Chazan! Unfiltered: Art and medicine collide in this locally produced biographical graphic novel

Dr. Joseph Chazan, like the character Billy Pilgrim in the novel Slaughterhouse-Five, is unstuck in time. The phenomenon is localized in a new graphic novel Chazan! Unfiltered, which takes a here-there-and-back-again approach to his personal and professional life story.

Rhode Island’s own Dr. Chazan is a nephrologist (in layman’s terms, a kidney doctor), and while the “unfiltered” in the title suggests frank disclosures in its pages, it’s more of a kidney pun. The doctor’s life — at least in comic strip form — is less about shocking revelations and more about his lifetime effort to help people and, in the process, lead a rich and well-rounded life.

We begin with the metafictional framing device of Chazan’s grandson approaching him to say, “Let’s make a graphic novel about your life story.” That, arguably, is a little tired, but once Chazan’s story gets underway, it’s presented with charm, humor and interesting narrative and artistic touches. 

The doctor’s last name is likened to Captain Marvel’s transforming exultation “Shazam!” and no doubt to his Rhode Island patients, Dr. Chazan is a bit of a superhero, since years ago, he led an initiative to introduce something called a “dialysis machine” to our state. Previously, patients had to pack a lunch and go to Boston anytime they wanted the convenience of having their lives saved.

To the graphic novel’s credit, it doesn’t filter out some unpleasant parts of Dr. Chazan’s life, most notably the death of his wife. The graphic novel makes clear that even these darker moments are all part of the bigger picture: happiness, sadness, health, sickness, life and death — they all flow together and around each other in time. 

Given the language level of this book and the way these topics are treated, it’s easy to imagine this book being read by a young adult, teenager or even tween. One imagines a young reader would be most interested to learn that the adult world is not all about work, or all about One Thing.

Dr. Chazan, we find out, enjoys the visual arts. He buys and collects the work of local artists, decorates his offices with their paintings and drawings, and finds no contradiction between being a man of science and a man of the arts.

Several pages of reproduced artwork certainly give the reader an idea of the breadth of Chazan’s artistic interests, but some readers may wish we had at least a single page in which the character Chazan opens up about what one piece in particular means to him. After several pages of reproductions, we literally get the picture: The man likes art.

The comic art itself is from the hand of Erminio Pinque, best known to Rhode Islanders as the founder and director of Big Nazo Lab, makers of large-as-life puppets, masks and sculpture.

While Big Nazo’s creatures can be (entertainingly) grotesque, Pinque’s drawings here have a softer feel and look, which is suitable to his all-too-human subject. Pinque’s rendering of Dr. Chazan makes him look like a human plush doll, which I’m sure the good doctor doesn’t mind.

“Life cycles through us, no matter what we do,” says the comic book version of Dr. Chazan, an analogy to how the blood of life is constantly flowing through our kidneys.  

As readers try to filter the bad from the good to find books worth buying, reading and keeping, make note of Chazan! Unfiltered: It’s a welcome document establishing that superheroes do walk among us, even in Rhode Island.

Chazan! Unfiltered (Never Enough Books, 2020), by Lenny Schwartz (story) and Erminio Pinque (art), is available for purchase at

Full disclosure: The editor of Chazan! Unfiltered is Emily Olson, this magazine’s editor, and the artist, Erminio Pinque, is a regular contributor.

Now Read This!: Local authors to stash in your beach bag this summer

Some people will feel safe venturing out to the old haunts of last summer, while others will continue to be cautious and stay close to home. Here are some book options by local authors to add to your summer reading list, regardless of where you plan to read them:

Dispatches From the Fort, by Jeff Danielian: This is Danielian’s fourth volume of poetry. He has a simple style to writing that is both uplifting and thought provoking. This collection includes 58 poems and a short nonfiction piece. 

Witches, Wenches and Wild Women of Rhode Island, by M.E. Reilly-McGreen: Our state is full of forgotten history and fascinating tidbits; this book highlights Rhode Island’s many powerful and influential women. Each tale is short but insightful, giving plenty of interesting information. Homework: Go the extra mile and visit the monuments and markers mentioned in the book. 

I Gotta Tell You Something, by B. Lucy Stevens: Stevens collected these poems from a class that she taught to a group of 12 adults back in 2016. Each poem provides a magnified glimpse into the author’s thought process, life and soul. There are moments of success, struggle and heartbreak with every word full of power and meaning. 

In-Between People, by James Vickers: This semi autobiographical tale about a freelance writer who travels the country on his own accord is a great read for those worried about traveling, but who want to vicariously take a trip.

The Constitution of the United States of America: This should be required reading for every American this summer (myself included). Education is the key to progress. 

Page Turners: Essential reading for steps toward being anti-racist

It’s a popular social media trend, lists of book recommendations dealing with anti-racism. You’re probably familiar with their contents, The Color of Law, White Fragility, Audre Lorde, Ta Neesi-Coates, with some fiction by Zora Neale Huston or Toni Morrison for good measure. I’m male and pale, so I can’t speak to whether a list of recommendations will actually help any white person understand race, but here’s a list that I feel has helped me:

The End of Policing by Alex Vitale: This and the next book on the list are easily in my top three nonfiction reads of the past 10 years. Vitale expertly walks you through an analysis of our modern policing system. He begins with the inherent vice of police reform, why it continually does not exit us out of our current policing nightmare, beginning with the example of Eric Garner. He proceeds with deconstructing our perceptions of police, how they don’t really help us even when we are the victims of crimes, the school-to-prison pipeline, the way they criminalize the homeless, the way police are political creatures and more. This book is essential reading for anyone watching videos of police riots on social media and wondering how it came to be. It’s succinct, barely a few hundred pages. An older and more extensive text on police critiques is Our Enemy in Blue by Kristian Williams. An excellent work on the militarization of modern police since the Iraq/Afghanistan wars is Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko.

Black against Empire, by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Kr: Speaking of aggressive policing, this book, an American Book Award winner, details the politics and history of the Black Panther Party. Few organizations in the continental United States are as misunderstood and unfairly maligned as the Black Panther Party. The book tracks their beginning on the West Coast, their apex in the late ‘60s, and the repeated targeting and sabotage by the FBI. The Panthers have a rich history, an enduring legacy, far beyond just a five-minute boogieman in Forrest Gump. 

The Radical King, edited by Cornel West: What I was taught and most people are taught about Martin Luther King is the safe-for-primetime, offensive to none version. This book, curated and edited by Cornel West, shows just how radical the man was. Divided into four sections, they underscore his identification with the working poor, his opposition to the war in Vietnam and his hostility to American imperialism abroad. King takes great pains to identify racism with economic oppression, something that still applies to our present historical moment. As I see various political leaders invoke his name, I repeatedly come back to this quote by the man himself: “What you’re saying may get you a foundation grant, but it won’t get you into the kingdom of truth.”

Race for Profit by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: Housing discrimination was banned in the late ‘60s, but Taylor shows how the economic system deliberately undermined black homeownership. Even though redlining came to an end, many of its racist goals and implication continued to exist through something Taylor calls predatory inclusion. An excellent companion read to The Color of Law. Essential reading if you grew up in a white suburb and have had little trouble buying a house or have parents who easily bought a house.

Give Us the Ballot by Ari Berman: If you’re like me, your history education in high school ends somewhere around World War 2, with maybe a brief unit on the civil rights movement. This book details what happened after, focusing on the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and what happened after. Super ghouls and ghosts in red states and beyond have performed dozens of acts of counter-revolution chipping away slowly at the expanded franchise to ensure nonwhite can’t vote. The Supreme Court of the United States recently invalidated a key part of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. As a result, various states have removed online voting registration, early voting, same-day registration, Sunday voting, expunged thousands of voters from state rolls, and implemented voter ID laws. Almost 1,000 polling places would shut down in the years after the Shelby decision, and the US Commission on Civil Rights found a growth in discriminatory laws that made it harder for minorities to vote.

