Thursday, August 30, 2012

What I'm Reading Now-The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story

The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story by Richard Preston--As a good/terrifying follow-up the The Stand, I decided to pick up a book about viruses, viruses that can spread rapidly and kill you horribly. Good times.

Hey, so does everyone remember, back in the late '80s, when the Ebola virus broke out in a monkey facility in Reston, Virginia, right near our nation's capitol, and there was some concern that it might get out and burn through the population with a kill rate of up to 90%? No? Yeah, me neither, and it's a good thing too. (Or maybe ya'll do remember, and I just didn't pay attention because I was too young to be sufficiently scared.) The fact that it went largely unnoticed by the public (or, at least, by me) is probably because it didn't get out of control and kill everyone in its path, but not for lack of opportunity. Basically, the people involved just got lucky. (Quick little note here: If you ever have a piece of monkey spleen that you think might be contaminated with some kind of horrible virus, and you want to send it to somebody in a lab, just be aware that they frown upon receiving samples that are A) "wrapped in aluminum foil, like pieces of leftover hot dog" and B) packed in ice which is beginning to drip and melt and run red with melty, potentially-virusy monkey blood.)

If you can handle all the gory details, and I mean gory--the details in here are not for the faint of heart--this is a really interesting read about viruses, the fascinatingly horrific effects they can have on people (and animals), and on biocontainment procedures.  I know that sounds really dry, but it's not. This is an account of what goes down when the higher-ups go, "Oh, sh*t." 'Cause you know it's bad when the higher-ups go, "Oh, sh*t." Also, there are cave elephants.** (Honestly, this is what finally made me reserve the book at my library.)

According to the book, The United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) "conducts research into ways to protect soldiers against biological weapons and natural infectious diseases. It specializes in drugs, vaccines, and biocontainment." The Ebola virus is one of the viruses that the folks at USAMRIID work with, and the people who work with it are generally considered a little crazy; the general consensus seems to be, "To mess around with Ebola is an easy way to die. Better to work with something safer, such as anthrax."

When anthrax is your "safer" bet, you know you're playing with something scary. Contaminated primate meat is often thought to be the originating source of Ebola infection in humans, but the virus's origins are still unknown. Where did the primates get it? Marburg virus is related to Ebola and similar in its effects. Today, fruit bats are thought to be a reservoir host for Marburg virus, but in 1994, when the book was written, this wasn't known. Reading about the unsuccessful efforts to track down these viruses' origins and seeing how they evolved over time before presumably disappearing back into the jungle, waiting to reemerge, is frightening even today.

These viruses spread and multiply quickly. As of the writing of this book, there were three known strains of Ebola; today there are five. Ebola Zaire tends to be highly lethal in humans; Ebola Reston seems to have no symptoms in humans, yet, according to the book, experts can't really discern any genetic difference. The idea that a virus can shift so dramatically and yet unnoticeably was played out against the backdrop of AIDS, which had been spreading rapidly and inexplicably and was only just beginning to be understood by science. The idea that the virus behind this deadly disease could mutate at any time and become something even worse is lurking in the background throughout the book. The implications are just as scary today*** with the recent SARS, bird flu, and swine flu outbreaks, not to mention the plain old regular flu, and the fact that things like hantavirus, the plague (this is why fleas are NOT OK, people!) and Ebola still rear their ugly heads from time to time.

I said earlier that the cave elephants are what finally made me read this book, and that's true, but it had been on my radar for a while because of the author, Richard Preston. Preston is also the author of The Wild Trees, which, if you've been a long-time reader, you will remember was the book that was responsible for all of our grand tree climbing adventures. Now, I'm not about to go sign up to become a Biohazard Level-4 worker after reading this book, but I did enjoy it. I was in turns horrified by facts (blood comes out of every orifice?), shocked by behaviors (Really? You thought it would be a good idea to smell the potentially lethal virus culture to see if your sample had been contaminated??), and just plain interested in what I was reading, all the while hoping that my book wasn't covered in Ebola spread by some carelessly wrapped monkey spleen.

