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.

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.

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.