Look, I’m pale and male. For straight white males in America, there’s a glass floor, not a glass ceiling. Reading these books isn’t automatically going to make you an anti-racist, but it may inspire some radical empathy and humanism. The reason I suggest these books is that the systemic problems never went away. The past isn’t dead — it’s not even past. By learning more about what it’s like for someone to live without the privileges of being white, maybe one day it will be past.

Pandemic Non-fiction: What you don’t know can kill you

There is no shortage of books about diseases through human history, but a few have become definitive classics. I’ve curated an admittedly highly opinionated selection of the best. Some books that arguably would have qualified have been left off simply because they are too old, and medicine changes so rapidly that it could be misleading to include them.

The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance by Laurie Garrett. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994).

One of the nation’s leading health science reporters, Laurie Garrett has won nearly every major prize in journalism, including the Pulitzer, Polk (twice) and Peabody. This book in 1994 was her assessment of how the infectious disease research community was motivated by the AIDS crisis to try, mightily, to warn the world.

Where the book excels is in telling of the people literally risking their lives to do research, such as an American team of experts who did field work in 1963-1964 to discover what was behind Bolivian Hemorrhagic Fever, catching and barely surviving the disease themselves. In the 1950s, there was a worldwide effort to stamp out malaria by using the pesticide DDT, which in Bolivia killed enough cats to allow mice to run rampant, carrying a different and deadlier disease into the human population.

A German-Jewish doctor in 1974 being driven in a van with his patient, another German doctor extricated from Nigeria with deadly Lassa fever, ridiculously imagines that they are being taken to a secret concentration camp where they will all be disposed of and their deaths will be blamed on the disease. Lassa virus proved so dangerous that research at Yale University had to be ended because its biosafety laboratory precautions were insufficient to protect staff.

By 1975-1976, the little town of Lyme, Connecticut, was where a new tick-borne disease was discovered; it infects 300,000 each year in the US. Legionnaire’s disease was discovered because of an outbreak in 1976 at an American Legion convention, but we now know it causes about 13,000 severe cases a year, although it might never have been discovered but for that outbreak.

More recently, the 1990s emergence of a novel hantavirus strain in the American West, a deadly pathogen that often kills otherwise healthy young people, inducing acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) with a ferocity similar to First World War poison gas such as phosgene and phosphene, demonstrates the threat is current. Hantaviruses had been studied since the 1980s, apparently migrating from Korea to infect virtually the entire population of rats and mice in US cities, likely contributing to higher rates of hypertension and kidney disease among the urban poor – at the same time federal and state funding dried up for rodent control programs. Western state members of Congress pushed through an emergency $6 million response to the 1990s epidemic; Garrett notes, “Some members of Congress remarked that such an allocation might not have been necessary if DoD budget cutters hadn’t gutted the Army’s hanta program two years earlier.”

No book better summarizes the 20th century effort to fight infectious disease, especially with enormous successes such as the elimination of polio and smallpox begun in the 1950s and expanded aggressively throughout the world in the 1960s and 1970s, and then taking the reader on a grand tour through the development of genetic engineering, widespread drug resistance, refugee migration, political instability, increasing inequality in health care between the first and third worlds, loss of diversity among plants and animals, ecological consequences of massive deforestation, ocean pollution and global warming. The book even presciently predicts the emergence of what we know today as the opioid crisis and the effect of opposition to needle exchanges.

The closing theme of the book is a warning that the threat from infectious disease is very much still with us, using as an example an international war game scenario in Honolulu in 1989 that shocked all participants, uncovering a universal lack of readiness among all government, military and international organizations. Half of vaccine manufacturers withdrew from the business by 1990 because it was insufficiently profitable. The World Health Organization (WHO) is widely regarded as so underfunded and politically hesitant that one researcher noted AIDS was already on four continents before they recognized it. As governments abandon attempts to detect new diseases, non-governmental organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) have come to fill that role without any clear mandate, planning or funding. The only organization with the expertise and funding to manage global surveillance of infectious disease, the consensus seemed to be, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP). But, of course, this was written in 1994 before decades of further budget cuts.

Garrett, as recently as January 31, 2020, published a devastating criticism, “Trump Has Sabotaged America’s Coronavirus Response,” in Foreign Policy: “For the United States, the answers are especially worrying because the government has intentionally rendered itself incapable. In 2018, the Trump administration fired the government’s entire pandemic response chain of command, including the White House management infrastructure. In numerous phone calls and emails with key agencies across the US government, the only consistent response I encountered was distressed confusion. If the United States still has a clear chain of command for pandemic response, the White House urgently needs to clarify what it is – not just for the public but for the government itself, which largely finds itself in the dark.”

The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History by John M. Barry. (Penguin, 2004).

President George W. Bush read this book on vacation and it made such an impression that as soon as he was back in Washington he handed it to his top homeland security adviser. “‘You’ve got to read this,’” she remembered him telling her. “He said, ‘Look, this happens every 100 years. We need a national strategy.’” Bush started an effort to prepare to make vaccines, stockpile medical equipment such as masks and ventilators, and establish a global early warning system to detect new diseases. In a 2005 speech to the National Institutes of Health, Bush said, “A pandemic is a lot like a forest fire. If caught early it might be extinguished with limited damage. If allowed to smolder, undetected, it can grow to an inferno that can spread quickly beyond our ability to control it.”

Barry focuses not on the politics and consequences of the 1918 pandemic, but on the science: Many of the crucial techniques that allowed real science and research to be done toward understanding the virus in a modern way had been invented only a few years earlier, so those who found themselves scrambling under enormous time pressure were working at, and often expanding upon, the cutting edge of biological science. Decades before the discovery of antibiotics or the genetic structure, using techniques that seem primitive today, they worked methodically and carefully to piece together what they could of the puzzle. Even the idea that influenza itself changed over time, often quite rapidly in what we now know to be genetic mutation, was a radical idea that faced substantial opposition.

In his prologue, Barry writes: “Shortly before the Great War began, the men who so wanted to transform American medicine succeeded. They created a system that could produce people capable of thinking in a new way, capable of challenging the natural order. They, together with the first generation of scientists they had trained… formed a cadre who stood on alert, hoping against but expecting and preparing for the eruption of an epidemic. When it came, they placed their lives in the path of the disease and applied all their knowledge and powers to defeat it. As it overwhelmed them, they concentrated on constructing the body of knowledge necessary to eventually triumph. For the scientific knowledge that ultimately came out of the influenza pandemic pointed directly (and still points) to much that lies in medicine’s future.”

What is most striking about this book is that it emphasizes how the 1918 pandemic came just as medicine was moving from an unscientific past – many doctors still believed in the “miasma theory” that diseases such as influenza resulted from “bad air” rather than concrete germ pathogens – into a recognizably modern future. As their understanding of the immune system improved, they experimented with ingenious methods such as “antiserum,” extracting what we would now call antibodies from the blood of recovered patients and injecting it into newly ill patients. In the absence of a vaccine, this remains one of the best approaches available, and it is being used today for COVID-19.

The strength of the book is that it well conveys the genuine excitement of science, even describing century-old work: “All real scientists exist on the frontier. Even the least ambitious among them deal with the unknown, if only one step beyond the known. The best among them move deep into a wilderness region where they know almost nothing, where the very tools and techniques needed to clear the wilderness, to bring order to it, do not exist.”

America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 by Alfred W. Crosby. (Cambridge University Press, 2nd ed. 2003).

The 1st edition was published under the title Epidemic and Peace: 1918 by Greenwood Press in 1976, coincidentally as the world prepared for a swine flu pandemic that never materialized. As the author explained in the preface to the 2003 2nd edition, “it seemed to be a piece of medical antiquarianism, informative and interesting, I hoped, but with little immediate relevancy.”

Conventional medical opinion had by the 1960s concluded that infectious diseases would fade as threats relative to those of middle and old age such as high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer. The 1970s swine flu fizzle reinforced this assumption. It was the discovery of AIDS, caused by human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), that in the 1980s refocused attention on infectious diseases, creating such demand for Crosby’s book that Cambridge University Press acquired rights and reprinted it in 1989, 1990 and 1997. As the rate of new infectious threats continued to increase, Crosby expanded the book in a 2nd edition to take account of Asian flu and SARS-1. He died in 2018 at age 87.

