Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Outbreaks to Come

It’s OK to dangle your foot over the edge of the bed.  Really.  There are no monsters underneath.  Really.  Truly.  It’s OK to read Stephen King or even Edgar A. Poe just before you turn out the lights.  Sweet dreams.  But, if you read Richard Preston’s most recent non-fiction entry about the Ebola virus, Crisis in the Red Zone…….?  YOU’LL NEVER SLEEP ANOTHER WINK IN YOUR LIFE!  My friends, as we’re finding out with the current Coronavirus pandemic, we are not prepared.  Preston’s newest title was released in July of last year, months before the current outbreak, so it’s even more relevant now that the world finds itself in this new, major viral predicament.

Ebola?  A possibility we know about.  What we don’t know is what we don’t know.  What I do know is that this good book will keep your lights on for hours, so you wouldn’t be sleeping anyway.  Remember Preston’s equally fascinating The Hot Zone?  Chapter and verse on the African Ebola outbreak of the 1970’s.  Crisis in the Red Zone, his latest, gives a brief and interesting recap of that epidemic and then takes us to 2014.  Remember?  Another horrifying outbreak in West Africa that modern medicine couldn’t quell, an outbreak that suddenly had us all sweating the possibilities.  Global travel.  Permeable borders.  Airplanes and cruise ships.  Possibilities that we’re all sweating again today with coronavirus.  Ebola made it to the US that time.  It surely did.  And so has coronavirus.

But there was a vaccine in 2014, right?  Yes, experimental ones, but for the most promising one there was only one existing test on primates and none on humans.  The story of the vaccines alone is a fascinating one, particularly so in that most of the development was entrepreneurial.  But it’s perfected now, right?  Well, you’d think.  And imagine the medical, ethical and personal quandary, the agony, of a doctor presented with enough of this untried vaccine for one patient – when you have a quarantine compound with hundreds of sick and dying.  It happened.  The man forced to make that call exists.

There was no cure.  In Africa, the focus had to be on controlling transmission, and you’ll be introduced to the seemingly cruel, but ultimately effective, Ancient Rule.  You’ll learn that Ebola is a wet virus that is transmitted only through direct contact with bodily fluids.  OK, that’s good to know, but you’ll be asked to think about the possibility of a dry, or airborne, virus that is as deadly as Ebola.  Is the coronavirus that virus?  Given a 3.4% coronavirus mortality rate vs. Ebola’s 90% death knell, probably not.  But there’s still every reason in the world to be worried.  Feeling a little feverish?  Thank you, Mr. Preston, for another important book that, as always, is also a great, timely read.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group – Random House via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Alexandra Fuller’s Travel Light, Move Fast

  Release Date:  August 6, 2019 / Travel light but move fast to your local indie bookstore and shop here!

If Alexandra Fuller writes a shopping list, read it; margin notes in her high school biology text, read them; weekly menu plans with beans and franks every Tuesday, read those, too.  Anything you can get your hands on.  Ms. Fuller will always have something original to say – even about the beans and franks.  But, of course, if you are familiar with her brilliant memoirs, you know she is from highly original stock, the peripatetic Fuller family of here and there, Africa, and in her work, she returns to her family again and again without ever losing an iota of freshness or impact.

Of the five children born to Tom and Nicola Fuller, Alexandra and her sister Vanessa are the only two who survived to adulthood – a family of survivors, actually:  tough, hard-working and hard-drinking, creative, intelligent as all get-out, eccentric, frivolous, flawed, forever bereaved, and determined to cope.  And if coping doesn’t work, then cope harder.  At times, over the years, the Fullers were even without a “fixed abode”, but they always managed to rebound, eventually settling on a farm in Zambia raising bananas and fish.

In Travel Light, Move Fast, advice from Tom Fuller appears as chapter headings, and, perhaps, this optimistic dreamer is best summed up in the first one:  “In the Unlikely Event of Money, Buy Two Tickets to Paris”.  Never one to let insecurity get in his way, he would have done just that in such an unlikely event.  In fact, he and his beloved Nicola are on vacation in Budapest when he falls seriously ill and is hospitalized.  Alexandra, now living in Wyoming, flies to Budapest to be with her parents and returns with her mother and her father’s ashes to the farm in Zambia and to a family in the aftermath of another death.  Determined.  Shattered.  Forever bereaved.

