Book briefs

A chronicle of smallpox, and a Christmas fable to avoid like smallpox.


by Jonathan B. Tucker (Atlantic Monthly Press, $26)

THE ERADICATION of smallpox—a highly contagious disease that caused fever, painful skin eruptions, and permanent disfigurement or death—was a medical triumph of international magnitude. The only disease ever eliminated by human effort, smallpox was wiped out in 1980, after a 30-year-long effort led, and sometimes resisted, by the World Health Organization. The only official remaining stocks of smallpox are warehoused in high-security labs in the former Soviet Union and at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta; they were supposed to be destroyed in 1993, but debate over their usefulness in case of an accidental or intentional outbreak has kept them around.

In the chilling context of international fears of terrorism and biological warfare, Scourge is a clear-eyed, prescient look at the campaign to eradicate smallpox and the ongoing battle over whether to preserve its last remaining vestiges. Jonathan B. Tucker is a political scientist, not an essayist, and Scourge sometimes lacks the color one might expect of a book whose subject is the most deadly infectious disease in human history. But what the work lacks in drama, it makes up for in exactitude. Tucker concisely details the origins and slow spread of smallpox through Asia and the Americas, describing in sometimes gruesome detail the symptoms of the disease and the odd, though effective, methods doctors developed for preventing it.

But the strength of this engrossing book is Tucker's retelling of the campaign to erase smallpox from the earth, an effort that germinated in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and ended with the last natural outbreak of smallpox in 1977. Even as other nations were working to consolidate and destroy their smallpox stores, the Russians were secretly laboring to develop new, deadlier strains of the virus to use as biological weapons. If such a weapon reached the hands of a "rogue state" like Iraq during Russia's economic collapse of the early 1990s, the result could be a mass outbreak of an incurable disease against which few in the world are still protected. For all its facts and figures, Scourge raises more questions than it answers: Can we effectively deal with an outbreak of a disease the world hasn't seen for 20 years? Can a scourge ever be eradicated? For the latter question, Tucker's answer appears to be "No."

Erica C. Barnett


by John Grisham (Doubleday, $19.95)

I LIKED The Firm. So while I wasn't wildly optimistic about picking up Skipping Christmas, John Grisham's entry into the Christmas fable genre, I didn't think it would be one of the most offensive, tedious books I've read, either.

The story opens with Luther and Nora Krank sending their daughter off to the Peace Corps in Peru. Nora is miserable about the idea of Christmas without Blair. And Luther, who's just grumpy, totals the amount the couple spends on the holiday and decides to use the cash for a Caribbean cruise instead. Nora goes along with the idea, though she's embarrassed when they don't participate in neighborhood traditions like putting an electric Frosty on the roof. The neighbors, on the other hand, turn to increasingly nasty measures in response: leaving "Free Frosty" signs in the lawn, leaking a "Local Scrooge" article to the newspaper, gathering groups of bellowing carolers to nearly imprison the couple in their undecorated house. But despite the harassment, Nora and Luther excitedly await the trip, dieting and tanning to get in shape. Just as they've started to bond, Blair announces she's coming home after all, Peruvian boyfriend in tow. And the horrible neighbors have a sudden change of heart: They decorate the Kranks' house and donate food and gifts to trick Blair into thinking her parents were celebrating the holiday all along! A Christmas miracle—with some serious It's a Wonderful Life rip-offs going on.

But the worst part is as their fake party develops, Luther and Nora's biggest concern is that Enrique's going to be too dark:

"The door opened and Blair rushed in. Nora and Luther both glanced at her first, then quickly looked beyond to see how dark Enrique was. He wasn't dark at all! At least two shades lighter than Luther himself!"

I guess the moral is: Don't tan, or you'll be browner than the Latino.

I'm hoping that it's supposed to imply the Kranks' pettiness, but this happens in the last 10 pages, when the truth is revealed and Mr. Krank supposedly realizes the essence of Christmas.

Do yourself a favor: Read A Christmas Carol. Or even an old copy of The Firm. That's got way more spirit than this lame offering.

Audrey Van Buskirk

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