A masterful and detailed history, the first 200 or so pages are effectively the lead-up, the evidence gathering, for a strongly critical assessment: The politicians and public health officials in the 1918 pandemic, which came in repeated waves of receding and resurging until 1920, took a very long time to understand what was going on around them and even longer to respond to it. We still don’t know how many died a century ago from that pandemic, and credible estimates range from a low of 20 million to a high of 100 million worldwide. If you’re curious about this sort of thing, Crosby will tell you on page 215 that there were 3,328 “excess deaths” in Rhode Island from September 1918 to June 1919, and on page 217 that 1,416 of them were in Providence. As I write this on May 2, COVID-19 has killed 296 in Rhode Island over three months. The distinctive characteristic of the 1918 pandemic, that it was unusually lethal for people 20 to 40 years old, fortunately is not seen in COVID-19.

In the end, Crosby somewhat throws up his hands: “Can we have another killing pandemic of influenza? We don’t really know what happened in 1918, and so we cannot justify optimism… It is wiser to be humble than arrogant about influenza.” Of greatest resonance to us today is that Crosby closes his book with a chapter titled “An Inquiry into the Peculiarities of Human Memory,” noting that proposals into the 1920s and 1930s to undertake a serious effort to study and prepare against infectious disease came from members of Congress, state governors, medical societies, insurance companies and newspaper columnists, all of which went nowhere: “Studying the record of the American people in 1918 and 1919 is like standing on a high hill and watching a fleet of many vessels sailing across a current of terrible power to which the sailors pay little attention. They grip their tillers firmly, peer at their compasses and hold faithfully to courses, which, from their vantage, seem to be straight, but we can see that the secret current is sweeping them far downstream. The immense flow swamps many of the ships and their sailors drown, but the others take little notice. The others are intent on maintaining their own unwavering courses.”

Why Trust Science? by Naomi Oreskes. (Princeton University Press, 2019).

One of the leading writers on the political controversies of science, Oreskes (with Erik M. Conway) in 2010 published Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Bloomsbury Press).

Everyone knows there are delusional anti-vaccine activists who distrust science, but even those who do trust it may not have a much better understanding.

This philosophy book grew out of the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Princeton University in November 2016, where Oreskes gave two lectures, responded to by four commentators, with subsequent reply by Oreskes, all brought together in this volume. The goal is to examine how science works, how scientists do science, what happens when scientists get things wrong, and why the overall process is ultimately trustworthy. Science is a collective endeavor that seeks critical consensus, and we can learn from mistakes ranging from eugenics to dismissal of subjective reports by women of depression correlated with hormonal birth control. But people lose trust in science when they receive, for example, dietary and nutritional advice that seems to contradict prior advice. Religion has often placed itself in opposition to science on matters ranging from evolution to plate tectonics.

It’s not an easy read, but if you have a nodding acquaintance with Karl Popper, T.S. Kuhn and W.V.O. Quine – all of whom get mentioned – you’ll find it worthwhile.

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quamman. (W.W. Norton, 2012).

Most new viruses enter the human population from animal reservoirs, the term for which is “zoonosis.” Strictly speaking, “zoonosis” is a noun that describes the pathogen (“SARS-CoV-2 is a zoonosis”) but informal usage in the press often misapplies the term to the process of interspecies infection. The scientific pronunciation is “ZOE-en-uh-sis” and this is nearly universal outside the US, but common variants in the US are “ZOO-en-uh-sis” and “zoo-EN-uh-sis.” The adjectival form is “zoonotic” (“SARS-CoV-2 is zoonotic”). In Greek, “zoo” means “animal” and “nosos” means “disease.” The opposite term is “anthroponosis,” a pathogen that is passed from humans to animals.

This book uses the more accessible and less scientific term “spillover” instead of “zoonosis,” and details specific examples that have been well documented, making the case that it is an extremely common occurrence that has happened with a huge variety of animals. Quamman writes: “I have asked [experts]… the same two-part question: (1) Will a new disease emerge, in the near future, sufficiently virulent and transmissible to cause a pandemic on the scale of AIDS or the 1918 flu, killing tens of millions of people? and (2) If so, what does it look like and whence does it come? Their answers to the first part have ranged from Maybe to Probably. Their answers to the second have focused on RNA viruses, especially those for which the reservoir host is some kind of primate. None of them has disputed the premise, by the way, that if there is a Next Big One it will be zoonotic.”

Anyone who advances the conspiracy theory that the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 must have escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, China, is ignorant of the basic fact that virus “spillover” is the norm, observed many, many times. Some on social media have suggested that the “coincidental” emergence of SARS-CoV-2 in the same city as the Wuhan Institute of Virology, China’s pre-eminent laboratory for the study of zoonoses, is “cirumstantial evidence” that the virus escaped from the lab, but the reason the lab was situated in Wuhan is because that is the heart of the region where zoonoses are most easily found, and the lab there has identified more than 300 different viruses in bats alone.

Such early warning researchers are critical, Quamman writes: “When the next novel virus makes its way from a chimpanzee, a bat, a mouse, a duck or a macaque into a human, and maybe from that human into another human, and thereupon begins causing a small cluster of lethal illnesses, they will see it – we hope they will, anyway – and raise the alarm. Whatever happens after that will depend on science, politics, social mores, public opinion, public will and other forms of human behavior. It will depend on how we citizens respond.”

Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It by Gina Kolata. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999).

The 1918 pandemic itself is not so much the subject of this book as a touchstone repeatedly used as a reference point to describe later attempts to recover old samples of it and genetically sequence it with modern tools, as well as more recent concerns such as a bird flu virus that made a leap as a zoonosis to humans in Hong Kong, setting off worries about a pandemic.

Numerous scientists (and a few non-scientists) want to understand the uniqueness of the 1918 pandemic. Why was it so deadly? Why did it kill victims mainly between ages 20 and 40, sparing those younger and those older? Was the 1918 influenza circulating years earlier without being noticed? Could an earlier 1890 strain have played a role, leaving antibodies in those who survived it? Raising more questions than answers, the book summarizes the state (or lack) of knowledge 20 years ago which, ironically, is not much different now.

One of the consistent themes is that many of the researchers are inspired by reading Crosby.

Pandemics: A Very Short Introduction by Christian W. McMillen. (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Taking the approach of historical survey, this book redefines pandemics in a somewhat unconventional way, devoting a chapter each to plague, smallpox, malaria, cholera, tuberculosis, influenza and HIV/AIDS. While the usual definition of pandemics is limited to diseases that briefly surge to kill perhaps a few million and then recede from the scene, including consistent threats such as malaria and tuberculosis changes the perspective. Even influenza, where particularly virulent strains can be orders of magnitude more deadly (as in 1918), is typically seen on an annual cycle with a death toll of 10,000 in the US in a “good” year.

Presidents, Pandemics, and Politics by Max J. Skidmore. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

As Donald Trump has come under withering criticism for a slow and feckless response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including bizarre musings about injecting disinfectant into the human body, this book provides historical perspective, studying how Gerald Ford mishandled the 1976 swine flu scare, historically regarded as a gross overreaction, and examining the way predecessors such as Woodrow Wilson and Dwight Eisenhower addressed similar crises.

The core thesis: “Above all, the book demonstrates that efforts to impose severe limits on the size, scope and expense of government are dangerous. Government, and that means presidential action, often provides the best, and sometimes the only, method of protecting the population.”

Plagues and the Paradox of Progress: Why the World Is Getting Healthier in Worrisome Ways by Thomas J. Bollyky. (MIT Press, 2018).

Life expectancy has been increasing in the US with remarkable consistency since 1890, an overall trend as many childhood and other diseases have been almost eradicated, especially “plagues, parasites and viruses.” This book argues that disease has tracked humans from prehistoric times to the present, covering everything from sanitation to HIV/AIDS. While this is hardly a new or original argument, the book stands out for the level of detail, complete with charts and graphs, diving into the data. It is also notable for correcting factual errors often repeated uncritically elsewhere.

