The best books about pandemics, historical and fictional

Marcia Calhoun Forecki Author Of Blood of the White Bear
By Marcia Calhoun Forecki

Who am I?

I divide my reading between works of imagination and historical nonfiction. All good fiction requires research to enhance it’s authenticity. Several years ago, I published a story set in the 1918 influenza epidemic. The research for the story was fascinating, and led me to John M. Barry’s book included in my recommendations. After editing a memoir for retired screenwriter and film director, Gerald Schnitzer (sadly now deceased), he invited me to co-author a novel set in the Four Corners featuring a virologist who combines science and spirituality to find a cure for a pandemic, which became Blood of the White Bear

I wrote...

Blood of the White Bear

By Marcia Calhoun Forecki, Gerald Schnitzer,

Book cover of Blood of the White Bear

What is my book about?

Images of White Bear Kachinas erupt from the dreams of virologist Dr. Rachel Bisette and invade her consciousness. Kachina calls for relief from a hantavirus epidemic in the Four Corners. Rachel rushes to the Southwest to lead the search for a vaccine. Only one survivor of the virus is known, but she is elusive. Eva Yellow Horn, an indigenous healer, carries the gift of immunity. As Rachel searches for Eva, she discovers this healer’s gift of healing beyond science. Eva also knows the truth about the deaths of Rachel’s parents years earlier, when her father investigated the Church Rock spill of radioactive waste. The pandemic is fiction, but the spill and its consequences are historical facts.  

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague

Why did I love this book?

A personal narrative set in a fearsome historical event is an unbeatable combination for any fiction lover. Anna Firth, a housemaid and an unlikely heroine narrates the course of sickness to inevitable death in 1666. Village religious leaders, resigned to sacrifice the village to end the Plague, self-quarantine the village. We see through Anna’s eyes the despair of giving care when superstition outweighs science. In such chaos, Anna struggles with the temptation of an illicit love. As the plague invades every household, her neighbors turn from prayer to superstition. Especially fascinating is Anna’s role changing from caregiver to suspected witch. Anna struggles to survive and hope as a year of catastrophe becomes annus mirabilis, a "year of wonders."

By Geraldine Brooks,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Year of Wonders as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 'March' and 'People of the Book'.

A young woman's struggle to save her family and her soul during the extraordinary year of 1666, when plague suddenly struck a small Derbyshire village.

In 1666, plague swept through London, driving the King and his court to Oxford, and Samuel Pepys to Greenwich, in an attempt to escape contagion. The north of England remained untouched until, in a small community of leadminers and hill farmers, a bolt of cloth arrived from the capital. The tailor who cut the cloth had no way of knowing that the damp…


By Oliver Sacks,

Book cover of Awakenings

Why did I love this book?

A fascinating, readable nonfiction account of patients who contracted sleeping-sickness as children in the great epidemic of 1918. They grew to adulthood in a Bronx hospital, frozen in sleep for decades. The prognosis was hopeless until 1969, when Dr. Sacks dared to try a new drug, L-DOPA, giving his patients an astonishing, explosive, “awakening.” Dr. Sacks recounts case histories of his patients, their lives, and extraordinary transformations from his treatment. This book is a passionate exploration of the most general questions of health, disease, suffering, care, and the human condition. The patients’ realization of themselves as adults is heartbreaking. Dr. Sacks wrote:Awakenings came from the most intense medical and human involvement I have ever know.”

By Oliver Sacks,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Awakenings as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'The story of a disease that plunged its victims into a prison of viscous time, and the drug that catapulted them out of it' - Guardian

Hailed as a medical classic, and the subject of a major feature film as well as radio and stage plays and various TV documentaries, Awakenings by Oliver Sacks is the extraordinary account of a group of twenty patients.

Rendered catatonic by the sleeping-sickness epidemic that swept the world just after the First World War, all twenty had spent forty years in hospital: motionless and speechless; aware of the world around them, but exhibiting no…


By José Saramago,

Book cover of Blindness

Why did I love this book?

Magical realism is accepting the impossible as a premise. José Saramago creates an inexplicable epidemic of "white blindness" which spares few in a single city. Authorities confine the blind to an empty mental hospital, where they are victimized by criminals who hold everyone captive, steal food rations, and rape women. One eyewitness to this nightmare guides seven strangers through barren city streets in an uncanny procession through fearsome surroundings. A magnificent parable of loss and disorientation and a vivid evocation of the horrors of the twentieth century, this powerful novel of man's will to survive against all odds. José Saramago was awarded the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature.

By José Saramago,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Blindness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

No food, no water, no government, no obligation, no order.

Discover a chillingly powerful and prescient dystopian vision from one of Europe's greatest writers.

A driver waiting at the traffic lights goes blind. An ophthalmologist tries to diagnose his distinctive white blindness, but is affected before he can read the textbooks.
It becomes a contagion, spreading throughout the city. Trying to stem the epidemic, the authorities herd the afflicted into a mental asylum where the wards are terrorised by blind thugs. And when fire destroys the asylum, the inmates burst forth and the last links with a supposedly civilised society…

Bird Box

By Josh Malerman,

Book cover of Bird Box

Why did I love this book?

This edge-of-your-seat thriller begins five years after the first intrusion of a force so terrifying that it must not be seen. One glimpse and a person is driven to deadly violence. Malorie and her two children survive alone until the youngest is old enough to escape. All blindfolded, they set off by rowboat to a place where they might be safe, relying on Malorie’s wits and the children’s trained ears. The narrative moves between past and present without identifying the source of the madness, unleashed only when a victim sees its source. This debut novel is a gripping work of imagination focusing on the human spirit to persevere and overcome. 

By Josh Malerman,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Bird Box as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Josh Malerman's debut novel Bird Box is a terrifying, Hitchcockesque psychological horror that is sure to stay with you long after reading.

Malorie raises the children the only way she can: indoors.

The house is quiet. The doors are locked, the curtains are closed, mattresses are nailed over the windows.

They are out there. She might let them in.

The children sleep in the bedroom across the hall.

Soon she will have to wake them. Soon she will have to blindfold them.

Today they must leave the house. Today they will risk everything.

Book cover of The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

Why did I love this book?

This brilliant non-fiction work by John M. Barry is fascinating for its scholarship and engaging prose. We learn about the source of the H1N1 influenza virus in birds through its mutations to a deadly pandemic engulfing the globe and responsible for killing an estimated 50 million people. In addition to writing layman’s course in virology, Mr. Barry focuses on individuals who perished and those who searched unceasingly for a vaccine. This is the most timely of books for readers who have endured the twenty-first century coronavirus pandemic. 

By John M. Barry,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Great Influenza as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At the height of WWI, history's most lethal influenza virus erupted in an army camp in Kansas, moved east with American troops, then exploded, killing as many as 100 million people worldwide. It killed more people in twenty-four months than AIDS killed in twenty-four years, more in a year than the Black Death killed in a century. But this was not the Middle Ages, and 1918 marked the first collision of science and epidemic disease. Magisterial in its breadth of perspective and depth of research and now revised to reflect the growing danger of the avian flu, "The Great Influenza"…

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