Just as Americans, many (but not yet enough) emboldened by their vaccinations, were thinking life might return to something approximating “normal,” a “heat dome” over the Pacific Northwest reminded everyone that the pandemic is not the nation’s only crisis. 

The record-breaking temperatures were astonishing: 116° in Portland Oregon, 108° in Seattle and 121° in the small village of Lytton, British Columbia. The scorching heat turned already drought-stressed vegetation into kindling. Near Lytton, something lit that kindling; the quickly raging fire destroyed 90% of the town.

And so Americans find themselves transitioning out of a once-in-a-century pandemic and into what is predicted to be yet another worse-than-usual fire season.

Accordingly, this month’s bookshelf has been split into two parts. 

The first part lists five (very) new books and one report looking back at the COVID-19 pandemic – at least as it existed prior to the emergence of new concerns over the Delta variant. The second part lists six books on wildfires. Four explain how human mismanagement and a changing climate have made wildfires more extreme. Two books on Paradise, the California town torched by the Camp Fire in 2018, vividly illustrate just how deadly the consequences can be. 

As always, the descriptions of the works listed below are drawn from copy provided by the publishers or organizations that released them. When two dates of publication are included, the latter is for the paperback edition.


Nightmare Scenario: Inside the Trump Administration’s Response to the Pandemic That Changed History, by Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta (Harper Collins 2021, 496 pages, $30.00)

Nightmare Scenario is the complete story of Donald Trump’s handling – and mishandling – of the COVID-19 catastrophe, during the period of January 2020 up to Election Day that year. Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta take us deep inside the White House, from the Situation Room to the Oval Office, to show how members of the administration launched an all-out war against the health agencies, doctors, and scientific communities, all in their futile attempts to wish away the worst global pandemic in a century. Based on exhaustive reporting and hundreds of hours of interviews, Nightmare Scenario is a riveting account of how the United States government failed its people, a tragedy whose aftershocks will be felt by generations to come.

The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, by Michael Lewis (W.W. Norton 2021, 320 pages, $30.00)

Michael Lewis’s taut nonfiction thriller pits a band of medical visionaries against the Trump administration’s failed response to the outbreak of COVID-19. The characters you will meet in these pages are both fascinating and unexpected. A thirteen-year-old girl whose science project on airborne pathogens develops into a grown-up model of disease control. A local public-health officer uses her worm’s-eye view to see what the CDC misses. A secret team of dissenting doctors that has everything necessary to fight the pandemic – except official permission to implement their work. Lewis calls these people heroes for their refusal to follow misguided directives that they knew to be based on misinformation and bad science.

The Plague Year: America in the Time of Covid, by Lawrence Wright (Penguin Random House 2021, 336 pages, $28.00) 

From the fateful first moments of the outbreak in China to the extraordinary vaccine rollout, Lawrence Wright’s The Plague Year tells the story of Covid-19 in authoritative, galvanizing detail, illuminating the medical, economic, political, and social ramifications of the pandemic. Wright takes us inside the CDC, where a first round of faulty test kits lost America precious time … inside the halls of the White House, where Deputy National Security Adviser Matthew Pottinger’s early alarm about the virus was met with confounding skepticism … and inside the human body, diving deep into the science of how the virus and vaccines function. And in this full accounting, Wright makes clear that the medical professionals who’ve risked their lives to fight the virus reveal and embody an America in all its vulnerability, courage, and potential.

Positioning America’s Public Health System for the Next Pandemic, by co-chairs Tom Daschle, and Bill Frist and BPC’s Health Project Task Force (Bipartisan Policy Center 2021, 66 pages, free download available here)

Since August 2020, the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) has been developing recommendations to improve the resilience of the nation’s health care and public health systems in response to the threat of COVID-19. In January 2021, it released a report outlining high-priority actions that should be taken immediately. In this report, the BPC has developed additional recommendations to ensure that the public health system not only continues to respond to COVID-19, but is well-prepared to respond to a future pandemic. The recommendations focus on three areas: 1) creating clarity and accountability in federal leadership and operations during a pandemic; 2) improving public health information technology and data systems; and 3) committing the United States to more and consistent funding of public health to prepare for inevitable public health crises.

Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in the Fight for Public Health, by Leana Wen, MD (Metropolitan Books 2021, 352 pages, $27.99)

“Public health saved your life today,” Dr. Leana Wen likes to say, “you just don’t know it.” You don’t know it because good public health is invisible. It becomes visible only in its absence, when it is underfunded and ignored, a bitter truth laid bare by the devastation of COVID-19. An emergency physician and CNN medical analyst, Wen has lived on the front lines of public health, leading fights against the opioid epidemic, infectious diseases, infant mortality, and COVID-19 disinformation. In Lifelines, she recounts that lifesaving work. But Wen also tells her own uniquely American story. An immigrant from China whose family received food stamps, Wen attended college at thirteen; she turned to public health as the way to make a difference.
Where children live, she insists, should not determine whether they live.