As for me, well, I am both besotted with and puzzled by the Fullers.  I have been ever since Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight:  An African Childhood, and I return to them every time the talented Alexandra offers a new opportunity.  If you know Ms. Fuller’s good work, you will be saddened beyond measure by Travel Light, Move Fast.  If you’re new to her books, this latest can be read as a stand-alone, but I’m going to be honest with you, Readers.  While I’m usually not much troubled by jumping in and out of sequence, I’m not sure this book is the best place to make your first acquaintance with this writer and her family.  You see, it is a book of endings.  Personally I’m glad I began at the beginning, but the choice is yours, of course.  The very best advice I can give you is quite simple, really.  Read Ms. Fuller’ books.  All of them.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Penguin Press via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and Edelweiss for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Chasing My Cure: A Doctor’s Race to Turn Hope into Action

  Release Date:  September 10, 2019 / Support your local indie bookstore by purchasing a copy here!

Can’t really say why I’ve been avoiding medical memoirs lately, but this one…..well, this one got in my face, in my head and simply wouldn’t be denied.  After losing his mother to a brain tumor while he was an undergrad, David Fajgenbaum committed himself to becoming a doctor.  He wanted to fight back against cancer, however while in medical school, he found himself feeling extremely tired, his lymph nodes were swollen and other symptoms began to develop as well.  Doctors suspected lymphoma or other blood cancer, but this was not a positive diagnosis.  With lightning speed, he became sicker and sicker:  pain, nausea, massive fluid retention, organ failure, ICU, not expected to live, saying good-bye to friends and family.  Then, just as unexpectedly, his condition stabilizes and he’s released from the hospital, only to relapse soon after.  Finally a diagnosis, and it is not lymphoma.  Good news.  Rather, it was HHV-8-negative, idiopathic multicentric Castleman disease, and he had to google that one.  Almost invariably fatal with death occurring from multiple organ failure an average of one year after diagnosis.  So his illness had a name, but little else, and it was certainly not good news.  David was to suffer five near-death experiences from organ failure.

Castleman disease is one of many orphan diseases, orphaned because they are so rare that study and research for a cure does not come with enough bang for the buck.  Maybe one researcher somewhere, maybe not.  Maybe one study, maybe not.  And David’s illness, as an additional complication, is a variation of this hothouse orchid of a disease, not just your “everyday” version.  So, here, readers, is where the story lies.  David – Dr. Fajgenbaum – chasing his cure.  Around bouts of his dreadful illness, he finishes medical school, but rather than going into a residency program afterward, he goes for an MBA.  He’s going to need business as well as medical savvy because, by now, he has learned how research programs work, and time is critically short.  He realizes he’s going to have to find his own cure, probably through off-label use of drugs already FDA-approved for other illnesses.  You will be astounded by this young man’s story and by his insightful look at the state of medical research.  Everybody, thumbs up and a standing O.  Good job all the way around, Dr. Fajgenbaum.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group / Ballantine Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb

Will World War II ever cease to fascinate us?  I certainly hope not, nor should it for, clearly, we’re abysmally slow learners.  With The Bastard Brigade, Sam Kean brings us yet another story – the Allied efforts to prevent Hitler and his Nazi scientists from developing an atomic weapon.  Or, uh, ahem, at least, to keep them from developing one before we did.  Germany’s Uranium Club versus the Manhattan Project of the US.  Of course, this is not a new story, but, as told by Mr Kean, it is both chilling and oddly charming.  I swear!  Now how the hell did he pull that off?  Like a man with a keen sense of the absurd who knows exactly what he’s doing, that’s how.

First of all, Mr. Kean is a scientist, and a brief course in rudimentary nuclear physics comes with the price of admission, illustrated nicely, thank you very much, in a way that an eighth grader could understand.  Enriched uranium?  Hey, guess what?  I know what that terms mean now, and it was absolutely painless.  Heavy water?  Got that one, too.  In 1940, the Vemork Hydroelectric Plant on an icy, desolate plateau 100 miles west of Oslo, Norway, was the only producer of heavy water in the world, and Hitler’s crew put in their order for hundreds of pounds of the heretofore seldom-sold stuff in January of that year.  (My heart nearly burst with joy when Mr. Kean describes the Vemork officials as being in a state of “flabbergastation” over Germany’s order, and it is my fervent hope that’s actually a word because the Lord knows we need it, but perhaps Mr. Kean was only being tongue in cheek.  He’s more than capable of that, and thank you very much, Mr. Kean.)  Anyway I was “flabbergastated” to learn that it took two dangerous commando raids to remove the existing heavy water supply before the Nazis could get it.  Geez, who knew?  Now there’s a “knowledge knugget” for you, and we have only scratched the surface.