When Germs Travel: Six Major Epidemics That Have Invaded America Since 1900 and the Fears They Have Unleashed by Howard Markel. (Pantheon, 2004).

Infectious disease has often provoked paranoid xenophobia, just as Asian Americans today face prejudice for what Donald Trump has persisted in calling the “Chinese virus.” This book looks at anti-immigrant backlash ranging from tuberculosis, typhus and cholera to HIV/AIDS.

18 Tiny Deaths: The untold story of Frances Glessner Lee and the invention of modern forensics

I discovered the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, while wandering through Atlas Obscura one evening. Vintage dioramas on a 1:12 scale? Of mysterious death scenes? By the first female police captain? I was on my way to Baltimore.  

Witnessing these tiny, unique worlds in all of their macabre glory, I met the curator and guardian of the Nutshells, Bruce Goldfarb. He became interested in the Nutshells’ creator, Frances Glessner Lee, while Bruce was writing for the American Medical News in the 1990s. Since then, the Nutshells underwent a complete restoration and enjoyed an exhibition at the Smithsonian with more than 100,000 spectators. Not since the 1940s have the Nutshells been so popular — at that time, they graced the pages of Life Magazine, the Boston Globe and even the Providence Sunday Journal

This time, though, is different. One hundred-two years after Lee began her career, 18 Tiny Deaths serves Lee the type of justice she fought to see in the world.

Lee was an extremely complex and interesting figure of history. Erle Stanley Gardner, attorney and author of Perry Mason, wrote Lee’s obituary. It read: “…Capt. Lee had a strong individuality, a unique, unforgettable character, was a fiercely competent fighter, and a practical idealist. The cause of legal medicine [ie, modern-day forensics] and law enforcement suffered a great blow with her passing and yet for years the country will benefit because of her dogged determination, her down-to-earth grasp of the problems with which she was confronted, and her unswerving determination to find a solution by persistence, diplomacy, charm, and, if all else fails, by downright battering ram in-fighting. She was a wonderful woman.”

Bruce Goldfarb planned to speak about 18 Tiny Deaths and the Nutshells at URI’s Forensic Science Seminar Series on Friday, April 24th; however, presentations had to be cancelled. Visit for information on online programs.  

The Nutshells are not currently available for public view.

Reading Together While Apart: Continuing to connect PVD’s literary community

Authors joining Twenty Stories for its first online Saturday Night Stories series on Saturday, March 28; image courtesy of Twenty Stories

After coronavirus (COVID-19) concerns caused What Cheer Writers Club ( to close its co-working space and podcasting studio in downtown PVD and to cancel in-person events beginning on Monday, March 16, program manager Jodie Noel Vinson contacted members to encourage the community of writers to support each other and continue to share their work through Slack. Alongside streams for announcements, podcasters, various genres of literature and general discussion, What Cheer introduced an #online-events channel that within a day surfaced invitations to Facebook Live events including a RI Black Storytellers talk on sharing stories with audiences of different ages, a PVD PechaKucha with 20-second bursts from 20 people on managing isolation, and a reading accompanied by a stiff drink or a cup of tea.

As bookstores around the world confront a public health crisis of indeterminate length with punishing effects on their operations and the communities they bring together, PVD’s indies have looked to online sales as a short-term salve to maintain their long-term lifeblood. Books on the Square (471 Angell St, turned the parking lot at the rear of its store into a books-to-go pick-up zone for phone, website or email orders. Planned author events, book clubs and children’s storytimes, however, have been cancelled or postponed. Riffraff in Olneyville, Symposium Books downtown and Twenty Stories in Fox Point are experimenting with adapting, and even expanding, some of their in-person activities onto digital platforms.

Remember, if an upcoming book club or literary livestream helps you choose the next addition to your reading list: the events might be online, but their hosts are local. While your nearest or favorite independent bookstores are closed, you can still buy books from them directly at a time when every purchase makes a difference to their overall health.

Art of translation with Riffraff

A note on Riffraff’s website ( reminds its visitors how the Olneyville bookstore and bar (60 Valley St, #107A) “was opened with a deep, abiding appreciation for the in-person experience, for face-to-face conversations about books and everything else.” (Read Motif’s profile of Riffraff at its second anniversary and a Q&A with Riffraff’s co-founders.) So long as its doors remain closed, Riffraff’s events are postponed with the exception of its book club exploring the theme of women in translation.

On Tuesday, April 7 at 7pm, Riffraff will use Zoom to host a discussion of August by Romina Paula (Feminist Press, 2017). The introspective and at times discomfiting novel of a homecoming in the wake of a friend’s death was first published in Spanish in the author’s native Argentina (Agosto, Editorial Entropía, 2009) before making its way into English — and into the US — thanks to the craft of Jennifer Croft, who was later recognized with a Man Booker International Prize for her translation of Flights by Nobel Prize-recipient Olga Togarczuk.

While Riffraff offers a $1 discount for book-club purchases made through its bookstore, now managed by email or online form, the only requirement to participate is to have read August in advance. If you need a drink as an accompaniment, co-owner Emma Ramadan recommends a Fernet con Coca.

Super-casual symposium with Symposium

During its decade and a half in business, Symposium Books (240 Westminster St, has hosted a range of author readings, reading groups, record release parties, zine launches and art gallery openings. While the COVID-19 closures put Symposium’s events lineup on hold, the bookstore took a “super casual” and “zero pressure” approach for its latest book club pick, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018), with an invitation to chat on Tuesday, March 24. 

Instead of focusing discussion around the entirety of the novel, now in its 80th week on The New York Times best-seller list, co-owners Anne Marie Keohane and Scott McCullough asked social-media users to start chiming in after reading as few as 10 or 20 pages. While it’s unclear if they’ll repeat the effort for their next book-club selection, yet to be announced, they’ll share updates about future book chats open to all via Facebook (Symposium Books), Instagram (@symposiumbooks), and Twitter (@SymposiumBooks).

New Saturday series with Twenty Stories

Twenty Stories ( announced Saturday Night Stories, a new series streamed in two parts, with an Instagram Live reading followed by a Zoom salon. (Read Motif’s recent feature on how Twenty Stories has adapted its business during the pandemic.) The idea surfaced after an in-store event planned for Friday, March 13 turned into an Instagram Live video stream to celebrate the publication of Andrew Altschul’s novel The Gringa.

From his home in Fort Collins, Colorado, Altschul will collaborate with Twenty Stories and San Francisco-based literary magazine ZYZZYVA to host an evening featuring five authors with new books or whose book tours have been canceled due to coronavirus.

The first round will take place on Saturday, March 28 at 9pm featuring:

  • Margaret Wilkerson Sexton (The Revisioners, Counterpoint, 2019)
  • Daniel Handler (Bottle Grove, Bloomsbury, 2019)
  • Rachel Vorona Cote (Too Much, Grand Central, 2020)
  • David Daley (Unrigged, Liveright, 2020)
  • Roya Marsh (dayliGht: Poems, MCD/FSG Originals, 2020).

Twenty Stories will stream five five-minute readings on Instagram (@twentystoriesla). To incentivize purchases through its online events, the bookstore will invite anybody who places an order for at least one of the authors’ books to a subsequent salon on Zoom for a freeform conversation with the writers. The series will continue on Saturday, April 4 and Saturday, April 11 with authors yet to be named.

And readers of Exquisite Mariposa by Fiona Alison Duncan (Soft Skull Books, 2019) will join Twenty Stories, again on Zoom, for its fiction book club on Sunday, March 29 at 11am.