Preventable: The Inside Story of How Leadership Failures, Politics, and Selfishness Doomed the U.S. Coronavirus Response, by Andy Slavitt (St. Martin’s Press 2021, 336 pages, $28.99)

With unparalleled access to key players throughout the government on both sides of the aisle, as well as people working on the frontlines in the battle with the virus, Preventable brings readers into the room as fateful decisions are made and focuses on the people at the center of our political and health care system, connecting their choices with the consequences for patients and caregivers. The story that emerges is one of a country in which bad leadership, political and cultural fractures, and an unwillingness to sustain sacrifice undermined the heroic efforts of doctors, nurses, and essential workers. Preventable addresses the uncomfortable realities that brought America to this place. But it also offers solutions that will keep us from being here again.

Trees in Trouble: Wildfires, Infestations, and Climate Change, by Daniel Matthews (Counterpoint 2020/2021, 304 pages, $17.95 paperback)

Climate change manifests in many ways across North America, but few as dramatic as the attacks on our western pine forests. In Trees in Trouble, Daniel Mathews tells the urgent story of this loss, accompanying burn crews and forest ecologists as they try to save this important resource. Mathews transports the reader from the exquisitely aromatic haze of ponderosa and Jeffrey pine groves to the fantastic gnarls and whorls of 5000-yr–old bristlecone pines, from genetic test nurseries for white pine seedlings to the hottest megafire sites and neighborhoods leveled by fire tornadoes. Trees in Trouble not only explores the devastating ripple effects of climate change, it also offers hope: a new approach to managing western pine forests is underway.

Land on Fire: The New Reality of Wildfire in the West, by Gary Ferguson (Timber Press 2017, 212 pages, $27.95)

Wildfire season is burning longer and hotter, affecting more and more people, especially in the west. Land on Fire explores the fascinating science behind this phenomenon and the ongoing research to find a solution. This gripping narrative details how years of fire suppression and chronic drought have combined to make the situation so dire. Award-winning nature writer Gary Ferguson brings to life the extraordinary efforts of those responsible for fighting wildfires, and deftly explains how nature reacts in the aftermath of flames. Dramatic photographs reveal the terror and beauty of fire, as well as the staggering effect it has on the landscape.

Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future, by Edward Struzik (Island Press 2017/2019, 272 pages, $25.00 paperback)

Higher temperatures, stronger winds, and drier lands – these changes are particularly noticeable in the northern forests of the U.S. and Canada, forests that require fire to maintain healthy ecosystems. But as the human population has grown, and as changes in climate, animal and insect species, and disease have caused further destabilization, wildfires have turned into a potentially uncontrollable threat to human lives and livelihoods. There is too much fuel on the ground, too many people and assets to protect, and no plan in place to deal with these challenges. In Firestorm, journalist Edward Struzik visits scorched earth from Alaska to Maine, and introduces the scientists, firefighters, and resource managers making the case for a radically different approach to managing wildfire in the 21st century. 

Smokescreen: Debunking Wildfire Myths to Save Our Forests and Our Climate, by Chad T. Hanson (University Press of Kentucky 2021, 280 pages, $27.95)

Smokescreen makes an impassioned argument for a new era of forest management. Natural fires are as essential as sun and rain in fire-adapted forests, but as humans encroach on wild spaces, fear and greed have distorted the way that people view these regenerative events. Our misinformed policies now threaten whole ecosystems as well as humanity’s chances of overcoming the climate crisis. Natural alarm over wildfire has been marshaled to advance corporate and political agendas, notably those of the logging industry. Smokescreen confronts the devastating cost of current policies and practices head-on and ultimately offers a hopeful vision and practical suggestions for the future – fa future in which both communities and the climate are protected and fires are understood as a natural and necessary force.

Fire in Paradise: An American Tragedy, by Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano (W.W. Norton 2020/2021, 272 pages, $16.95 paperback)

On November 8, 2018, the ferocious Camp Fire razed nearly every home in Paradise, California, and killed at least 85 people. Journalists Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano reported on Paradise from the day the fire began and conducted hundreds of in-depth interviews with residents, firefighters and police, and scientific experts. Fire in Paradise is their dramatic narrative of the disaster and an unforgettable story of an American town at the forefront of the climate emergency. Gee and Anguiano build Fire in Paradise into the harrowing story of the most destructive American wildfire in a century.

Paradise: One Town’s Struggle to Survive an American Wildfire, by Lizzie Johnson (Penguin Random House 2021, 432 pages, $28.00) 

On November 8, 2018, the people of Paradise, California, awoke to a mottled gray sky and gusty winds. Soon the Camp Fire was upon them, gobbling an acre a second. Less than two hours after the fire ignited, the town was engulfed in flames, the residents trapped in their homes and cars. By the next morning, eighty-five people were dead. San Francisco Chronicle reporter Lizzie Johnson was there as the town of Paradise burned. In Paradise, Johnson documents the unfolding tragedy with empathy and nuance. But she also investigates the root causes, from runaway climate change to a deeply flawed alert system to Pacific Gas and Electric’s decades-long neglect of critical infrastructure. A cautionary tale for a new era of megafires, Paradise is the gripping story of a town wiped off the map and the determination of its people to rise again.

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since 2005. Before completing his interdisciplinary...