Oddball characters and anecdotes abound, such as Moe Berg, professional baseball player and multi-lingual Princeton man –  first and most unlikely atomic espionage agent.  Madame Curie’s daughter Irene and her husband Frederic Joliot.  The rocky start of the OSS, forerunner of the CIA.  Joseph Kennedy, Jr., eldest Kennedy son, brother of JFK.  Wasn’t he shot down in WWII or his plane crashed – or something?  It exploded, actually, in a bizarre mission constructed from fear of an atomic Germany.  Kennedy, Jr. volunteered, and every plane after his that made the same attempt was lost as well.  I must make myself stop talking about this book.  Loved it, loved it, loved it, and I’m just your average grumpy ol’ she-bear.  If you’re a WWII devotee, a science geek, sports fan, second hand adrenaline junkie, any sort of history buff, weaponry aficionado………..just name a niche.  Cross stitch?  Well, hey, OK then, even if there’s nothing for your particular niche, you’ll still love this book.  Betcha.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Little, Brown and Company via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Red River Girl: The Life and Death of Tina Fontaine

True crime?  Yes, I suppose so, but closer to reportage than sensationalism.  With the murder of Tina Fontaine, BBC journalist Joanna Jolly takes on a disturbing subject:  the numbers of raped, murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada.  Folks outside of Canada may be oblivious, but the problem is such that Justin Trudeau, upon becoming Prime Minister, promised and implemented an initiative to focus on the issue.  And in truth, victim-blaming obscures the problem, for, you see, many indigenous women who come to cities such as Vancouver and Winnipeg (where Fontaine’s death occurred) become involved in drugs and the sex trade – risky, vulnerable lives, low priority lives that, unfortunately, are too easily dismissed.

Tina Fontaine was only fifteen years old, looked much younger, and had been reared on a First Nations reserve by an aunt who loved her.  Like many teenagers, she wanted to spread her wings a bit and came to Winnipeg in hopes of establishing a relationship with her mother.  Her mother, however, was nowhere to be found, but Tina stayed anyway and was soon on the streets.  For about a month.  Then somebody killed her.  Dumped her in the Red River.  Wrapped in a floral duvet cover.  That’s a jarring note, isn’t it?  A duvet cover.  I don’t have a duvet cover or a duvet to cover for that matter, but someone did.  Probably Tina’s killer.  Probably a psychopath.  With a duvet cover.  Strange.

Of course, Richard Cormier, her accused killer, is strange – a cagey, articulate man with a taste for very young women and a thing for Tina that he can’t stop talking about.  He supports himself and supplies his meth habit by stealing scrap metal, copper wiring and bicycles.  Living rough, looking stringy.  And, if you listen closely, you may hear the jingle jangle of loose screws as he walks by.  But did he kill Tina?  Winnipeg homicide detective John O’Donovan doggedly pursues Cormier, even setting up an elaborate and costly “Mr. Big” sting operation, but he can only build a circumstantial case against the suspect.  If you’re not familiar with the term, “Mr. Big” is an investigative ploy that actually originated in Canada.  It’s been banned in some countries as entrapment, and is restricted even in Canada, but O’Donovan’s version reads like a novel, and the case becomes a cause.  Is there justice for Tina?  For any of these women?  Well, you know how it is.  You know what they say.  It’s complicated.  But you can read and we can hope.

Shop your local indie bookstore for this one, Joanna Jolly’s compelling non-fiction debut.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Penguin Random House Canada / Viking via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Good Morning, Monster: Five Heroic Journeys to Recovery

Retired Canadian psychotherapist Catherine Gildiner subtitles her good work of non-fiction Five Heroic Journeys to Recovery and recounts the inspirational stories of five former patients whom she considers heroes for their lives of struggle, their hard work in therapy and their willingness to share.  All have given permission to use their experiences, but, even so, their stories are told in such a way as to retain their anonymity – Laura, Peter, Danny, Alana and Madeline.  Psychotherapy itself is long process, comes with pitfalls and is not for sissies, but these five are here to speak.