**The cave elephants play a pretty minor role, so don't get too excited about this part.

***Edited to add: Yikes! See what I mean? I haven't even had this published for half-an-hour, when I saw this article about a snake virus that might be a cross between Ebola and something else.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Poetry Sunday: A Series in One Part

by Bob Hicok

Back then I was going steady
with fog, who could dance
like no one's business, I threw her over
for a leaf that one day fluttered
first her shadow then her whole life
into my hand, that's a lot
of responsibility and a lot
of relatives, this leaf
and that leaf and all the other leaves
hung around, I told her
I needed space, which was true, without it I'd only be a soul,
and no one's sure that wisp
is real, that's why we say
of real estate, location, location,
location, and of speech,
locution, locution, locution,
and of love, yes, yes, yes,
I am on my knees, will you have me,

I'm not really one for poetry (oh, dear, I hope Jeanne covered her eyes before she read that last bit!), and I'm not really one for prayer either, at least not in the religious, get down on your knees and ask God for favors kind of way, but something resounded in me when I read the last lines of this poem. I got to the end and thought, Boy, isn't that what it means to pray? To ask the world to accept you and all that you are--insignificant, miniscule--with all your worries and fears and love and hope? Isn't that all that anyone wants? Please, will you have me?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

What I'm Reading Now-Ghosts in the Fog

Ghosts in the Fog: The Untold Story of Alaska's WWII Invasion by Samantha Seiple--As is often the case, I saw this sitting on my library's "New Arrivals" shelf and decided to pick it up. I started reading, got a few pages in, got distracted by something else (probably The Stand) and almost returned it to the library unfinished. One night, while flailing around the house searching for something new to read, I decided I might as well pick this back up (since it was already overdue anyway--*sigh*), and I ended up finishing it a couple hours later. The quick reading can be attributed to several things; part of it is that this is a YA book and pretty easy reading--I would definitely consider this easy introductory reading for WWII--part of it is that it's only about 200 pages, and part of it is that I couldn't believe I had never heard about any of this before. The first lines of the book:
ON JUNE 7, 1942, Japan invaded Alaska.  
On June 10, 1942, the U.S. Navy denied that it happened: "None of our inhabited islands or rocks are troubled with uninvited visitors up to this time."

Whoa. Wait. What?? Did you know that? Maybe I'm just shockingly out of the loop on WWII Pacific Theatre history (which wouldn't be all that surprising--history's not really my strong suit), but this was hand-to-hand combat on American soil that resulted in almost 4,000* American casualties (including Private Joseph P. Martinez, the first private and the first Hispanic-American to earn the Medal of Honor in WWII). It also resulted in one of the biggest mass suicides in WWII when 500 Japanese soldiers took their own lives rather than face the dishonor of surrender.

I got chills reading about some of the strategies that were used by the Americans in their attempts to take back the Aleutian island of Kiska, which had been captured by the Japanese. Due to its location and its mountainous terrain, the island is often shrouded in fog and/or buffeted by wind and rain. If you've ever watched "Deadliest Catch" you have some idea of what the weather is like in this part of the world; and if you have a fear of flying because you are afraid you're going to slam into a mountain and die (or if you are just remotely aware of the importance of ground clearance in flight) (OR if you've ever had to drive in the fog), you will have some idea of the task these men were facing when they were asked "to dive-bomb the Japanese around the clock, regardless of the weather." For logistical reasons, they were using PBYs, or pontoon planes, which were not meant for such maneuvers and the pilots flying them had received no training in this specialized tactic. Here are a few excerpts about the bombing campaign:

This was a punishing plan for the PBY crews, and Captain Gehres knew they were on a death mission. "Every flight was a flight the crew should not have returned from," he said. "Every man knew this and yet none wavered."