Even more local literature online

Friday mornings at 11am, What Cheer Writers Club hosts a #coffeebreak with members on Slack; screenshot provided by What Cheer Writers Club

For What Cheer Writers Club’s own events, they’ve moved over to Zoom. On Saturday, March 28 at 1pm, Jamie Michalak and Kelly Murphy will share their experience collaborating to write and illustrate their forthcoming children’s book, Crumb’s Treasure (Candlewick, 2021). On Thursday, April 2 at 5pm, a virtual Member Meet Up will include a Nonfiction Showcase with 10 writers reading 5-minute shorts or excerpts from longer works. On Fridays at 11am, members are welcomed to a virtual coffee chat. On Sundays at 12:30pm, local science-fiction and fantasy writers gather together. Providence Writers Group is also meeting every first and third Sunday via Zoom, and a new organization of Science and Environmental Writers in Rhode Island (@SciEnRI) aims to get together online. Besides updates on its Slack channels, What Cheer Writers Club sends a newsletter detailing a robust collection of literary activities and news relevant to local writers — with more to come in the weeks ahead.

“These times are revealing the shape of our community and that it can look many ways across different mediums,” wrote Vinson, What Cheer’s program manager. “But more than anything, it is revealing how essential our community is.”

Watch It!: 20 films, shows, and novels to keep you paranoid while quarantined

Either by choice or not, we all will be spending a lot of time indoors. Even after lying in bed contemplating our mortality, raiding the fridge and fighting over toilet paper, our schedules will still be open enough for us to take a look at our infinitely expanding watchlist. Art imitates life and a lot of people will want to distract themselves from one viral outbreak with another. Here is a list of films, TV shows and novels that will make you feel uneasy the next time you sneeze. Just remember, the sun will come out tomorrow, the quarantine will end and wash your hands.

The Planet of The Apes Trilogy (2011, 2014, 2017)

Directed by: Rupert Wyatt, Matt Reeves

Staring: Andy Serkis, James Franco, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Woody Harrelson

Rating: PG-13

Genre: Action, Sci-fi, Drama, Dystopian

Runtime: 1 hour & 45 minutes, 2 hours & 10 minutes, 2 hours & 20 minutes

Rotten Tomatoes: 82%, 91%, 94%

IMDB: 7.6/10, 7.6/10, 7.4/10

The modern reboot of the classic science fiction franchise has a reputation as one of the best film trilogies in recent memory. This is thanks to its brilliant effects, fantastic story with complex themes regarding the morality of animal experimentation, the dehumanization of war and its well-developed and memorable cast of characters (which is very impressive considering most of them are apes). Without delving too deep into spoilers, the virus that is foreshadowed by the pilot character in the first film seamlessly sets the stage for the post-apocalyptic setting of its two sequels. These films may also be the reason for my fear of monkeys…. And airports.

28 Days Later (2002)

Directed by: Danny Boyle

Staring: Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Christopher Eccleston, Brendan Gleeson, Megan Burns

Rating: R

Genre: Horror, Dystopian, Thriller

Runtime: 1 hour & 53 minutes 

Rotten Tomatoes: 86%

IMDB: 7.6/10

This acclaimed horror flick is partially credited for bringing the zombie subgenre of horror to its peak in popularity. The direct cause of this universe’s outbreak is a virus that amplifies aggressive tendencies of the afflicted. Its complex themes along with some excellent cinematography, acting and atmosphere makes this a film that won’t just breed paranoia, but terror. If this film keeps you asking for more, than its sequel, 28 Weeks Later and its accompanying comic book series should also satisfy your taste for all things undead and unsettling.

Twelve Monkeys (1995)

Directed by: Terry Gilliam

Staring: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt

Rating: R

Genre: Sci-fi, thriller

Runtime: 2 hours & 9 minutes 

Rotten Tomatoes: 90%

IMDB: 8/10

Adapting the story of the 1962 experimental French short film La Jetee, this post-apocalyptic story stars a post Die Hard Bruce Willis traveling back in time to find the cause of the virus that leads to humanity’s downfall. Along with this, he has his own personal motives, in making discoveries about his own past life experiences. Add in a pre Fight Club performance from Brad Pitt along with a fascinating story and well-composed scenes, and what more could someone want out of a sci-fi film? Maybe a 47-episode television reimagining on the Syfy network?

Outbreak (1995)

Directed by: Wolfgang Peterson

Staring: Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman, Patrick Dempsey, Cuba Gooding Jr. 

Rating: R

Genre: Thriller, Drama, Action

Runtime: 2 hours & 8 minutes

Rotten Tomatoes: 60%

IMDB: 6.6/10

Based on the Richard Preston novel The Hot Zone, and taking a more accurate approach to a viral outbreak, in seeing a disease bearing ebola-like similarities being spread in scenes that make your skin crawl in how realistic the situations are. From a small town sickness outbreak to a possibly global pandemic, the stakes feel especially real right now. If Planet of the Apes made you scared of monkeys, then this one will make you a germaphobe … who’s also scared of monkeys.

George A. Romero’s (Original) Living Dead Franchise (1968, 1978, 1985)

Directed by: George A. Romero 

Staring: Duane Jones, Judith O`Dea, Scott Reiniger, Ken Foree, David Emge, Gaylen Ross, Richard Liberty, Lori Cardille, Terry Alexander, Joe Pilato

Rating: NR, R, R

Genre: Horror, Dystopian, Action

Runtime: 1 hour & 37 minutes, 2 hours & 36 minutes, 1 hour & 43 minutes

Rotten Tomatoes: 97%, 93%, 83%

IMDB: 7.9/10, 7.9/10, 7.2/10

The godfather of the modern zombie, horror master George A. Romero revolutionized horror with a small independent black and white film. From quotable dialogue to an ambiguous cause of the undead rising up to a memorable iconic ending, the film had it all. Needless to say, many were shocked when 10 years later, a sequel was released to a film that’s story didn’t even need one. The commentary and content of “Dawn of The Dead” are possibly even greater than that of its predecessor. Once again, a new decade arrives, and with it Romero “finishes” his trilogy. A more action- oriented and character-focused third film has made this the black sheep of the franchise, but its strong ending and memorable characters make this one a must-watch, too. With several remakes, and even three more follow-ups made by Romero in the 2000s, nothing comes close to the masterpieces the original three are.

Contagion (2011)

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

Staring: Matt Damon, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard, Lawrence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston

Rating: PG-13

Genre: Drama, Sci-fi

Runtime: 1 hour & 46 minutes

Rotten Tomatoes: 85%

IMDB: 6.7/10

This stands as a study of societal breakdown in the midst of a pandemic with some people strangely being immune and the severity of the virus baffling even the highest medical and government personnel. This is best described as a medical thriller more than anything else. If you have a nurse or doctor in the family, showing them this may influence them to work from home.

The Resident Evil Franchise (2002, 2004, 2007, 2010, 2012, 2016)

Directed by: Paul W. S. Anderson (2002, 2010, 2012, 2016),  Alexander Witt (2004), Russell Mulcahy (2007)

Staring: Mila Jovovich, Michelle Rodriguez, Eric Maibus, Colin Salmon, Sienna Guillory, Oded Fehr, Ali Larter, Wentworth Miller,  Li bingbing, Ruby Rose, William Levy

Rating: R

Genre: Sci-fi, Thriller

Runtime: 1 hour & 40 minutes, 1 hour & 38 minutes, 1 hour & 34 minutes, 1 hour & 40 minutes, 1 hour & 36 minutes, 1 hour & 47 minutes

Rotten Tomatoes: 36%, 20%, 24%, 22%, 29%, 37%

IMDB: 6.7/10, 6.2/10, 6.3/10, 5.8/10, 5.4/10, 5.5/10

If dumb action movies are your thing, than the big screen adaptaions of the Resident Evil video games are equatible to the Godfather (if Al Pachino were a Ukrainian supermodel). While the bar for video game movies is already low, with each successive sequel, this franchise just gets bigger and dumber. While other films on this list handle a viral outbreak in more nuanced ways, here it’s just a typical lab accident. Still there is some (albeit ironic) enjoyment to be had here. 

Quarantine (2008)

Directed by: John Erick Dowdle

Staring: Jennifer Carpenter, Jay Hernendez, Columbus Short

Rating: R

Genre: Thriller, Horror

Runtime: 1 hour & 29 minutes

Rotten Tomatoes: 56%

IMDB: 5.9/10

The American remake of Spanish film Rec. loses some of the original’s tension, but makes up for it in its found footage style and a lack of a properly composed film score. The lacking plot and character development is compensated by the production value, atmosphere and performances. While Rec. went onto have a franchise of three sequels, Quarantine would have a sequel of its own in 2011.