When she was a child, Madeline’s mother greeted her each morning with “Good morning, monster.”  And not as a term of endearment, you see.  Madeline thought that’s what she was.  Danny and his family were victims of Canadian government policy regarding indigenous people.  Alana and her younger sister were reared by their brilliant father who wrangled custody away from their mother.  Custody of two tiny girls was given to a monster.  These stories are told in narrative fashion taken from clinical notes, but they are not clinical.  Rather, they are deeply engrossing and heartbreakingly human.  And, for me, they were terrifying.  Horrifying abuses; none reported.  Monsters and victims, and we have no idea.  Look around.  Look around.  Say Good Morning.

As this Halloween week begins, Good Morning, Monster reminds us that the horrors are all too real.  No word on an official US release date, but the Canadian printing is available for purchase on-line at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Penguin Random House Canada / Viking via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Zoo Nebraska: The Dismantling of an American Dream

The tiny, tiny town of Royal, Nebraska had a zoo, more of an optimistic roadside attraction or a sort of do-it-yourself menagerie with aspirations.  It never made much money (or any at all), but the people of Royal, near the South Dakota border, were proud of it; it was popular, and it gave them something to fight over.  Nebraska native Johnny Carson even donated money to build a “primate center” for Reuben the chimp who was later joined by Jimmy Joe, Tyler and Ripley.  Zoo Nebraska, in its day, housed a variety of wildlife, but the chimpanzees, the “non-human primates”, were the center of the attraction.  However, it’s the “human primates” (though I’m hard-pressed to make a distinction) who are at the center of Carson Vaughn’s book.  If this “one-horse town” had had a horse, they’d have fought over the horse.  They did, in fact, have someone who made buggy wheels, quite a unique character, and, boy, did they fight with him.  Did you know there’s still a market for buggy wheels?  It’s a wasted day if you don’t learn something.

Anyway, Royal resident and really good-hearted fellow Dick Haskins fell in love with Africa and the Great Apes after seeing a Jane Goodall documentary in eighth grade.  From that point he’s all about going to Africa to work with Goodall or Dian Fossey, so after college, he finds a job at the Folsom Children’s Zoo in Lincoln, Nebraska working with “non-human primates”, and this is where he meets Reuben the chimp.  And he’s off – on his way to becoming a self-styled primatologist.  When the Folsom Zoo seeks to relocate Reuben to another facility, Haskins gains custodianship of the chimp and begins planning a primate center in, of all places, Royal, Nebraska – population about sixty.  The school is closed; the Methodist church is closed; the library is closed.

For years, Haskins works himself to the bitter end without pay – adapting as his hoped-for primate center becomes a small zoo, and losing sight of Africa all together.  When, at last, he must give it up, Zoo Nebraska begins its long and contentious downhill slide to oblivion.  Just plain folks doing the best that they can?  Maybe, maybe not.  But first Royal will be in the national headlines and not in a good way.  Human primates.  What is that saying about big fishes in small ponds?  A good piece of non-fiction.  I read it, and, if I were you………I’d read it, too!

Zip on out to your local bookstore for this one or support an indie bookseller online by clicking here.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Little A via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Wholly Unraveled: A Memoir

How does a child make any sense of a life that can go from the light of day to the dark of night in a heartbeat?  From smooth waters to dangerous rapids that you never see coming?  Each step could be the one that takes you from a safe place into terror and pain.  Keele Burgin’s young life was one of  glaring contrasts and terrifying uncertainties.  Life on high alert.  Wealth and luxury (a lavishly restored Victorian home on the ocean, horses, station wagons and Cadillacs), a severely abusive, all powerful father, a vacant, submissive mother, a stultifying, fundamentalist version of Catholicism.  (Amazed me.  Didn’t know that existed.)

It was rough – far more than most could imagine or endure.  But if it was rough, she was tough.  Their housekeeper Shirley called her Little Ox.  She develops a hard shell and becomes a headstrong, hard-eyed child and teen-ager, not particularly likeable, to tell the truth.  She couldn’t let herself hate her parents, so she hated herself and became an even harder, self-damaging adult, unable to maintain a giving relationship.