Lieutenant Commander Carroll "Doc" Jones figured out the best way to dive-bomb the unwieldy PBY. The visibility problem was solved by flying above the blanket of fog, but this also created another problem. By flying above the clouds, they were up too high to drop a bomb. So the pilots searched for an elusive hole in the cloud ceiling. Once the hole was found, the crew hoped for the best as the pilot pushed the nose of the plane down into the death plunge.

As the speed of the plane increased to nearly 250 mph, the plane's wings shook violently. Pilots were careful not to exceed this speed because the stress of pulling out of the dive could cause the wings to rip off. As they continued to plunge, the wind howled through the openings around the gun blisters in the plane.
The Japanese caught on quickly though, and as soon as they saw the planes coming through the cloud openings, they would start shooting. To counteract this, the pilots "started to avoid the breaks in the clouds and dive directly through the thick bank of fog." Some of the planes were so shot up that they sunk immediately upon landing. Others used the local school's supply of pencils to fill in the bullet holes, presumably before heading back out.

Eventually, the Americans were able to get some bombers to the islands; they still faced the same fog, but without the relative maneuverability of the PBYs. To compensate, the pilots had

to fly in low over the water at thirty to forty feet. This broke the cardinal rule of aviation that a pilot should always maintain a high altitude to avoid crashing into ground obstacles and provide a safety net in case the plane has technical problems.

At such a low level, the pilot, who was also in charge of pushing the button to drop the bomb, had to gauge it just right so the bomb would skip across the water like a stone, hitting ships and seaplanes. [Colonel Eareckson] also developed a four-and-a-half second delay fuse for the bombs so the pilot had enough time to pull up and get away before it blew up.
Good Lord! Can you imagine? As exciting as that stuff is, this isn't just a story about the heroics of our soldiers during this battle. It is also the story of the Aleuts, some of whom were detained by the Japanese for several years in Prisoner of War camps and many of whom were evacuated from their homes with nothing, sent to encampments with appalling conditions--abandoned structures made of rotted wood, contaminated drinking water, no indoor plumbing, unsafe electrical wiring, no medical supplies, and no supplies with which to make the needed repairs to their camps. Later, when the Aleuts were finally allowed to return home, they often returned to nothing, villages that had been bombed or burned and homes that had been looted by the soldiers who had been stationed there. The evacuations were mandatory and while some lives were certainly saved from enemy attack, there were arguably many more lives lost due to the poor conditions in the camps. As it turns out, the evacuations were only mandatory for the Aleuts on the islands, not the white people.  The book doesn't give any explanation as to why this was the case, and while it's possible that the motives were noble (an effort to protect native people from the dangers of battle?), it's hard not to be a little cynical. The American government did finally make an official apology and reparations to the Aleuts as well as to the Japanese-Americans who had been rounded up in internment camps during the war, but many would agree that it was too little too late.

I would definitely recommend this book to young readers and adults alike. Just be aware that it is written with younger audiences in mind--at first I was mildly turned off because I felt like things were a little dumbed-down, but when I realized that the intended audience may just be learning about war in general, WWII specifically, the military, different countries, etc., I felt like the writing was appropriate.

One thing that I have mixed feelings about is the sanitization of some of the quotes. For example, Charlie House, an American POW, says, "If there had been an invasion, the Jap[anese] would have killed every one of us." You know as well as I do that he probably didn't say "Japanese." This edit appears numerous times throughout the book, and I'm curious as to what you librarian/teacher/parent types think about this. Would it have been better to leave in the original language and explain that at the time it was common for Americans to use a derogatory term when referring to the Japanese and that today it is no longer acceptable, or is it better to just clean it up?

The only other minor criticism I have is about the maps in the book. I felt like some of them could have been more relevant. Occasionally there were places referenced that weren't shown on the map that had just been introduced. Also, be aware that some of the maps appear to be copies of actual strategy maps, showing enemy locations, which were, not-surprisingly, labeled in a rather non-politically-correct, not-sanitized-for-publication fashion.