John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)

Directed by: John Carpenter

Staring: Kurt Russel, Keith David, Wilford Brimley, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat, David Clennon

Rating: R

Genre: Horror, mystery, sci-fi, thriller

Runtime: 1 hour & 49 minutes

Rotten Tomatoes: 84%

IMDB: 8.1/10

It would be easy to assume a remake of a classic science fiction film that was already an adaptation of a novel wouldn’t turn out very well, but it’s arguable that John Carpenter’s The Thing surpasses both as a landmark in horror cinema. Because of great performances, a tense atmosphere and incredible practical effects, many put this in the upper echelon of horror movies. The pure paranoia and hysteria that grips the members of the small Antarctic outpost is absolutely bone chilling. While the film’s 2011 prequel doesn’t live up to expectations maybe the rumored remake will.

It Comes At Night (2017)

Directed by: Trey Edward Shults

Staring: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr.

Rating: R

Genre: Horror, thriller

Runtime: 1 hour & 37 minutes

Rotten Tomatoes: 87%

IMDB: 6.2/10

This is a secluded, post-apocalyptic story surrounding a family trying to survive in the wake of a virus that ravaged the planet. They struggle to take care of each other and another family seeking refuge while the mysterious virus looms closer. Brimming with atmosphere and great acting, the film succeeds in its ability to immerse the viewer into the world and make the story feel eerily realistic. There will definitely be some who see this film as slow moving and not for them, but if a patient viewer watches carefully, they will see just how well crafted the movie is.

The Happening (2008)

Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan

Staring: Mark Whalberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Ashlyn Sanchez, Betty Buckley, M. Night Shyamalan

Rating: R

Genre: Drama, Thriller, Fantasy

Runtime: 1 hour & 50 minutes 

Rotten Tomatoes: 18%

IMDB: 5/10

The infamous lowest point in director M. Night Shyamalan’s career (until The Last Airbender), is a bloated, half-baked drama with a shoddy script, awful acting and maybe the worst twist in film history. The main reason for watching it though is exactly that, the nonsensical twist and the stilted acting make this somewhat of a treat to sit through. 

I Am Legend,  The Last Man On Earth & Omega Man (2007, 1964, 1971)

Directed by: Francis Lawrence- Ubaldo Ragona, Sidney Salkow- Boris Sagal

Staring: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Charlie Tahan, Willow Smith, Salli Richardson- Vincent Price, Franca Bettoia, Emma Danieli- Charlton Heston, Rosalind Cash, Anthony Zerbe, Eric Laneuville

Rating: PG-13, NR, PG

Genre: Thriller, Drama, Sci-fi

Runtime: 1 hour & 44 minutes, 1 hour & 28 minutes, 1 hour & 38 minutes 

Rotten Tomatoes: 68%, 74%, 65%

IMDB: 7.2/10, 6.9/10, 6.5/10

Here are three very different takes on the same novel by Richard Matheson (there is a fourth adaptation also from 2007 called I am Omega, which boasts a 3.3/10 on IMDB). Each has a different ending, characters, even reasons for the apocalypse in the first place. While The Last Man On Earth is an almost a beat for beat recreation of the novel, the other two have some critical differences. “Omega Man” is basically just a very loose adaptation, only keeping a few plot threads while going off the rails into a crazy dystopian romp. I Am Legend infamously has two different endings (no spoilers for what they depict). To choose, if you want accuracy, go for Last Man; for a bizarre time, pick Omega and for action; the 2007 I Am Legend. Honestly speaking, the book will always be the best. 

The Strain (2014-2017)

Channel: FX

Staring: Corey Stoll, Kevin Durand, David Bradley, Richard Sammel, Miguel Gomez, Natalie Brown, Ruta Gedmintas, Mia Maestro, Johnathan Hyde, Jack Kesy, Max Charles, Rupert Penry-Jones

Genre: Horror, Drama 

Episode Number: 46

Rotten Tomatoes: 79%

IMDB: 7.3/10

Based on Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s horror trilogy, the series centers around a doctor investigating a plane landing. Among many casualties, a mysterious virus appears bearing similarities to vampirism. The doctor and his crew rise to the increasing challenge to fight off the vampires from overtaking New York, and possibly all of humankind. 

Helix (2014-2015)

Channel: SYFY

Staring: Billy Campbell, Hiroyuki Sanada, Kyra Zagorsky, Mark Ghanime, Matt Long

Genre: Horror

Episode Number: 26

Rotten Tomatoes: 81%

IMDB: 6.8/10

In this Syfy original, scientists from a disease prevention group are stationed in the arctic to conduct research on a reported viral outbreak. Genetic engineering has created a zombie-like virus that renders its victims inhuman. From terrifying discoveries to gripping twists, this series starts out with a lot of potential, but burns itself out after playing all its cards too early. Helix falters on its overambitious ideas, but still provides some entertainment. 

Ash vs The Evil Dead (2015-2018)

Channel: Starz

Staring: Bruce Campbell, Dana Delorenzo, Ray Santiago, Lucy Lawless, Jill Marie Jones, Ted Raimi

Genre: Horror, Comedy

Episode Number: 30

Rotten Tomatoes: 99%

IMDB: 8.5/10

Taking Sam Raimi’s beloved Evil Dead trilogy along with iconic hero Ash still being played by Bruce Campbell and spinning the series off into a pulse pounding, intense, meta-humor-filled hack and slash adventure is everything fans of the original movies could ever ask for. The biggest problem with the series is it was untimely canceled after its third season. Not groovy at all. 

Fear The Walking Dead (2015)

Channel: AMC

Staring: Alycia Debnam-Carey, Lennie james, Kim Dickens, Coleman Domingo, Frank Dillane, Danay Garcia, Ruben Blades, Cliff Curtis, Mercedes Mason

Genre: Horror, Thriller

Episode Number: 69

Rotten Tomatoes: 72%

IMDB: 6.9/10

Serving as a prequel to one of the biggest shows of the last decade, “Fear” makes its bearings in a fresher earlier stage of walker horror than depicted in the original series, but the looming threat of what is to come is ever present and growing with every episode. The show shares several themes with its sister series, like man’s savagery outclassing their undead counterparts, but in a way that isn’t used for shock value. It serves as a stepping stone to the world of “The Walking Dead.”

The Stand (1978)

Written by: Stephen King

Page Count: 1,182

Genre: Dystopian, Horror, Fantasy

Adaptations: 1994 Television mini-series 

Choosing King’s seminal masterwork is a neverending debate. Would it be The Shining? It? Pet Sematary? “The Dark Tower” series? Many will argue it’s his vampire horror epic The Stand. The novel (and tv mini-series) depict survivors trying to climb up from the ashes of humanity that was nearly wiped out after a weaponized strain of influenza was unleashed. This award-nominated novel not only inspired the likes of bands Metallica and Anthrax but has kept the public interest for years, staying in publication as one of Kin’s most beloved works. Not only was there a 1994 television mini-series and a Marvel Comics published graphic novel series, but for years there have been rumors of either a feature film or new tv adaptation in the works. 

“The Walking Dead” (2003-2019)

Written by: Robert Kirkman

Number of Issues: 193

Adaptations: 2010 Television series, several novels and video game spinoffs

This game-changing comic book series created by Robert Kirkman and published by Image Comics, is one of the best selling and critically praised comic books ever. Spawning a two television series, video games, books and basically any type of merchandise you can think of, this legendary series just wrapped up its run last year. With 193 issues (the consensus being that this is better paced and made than the repetitive nature of the tv series), this work has enough to keep you busy until the quarantine is up or the tv series ends, whichever comes first.

