Four mini-reviews in this batch:
—Splendid Solution, by Jeffrey Kluger
—Red Plenty, Francis Spufford
—Instruments of Darkness, Alfred Price
—The Scarlet Thread, Mandy Rice-Davies
Splendid Solution is about the development of the Salk polio vaccine. The book gives a vivid picture of the devastation wrought by epidemics with no vaccines and without meaningful treatments, both the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic and the successive polio epidemics, and the public health measures used in attempts to control such epidemics. It describes how the Salk vaccine was developed, some of the conflicts among scientists, and the vaccine rollout, including media reactions and early manufacturing problems. Very interesting reading, especially in the light of our present vaccine situation and controversies.
Red Plenty is about Soviet economic planning, as seen from the inside. (I’ve reviewed it previously here, but recently re-read it in conjunction with an online book discussion group.) It’s part fiction and part factual history: the characters include factory managers, economic planners, mathematicians, computer scientists, and “fixers.” Very well-written and also well-researched and footnoted.
Instruments of Darkness is about electronic warfare during WWII, primarily on the European front but also touching on the Pacific war. Covers ‘the battle of the beams,’ in which Britain attempted to interfere with the radio guidance system used by the Germans to support night bombing, and the jamming and spoofing which was directed at communications between night fighters and their ground controllers.
The author was himself an electronics warfare officer with the RAF during the war, so speaks from a position of knowledge.
A Scarlet Thread is a historical novel about Israeli settlements in what was then called Palestine, at the time of the First World War. Faced with increasing exactions and depredations by the Turkish rulers, a group of Jews resolve to support the British war effort by providing intelligence information–if they can find anyone in the British government who is willing to accept such information and take it seriously, that is.
The author became famous (or infamous) as one of the two women involved in the Profumo sex scandal of 1963-64, which brought down Prime Minister Macmillan and the Conservative government. She married an Israeli, moved to Israel, and converted to Judaism–this book (published in 1989) is a pretty decent historical novel, not just an attempt at capitalizing on her celebrity.