To be honest, at one point, I gave serious thought to bailing out of this read.  Portions are somewhat erratically written, and there is an inconsistency of voice that bothered me from time to time, but I suspect it was either purposeful – a reflection of her erratic young life and inability to find any voice at all of her own –  or just hard as hell to write.  Or both.  Too ugly, too scary – not anywhere I thought I wanted to be.  (Sometimes I get a little down, you know.)  Stuck it out, though, just a little longer, and was rewarded with a redemptive ending that is filled with hope.  This book?  Tough, but worth it.

Currently available from your local indie bookstore here.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Little A via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession

Now just hold your horses, all you obsessed, bloodthirsty, thrill-seeking ladies out there.  This title would have you devouring the pages of the book, ripping at them with fang and claw…..drooling.  ‘Fraid not.  This is sociology, my friends, and, according to the sociological theorizing in Rachel Monroe’s book, it is the ladies who are obsessed with true crime.  Maybe, but it does make interesting reading, and the true stories of four women are cited as examples of cultural archetypes – Detective, Victim, Defender, Killer.

The unlikely Detective is Frances Glessner Lee, a wealthy heiress, who, in the Forties, constructed Nutshells, exquisitely detailed miniatures of crime scenes as training tools for law enforcement….how to see and analyze a crime scene.  Arguably, Ms. Lee’s work could be called the beginning of forensic science, introducing a thread that continues throughout the book.  Many of Ms. Lee’s Nutshells still exist and have been exhibited as art.

The Victim is Patti Tate, younger sister of Sharon Tate.  She inherits her mother’s fight for victim’s rights.  The Defender, Lorri Davis, marries incarcerated Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three and works tirelessly for his eventual freedom, one of many women who befriend and, eventually, love imprisoned men, investing them with a bad boy sexiness or a mysterious uniqueness.  The Killer is a very young Lindsay Souvannarath, and her James, internet buddies/imaginary lovers involved online with admirers of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.  Mostly chatter and bravado, but Lindsay and James actually make plans to shoot up a mall in Halifax, Nova Scotia where he lived.  Unrealistic plans.  Neither had ever fired a gun, and she insisted on wearing heels.

These four women are springboards for broader discussions, a sociological mash-up that tries to cover the waterfront and is only more or less successful.  A Sisyphean task, either in search of a point or adrift in a sea of them, so don’t obsess over it.  Just leave your savage appetites in the basement and nibble thoughtfully on this one.  Here’s the thing.  Without reference, I named Sharon Tate, Damien Echols, the West Memphis Three, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold , and you know who they are.  Don’t you?

Savage Appetites takes aim at bookstores on August 20, or thereabouts.  Pre-order here from your local indie bookstore.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Scribner via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Superlative: The Biology of Extremes

The outliers:  biggest, smallest, deadliest, smartest, strongest, oldest, fastest.  A sort of Guinness Book of Records for grown-up nerds, huh?  Same fascination factor, for sure, but with purpose and science to boot.  What can we learn from these extremes of nature?  How did they come to be?  What are the challenges to their survival?  How can they benefit us?

For example, in “Why Almost Everything We Know About Giraffes Is Wrong”, we learn that prevailing theories say giraffes developed their unique bodies and long necks in order to graze from tree tops.  But did they?  They seem to bend down to eat from grasses and shrubs as much, if not more, than in trees.  So why those long necks with those pretty little heads at the top?

And there’s “Why Elephant Cells Are Like Empathetic Zombies”.  Elephants grow so rapidly that cells tend to mutate, and so it seems that elephants would develop cancers at an astounding rate – but they don’t.  In elephants, mutating cells appear to “develop a conscience” and die.  Now wouldn’t it be great if our pre-cancerous cells offed themselves?  Yeah, that’s the ticket, and we’d have elephants to thank, so back off, poachers!

I’ve only sampled Matthew LaPlante’s good book, but I’ll be back, and it’s perfect for enjoying this way if you like.  Of course, for many, it’ll be like potato chips.  Hard to stop with one or two.  Whatever your style, munchies or the full buffet, the line starts here.

Be the biggest, smartest, fastest reader to buy this book from your local indie bookstore.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by BenBella Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.