World War Z: An Oral History of The Zombie War (2006)

Written by: Max Brooks

Page Count: 354 pages

Adaptations: 2013 film adaptation, 2019 video game

Considered one of the definitive depictions of an apocalypse (especially one involving zombies as so many seem to do), this book takes the word “world” very seriously having several points of view across the planet in the form of interviews collected by the United Nations. The novel goes beyond the accounts of the zombie uprising and viral spread of the disease into the implications of how it affects the social, economical, religious, political and environmental changes experienced by people worldwide.  

“Y The Last Man” (2002-2008)

Written by: Brian K. Vaughn

Number of Issues: 60

Adaptations: Upcoming television series

The Vertigo series that has been put on a pedestal as a seminal work in the comic book industry, “Y The Last Man” is set in a world where an unknown virus has wiped out the entirety of the male population except for one man (and a monkey, once again monkeys and the apocalypse go together like facemasks and medical gloves). While the world descends into madness, he and his mother try to keep him from a series of antagonists trying to capture him. The series has won three Eisner awards and is the subject of an upcoming FX television series. 

From In-Line to Online with Twenty Stories: PVD bookseller drives into an escalating pandemic

PVD’s Twenty Stories curates a monthly selection of 20 books; photo credit: Twenty Stories

After converting a 30-year-old Chevy G20 van into the Twenty Stories bookmobile in 2017, Alexa Trembly and Emory Harkins drove around Los Angeles sweltering through summer highs, some days struggling to sell as many as three books. While relocating in 2018 to Rhode Island, where Harkins grew up, their van broke down in the desert of New Mexico. Several months into running a bookshop at Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket, in 2019 they faced a period with double rent after moving to the Fox Point neighborhood of Providence. Despite its hurdles, Twenty Stories has curated a monthly selection of 20 works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry.

“We carry, normally, one dystopic novel each month, but not in March,” said Trembly by phone as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic escalated. “Maybe it felt too real.”

Once the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the first case of coronavirus in Rhode Island on Tuesday, March 3, Trembly and Harkins began to implement precautions at their bookstore. Maintaining regular business hours, they wiped down their counters with sanitizer and asked customers to use contactless payments when possible. The following week, on Monday, March 9, Governor Gina Raimondo announced a state of emergency. Two days later, she discouraged events with more than 250 people. Trembly said she understood the warnings as a matter of large gatherings rather than about staying open.

“Business seemed to be the same as usual,” said Harkins, “maybe a little busier.”

“People were coming in a lot, kind of saying, ‘Oh, I need to stock up on books. We don’t know what’s going to happen,’” said Trembly. “There was a lot more up in the air at that point.”

Inside Twenty Stories bookshop at 107 Ives St, PVD; photo credit: Twenty Stories

On Thursday, March 12, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza revoked entertainment licenses across the city, shuttering movie theaters and concert venues. When Twenty Stories opened the following morning, Trembly and Harkins were prepared to host an evening celebration for Andrew Altschul’s novel The Gringa, published by Melville House Books earlier in the week. Within hours though, Harkins said, their assessment of the risks caused them to change plans.

“We have a wide age range of customers who come to our events,” said Harkins, “and we just felt a responsibility to not have those people interact with each other.”

“That’s been a really big hurdle and struggle,” said Trembly, “not just for businesses, but for everyone right now.”

After discussing with Altschul, visiting from Fort Collins, Colorado, and moderator Darcie Dennigan, a resident of Providence, Twenty Stories announced the event would take place online instead. Altschul drove to Providence from Worcester, Massachusetts, following a cancelled talk at the College of the Holy Cross, and participated in an Instagram Live video stream with Trembly and Harkins in an otherwise empty bookstore. Dennigan joined from home.

“We usually meet the authors we have events with, and we either shake hands or hug,” said Harkins. “It was strange because we were bumping elbows and keeping distance even while we were putting on this event together.”

Twenty Stories breaks out its original bookmobile in front of Knead Doughnuts in March 2019; photo credit: Sean Carlson

In July 2018, Belletrist, an online book club run by actress Emma Roberts and producer Karah Preiss, welcomed Trembly and Harkins for an Instagram Live chat from their van. The video stream featuring Altschul and Dennigan was the first to be run by Twenty Stories. Citing Instagram’s analytics, Trembly said 250 people watched the conversation within 24 hours, five times greater than what she considers a good in-store turnout. Declining to share numbers, Harkins said the corresponding book sales were lower than what they would have expected if the evening had taken place in person and they’re working on ways to encourage purchases around future virtual events.

“It was kind of like a making-lemonade-out-of-lemons situation,” said Trembly.

Foot traffic at the bookstore remained steady on Saturday, March 14, as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Rhode Island jumped from 14 to 20. Harkins said customers were looking for “quarantine books” as the necessity of social distancing set in. Two hours after opening the following morning, Trembly and Harkins made the choice to close their bookstore indefinitely. They donated a portion of the weekend’s sales to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank to assist children and families facing a time of food insecurity.

“Social media has always been a starting point for our store,” said Trembly about the relative ease of adapting their business to the Internet. “I know some retail stores, brick and mortar, don’t have online shops immediately, and I think that will definitely be a harder transition.”

After locking up, Trembly and Harkins expanded their online shop to include not only their current monthly curation, but also an array of children’s books, cookbooks and other works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. They’re in the process of updating their listing of art books and adding to the titles in stock. They’ve dropped off a few custom orders at front doors around Providence, but otherwise Harkins said he has been back and forth between the bookshop and local post offices. Anybody who places an order can ask for a dance move posted to Instagram Stories. Harkins said he and Trembly struggled for days with how to do a “dinosaur dance,” as a customer requested alongside Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today by Rachel Vorona Cote. Trembly said she and Harkins are also investing time in Palm Leaf, an online periodical they created in 2017. Hosted on the Twenty Stories website, the initiative features a range of literary interviews and contributed writing.

“We’re optimistic people and we’re staying pretty optimistic,” said Trembly, “but the longer it goes on, this anxiety builds a little bit.”

In December 2019, Twenty Stories hired two part-time booksellers, the first staff besides the co-founders. They haven’t worked since the bookstore shut. To cope with the crisis, Trembly and Harkins said they might assess the low-interest federal disaster loans approved by the U.S. Small Business Administration. 

“We’re anticipating at least a 50% reduction in sales as long as our shop on Ives Street remains closed,” said Harkins.

One week after closing their storefront, Trembly and Harkins emailed the Twenty Stories mailing list to encourage support by shopping online, placing special orders, attending virtual events, purchasing a gift card or even writing a review. They said they remain in touch with neighbors, other booksellers, and local restaurants, retailers and small businesses as they confront an incomparable experience, recognizing how many friends and colleagues are caught too.

“The amazing thing about Providence is all of the small businesses really do care about each other, like even more than ever,” said Trembly. “I don’t think people see it as much as being competitors as much as being a community.”

When Trembly and Harkins settled on Exquisite Mariposa by Fiona Alison Duncan as their most recent fiction book-club selection, they anticipated sitting with customers on Sunday, March 29 for a late-morning gathering accompanied by a spread of baklava from Aleppo Sweets, a Syrian bakery and cafe next door. Instead, they replaced the in-person discussion of Duncan’s novel, which The Los Angeles Review of Books called “a quest for the Real in the age of Instagram,” and made plans for future events, using online video conferencing hosted by Zoom.

“Everyone always hates on social media,” said Trembly, “but in this context it’s really cool to see how it could keep that community — kind of hold that community space now.”

While its bookstore (107 Ives St, PVD) is closed, Twenty Stories can be found online at, on Instagram at @twentystoriesla, and on Twitter at @twentystoriesla.

Closed Libraries, Open Resources: Films, e-books, and audiobooks within reach for free during social distancing

Bookshelf at the Providence Athenæum, photo credit: Sean Carlson

During October 1918, the Providence Public Library closed for three weeks on account of the influenza pandemic, known as the Spanish flu. That year, the outbreak claimed the lives of 941 Providence residents, and another 1,365 people across Rhode Island. In The Providence Journal, the city’s health superintendent suggested: “Keep at arm’s length from everybody,” “Don’t go where you have to crowd close to others” and “Don’t let people talk in your face.”

