America in the Time of Coronavirus"

Your fingers are raw and wrinkly.

That's because sanitizer is your friend, you use a lot of soap and water, and there's no way you're going to risk some sort of nasty virus this winter. But the virus, where do we go now? In "Unprepared," compiled and edited by Jon Sternfeld, you first have to know where we've been.

On December 31 last year, as the first few notes of "Auld Lang Syne" began to play, Chinese officials quietly warned citizens that they'd confirmed seven cases of SARS from a seafood market in Wuhan. Chances are, the average American didn't know it.

Five days later, 59 people in Wuhan were sick with the virus.

By January 21, 300 Chinese victims had fallen ill, a fact that National Public Radio reported, and the CDC in Atlanta confirmed America's first case of 2019-nCoV in Washington state; the following day, President Donald Trump said the situation was "under control." A month later, the stock market "slumped" in response to what was now called coronavirus.

By early March, there were 90,000 Covid-19 cases, world-wide. Many of those were in the U.S. and the pandemic was spreading despite President Trump's public assertion that things were "fine." Americans wanted tests, but access was lacking; Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for medical personnel was starting to run out. On March 7, there were "around" 200 cases of Covid-19 in the U.S.; three days later, that had more than tripled. Dr. Anthony Fauci of the NIAID suggested that Americans would have to "hunker down significantly" to squash the virus. African Americans were particularly hit by illness. Businesses temporarily shuttered and unemployment rose.

By May, Americans were frustrated about shut-downs, mask mandates, job loss, and deaths. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta said, "This is chaos..."

On May 25, George Floyd died on a street in Minneapolis and protests broke out in almost every major city in America.

On June 5, there were more than 875,000 confirmed Coronavirus cases in the U.S...

For sure, readers of "Unprepared" will notice one important thing: it's not finished.

That should come as no big surprise; compiler-editor Jon Sternfeld admits in his author's note that he compiled only just so far, and that he "wouldn't venture to guess" what would happen after he penned his note last summer. It's probably just as well; who could've ever accurately predicted the last four months?

Despite its we-know-what-happens cliffhanger, though, "Unprepared" is too much, and that may be because we've lived what's here and it's still pretty fresh in most readers' minds. And yet, reading it makes the last year feel like a new shock, like knowing a stove is hot and touching it anyway. Watching the virus arrive in this oral history – this must have been what Dust Storm victims felt like.

"Unprepared" is not an easy thing. It's not cut-and-dried, nor is it complimentary to many politicians; instead, you're left with your own thoughts, fears, and a story to complete. It's a sobering book, and there's no way to sanitize that.


Sometimes, you crave more information, so look for "Plagues, Pandemics and Viruses: From the Plague of Athens to Covid-19" by Heather E. Quinlan (Visible Ink Press), which is a wide look at frightening times throughout history; or "The Rules of Contagion" by Adam Kucharski (Basic Books), a book about how things spread, from ideas to fads, and violence to diseases.

"We Gather Together: A Nation Divided, A President in Turmoil, and a Historic Campaign to Embrace Gratitude and Grace"

  • By Denise Kiernan
  • c.2020, Dutton
  • $25.00 / $34.00 Canada 294 pages
"We Gather Together"

Uncle Ed was always "full" first.

That didn't stop him from having seconds on the pumpkin pie, though; he sure loved Aunt Emma's desserts. Alas, she won't be at your Thanksgiving table this year, and neither will Ed. No, your table will be lighter and your turkey smaller, through politics and pandemics, and in "We Gather Together" by Denise Kiernan, you'll see what else is missing.

Sarah Josepha Hale had known her share of hardship.

Born in 1788, at a time when it was frowned-upon for women to get a higher education, she nonetheless received her lessons second-hand from a beloved older brother matriculating at Dartmouth. Writing became her favorite thing, and it was a comfort after Sarah lost her sister, mother, brothers, father, and husband while she was still just a young woman.

Left with five small children, the widow Hale went to work as a milliner, then an author, then as a magazine writer/editor for a women's magazine. Hale's words and her ideas were closely followed by thousands of women, and she was well aware that she was persuasive.

That in mind, she set out to rectify something she saw lacking. Gratitude rituals were ancient things; the young United States had held them before but Hale wanted an annual day set aside. And so she asked President Zachary Taylor, and nearly every other president going forward, to institute a national day of gratitude.

Abraham Lincoln finally did as she hoped.

And in 1939, some sixty years after her death, the last piece of Hale's puzzle fell into place.

So how does this affect you?

Your table may be missing a few people or dishes this year, but that shouldn't stop you from honoring the reason for the meal: Thanksgiving, first-syllable emphasis. So this year, take

time to reflect, and write someone a note of gratitude. Honor Native American Heritage Day. Have a "Zoomsgiving." Do it because gratitude changes your brain. Do it because, even in the worst of times, you have much.

At some point, probably back when you were drawing turkeys by tracing your hand, you might've learned part of the story behind Thanksgiving. Here, author Denise Kiernan fills in the blanks – the biggest of which is something you might miss, that Sarah Hale spent nearly four decades hoping to make us grateful.

You might feel a little guilty, then, for thinking that "We Gather Together" drags sometimes, but don't, because it does. Kiernan's calm storytelling works well to snatch a reader's attention back, however, through soothing thoughts, side-dishes of Thanksgiving origins, and stories populated with Hale's contemporaries, many of whom contributed to American culture in delightful ways that we've since forgotten. Indeed, reading about it is like sampling a bounty: a spoonful here, a nibble there, a giant helping of riches.

This is the book you've been wanting since summer: one that calms your soul, invigorates your mind, and helps to heal this years' bruises. Get "We Gather Together" and see if your hands and heart aren't full.

More:Bookworm: Crack open a cold one and ‘Greatest Beer Run Ever’

And:Bookworm: ‘Place for Everything’ covers the invention of writing

Also:Bookworm: New book moves Civil War story in a different direction

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.