The advice echoed on March 13, 2020, as the Providence Public Library announced a suspension of all public initiatives due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Two hours later, the Providence Community Library system, a separate non-profit that in 2009 assumed management of the Providence Public Library’s neighborhood branches, likewise announced a hiatus. As other libraries across the state and country are putting many of the community services they provide on hold, an active library card can still unlock countless hours of films, e-books, audiobooks and other explorations from home during a time of social distancing.

Detailed below are some of the resources available with step-by-step instructions for getting set up, regardless of your level of tech savviness. Even though many individuals and families have ample choice when it comes to their video streaming and e-reading preferences, these options feature some unique selections otherwise unavailable and overlooked ways to deepen your understanding of the world around you. Complementary to any other services, with nothing more than your library card these tools can be fun, informative and free for your own use.

Art-house films, documentaries and educational courses

Often overshadowed by other streaming video sites, Kanopy includes a range of independent and foreign films as well as documentaries, children’s programming and college-level instruction. And they’re available if you have a public library card from Barrington, Coventry, Cranston, East Providence, Jamestown, Lincoln, Middletown, North Kingstown, Providence Community, Providence Public or Warwick libraries in Rhode Island or Attleboro, Berkley or New Bedford in Bristol County, Massachusetts — or if you have a student or faculty log-in to Moses Brown School or Wheeler School in Providence or many colleges and universities. 

Watch The Florida Project, Lady Bird and Moonlight. Revisit classics from Charlie Chaplin and Federico Fellini. Learn about the injustice faced by the Central Park Five and the story behind the Helvetica font. Witness The Battle of Algiers, L’avventura and Rashomon. Feel your heart beat with Björk’s film debut in an Icelandic rendering of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale.

If you have kids at home, Kanopy Kids includes Arthur, Berenstain Bears, and Sesame Street as well as a collection of full-length films, introductions to historical figures, and Little Pim’s language learning. If your upcoming travels are canceled, discover the history of ancient Egypt, medieval Europe and the Celtic world instead. Or study up on 6,000 of The Great Courses to figure out how to draw, brush up on algebra, understand robotics, tackle screenwriting and learn about great military blunders, infectious diseases, and raising emotionally healthy kids.

How-to: After downloading the Kanopy app or selecting “Get Started” at, sign up for a new account, then select the library option. Search by location and log in using the number on the back of your library card and your PIN. After confirming your library, you’ll be prompted to sign in with a name and email address, or else you can sync your Google or Facebook account. 

Note: Be selective, as your library might limit the number of films you watch per month through Kanopy. (For Providence Public Library, that limit is six.) Access to Kanopy Kids and 6,000 classes through The Great Courses, however, remains unlimited. Some films such as a SPIA Media Productions trilogy on the Cape Verdean community in Fox Point and Councilwoman, a documentary about the life and election of Carmen Castillo to Providence City Council, require a special request and library approval. To understand why, read Film Quarterly’s explanation of the cost structure behind Kanopy’s partnerships with libraries and academic institutions.

Books, books and more books, only in the cloud

If you prefer the familiar spine-crack of your trusty hardcover or paperback, consider finding a way to support the independent bookstores providing a mail-order or digital alternative as they struggle in the wake of coronavirus closures. But if your librarians know you as a regular book borrower or you’ve exhausted the back-up supply on your nightstand or bookshelves, members of the Ocean State Libraries system and the SAILS Library Network of Southeastern Massachusetts have access to borrow digitally from a repository of full-length audiobooks and e-books. Best-sellers and page-turners tend to feature prominently, so you may find this a particularly useful option if your next book club is meeting by phone or video conference.

How-to: If you’re on a mobile device, download the OverDrive app from Google Play on Android or the App Store on iOS. If you’re on a computer, visit Click “sign up,” and then “sign up using library card.” After you enter your library card number and PIN, you’ll find a rather blank interface with little more than rectangle and the option to “Add a title.” Click on that option. At this point, you’ll be prompted to select your library. Search by name, city, or zip code. After you select your library, you’ll yet again be required to enter your library card number and PIN through the Ocean State Libraries eZone or SAILS interface. You’ll see a list of general recommendations, but if you want to search for a title or author, be sure to click on the word “Search,” and not on the magnifying glass that looks like it would provide search functionality.

Note: Make sure you know if you’re requesting an e-book for reading or an audiobook for listening, as both formats appear listed side by side. Once set, tinker with the settings to optimize the brightness and font size — and, for audiobooks, playback speed — that best accommodate your needs. Once you’re successful in checking out your e-book for a length of 7, 14 or 21 days, you’ll want to select “Download EPUB ebook,” which isn’t the most intuitive instruction but will add the title to the front page of the OverDrive app or homepage.

One more service running the digital gamut

Several libraries across Rhode Island — Coventry, Cumberland, East Greenwich, Glocester (Harmony), Greenville, Providence Athenaeum, Providence Community Library and Warwick — and North Attleborough and Seekonk public libraries in Massachusetts, provide access to Hoopla, which integrates films, e-books, audiobooks, comics, music and television programming into one platform. These cover mainstream territory, from Legally Blonde and Daddy Day Care to No Country for Old Men and Good Will Hunting to Amelie and Amores Perros as well as plenty of harder-to-find works. The ability to easily refine by language reveals selections available in Arabic, Khmer, Yiddish, Zulu and dozens more.

As we confront a worrisome and indeterminate local and global public health crisis, you may find it helpful to learn from the experiences of 1918 by borrowing books like America’s Forgotten Pandemic, More Deadly Than War, and Very, Very, Very Dreadful, or you may appreciate having greater choices for education and entertainment unrelated to the current moment. Wherever you are, as you stay indoors to help flatten the curve to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, your closed library likely has open resources you may have overlooked.

“A public library is, in essence, the public serving itself through a large collection of books, so planned as to respond to all the varying needs of the community,” wrote librarian William E. Foster upon the opening of the Providence Public Library’s current building in 1901. As the renovation and reopening of the physical space at 150 Empire Street is on hold, the role of public libraries to serve their communities’ varying needs at all times remains no less vital.

Book Review: I Gotta Tell You Something showcases novice poets

The 34 poems in I Gotta Tell You Something are the result of a three-year-long creative writing workshop run by award winning writer, B Lucy Stevens. The workshop, which consisted of 13 participants between the ages of 18 and 60, met weekly. The participants didn’t have much writing experience, so Stevens got their creativity and confidence flowing by using various warm-up exercises. What resulted was beyond anything Stevens could have imagined, so she published their work to share it with the world. 

Each author writes what they know, and the poems are honest takes, ranging from funny to heartbreaking that give a view of their personality and a glimpse into how they became who they are. Some sound like free-flowing conversations while others have a poetic flow.

The authors all bring something unique to their writing. Wayne Rankin and Gabe Mouradjian write about their childhood and accidents that changed the course of their lives. Nick LeBlanc describes feelings with an honest wit. Wil Valcourt lets the reader in on one of his fears while adding a smile- inducing ending. Carol Gable’s poems pour emotion. Benvinda Gomes writes about misunderstanding and others’ view of her. Tom Fiori and Jahnoy Skerrit talk about traveling, adding a humorous spin. Victoria Rossi and Nissah Armstrong write about being happy and free. Tyler St. Vincent puts the reader into the head of a species that is being bullied. Amber Tariela writes about her love for her dog. Edna Maniche describes a hilarious interaction with Jesus that also features the most beautiful imagery:

“There were angels outside
They looked like butterflies”

There are themes throughout the books. Animals are written about often, whether it be a pet or a type of animal that they identify with. Growing up and family are themes that come up repeatedly, as are happiness, sadness, hopes and dreams. The biggest theme is the desire to be accepted for who they are. This adds an extra layer of power to the book as a whole.

The rawness is the best part of the poetry. The words are simple, but the content is real. The authors open a window, giving the reader a quick glimpse into part of their soul. The vivid imagery puts you right there in the thick of what is happening in each poem. Their message lies in the title. These authors all have something important to say, and the readers are lucky enough to have been invited into their world.