*Breakdown of American casualties:
549-Killed in combat
1,200-2,100-Casualties due to trench foot, exposure, friendly fire, etc. I can't find consistent numbers, but sources generally seem to agree that the figure lies somewhere between 1,200 and 2,100.

Friday, August 10, 2012

What I'm Reading Now--Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Educaion of a Reluctant Chef

Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton--I think I first heard about this book over at Books On The Nightstand. Michael loved it (his review starts at 18:02), and I'm sure I heard or read other good things about it, but every time I thought about adding it to my TBR list, I'd hesitate--I wasn't quite sure if it was something I'd be interested in or not. Well, I finally saw it on display at my library one day and figured I'd check it out. I'm so glad I did--I loved it!

Hamilton is the owner/chef of the restaurant Prune, in New York City, and the book's title pretty much says it all. She never really set out to become a chef, but, in one way or another, she's been training for it for most of her life. The book is broken up into three sections--"Blood," "Bones," and "Butter"--and each has a very different feel.

To break it down roughly, "Blood" is about Hamilton's childhood, who she is, what's in her blood; although she takes a turn toward the dark, depressed delinquent teenager eventually, I love the nostalgic sense of family that she portrays early on. Her father was a set designer for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus and "[p]rying back the lid on a fifty-gallon barrel of silver glitter--the kind of barrel that took two men and a hand truck to wheel into the paint supply room of the shop--and then shoving your hands down into it up to your elbows is an experience that will secure the idea in your heart for the rest of your life that your dad is, himself, the greatest show on earth."(p.9) Michael said that he often found himself with a big smile on his face while reading this book, and I felt the same way, especially during this part.

"Bones" is about Hamilton's adult journey to becoming a restaurateur (and includes, among other things, what I think is a highly useful take on balancing family and work life.) The magical childhood has, sadly, lost most of its magic, but we start to see other influences in her life. Although she doesn't realize it at the time, Hamilton's travels abroad are preparing her for her future position as a supplier of food, comfort, warmth, and welcome. Also, there is a great/horrific story about a rat. If you have ever thought about opening a restaurant because it would be "fun" you should read this book. There is a lot of blood, sweat, and tears involved in getting a restaurant up and running and keeping it going every. single. day. If you don't think you have to be tough to open up and run a restaurant, think again.

"Butter" is largely about summers spent in Italy, cooking in the kitchen with her Italian mother-in-law, a woman who does not speak a word of English, but speaks the language of cooking and family and love. This comes back to family again, but with another feel yet again, this time with a realization of things that are slipping away.

I mentioned that I first heard about this from Michael over at Books on the Nightstand, but Michael mentioned it again (review begins at 20:52) when it came out in paperback...with a new chapter! Dang-I read the hardback; I would totally like to get my hands on the paperback because I definitely wanted some follow-up on a few things.

If you have reviewed this book, let me know, and I'd be happy to link to your review. I'd like to hear what other books have inspired people to cook. Books like this make me think, Yeah, I could do that! I could totally make my own pasta and use eggs to make things rich and savory instead of icky and egg-tasting. I'm going to start growing all my own vegetables and plant olive trees and become familiar with an actual butcher and raise chickens and stuff!

And finally, you know how I love my coincidental literature bits, and I have some for this book. Not too long after I finished reading this, I was on line looking for information about my tomatoes that were turning black (blossom end rot, as it turns out), and I found Keavy's 10 pound of onions blog where she talks about cooking all kinds of wonderful looking things (things that look like they have been inspired by Gabrielle Hamilton), and I saw an entry that started out with "Bill and I went to Prune today" and I thought, Hey! That was inspired by Gabrielle Hamilton! Then I clicked around on her blog a little more and found a recent post that starts out, "I've been obsessively reading Blood Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune for the last week." Hey! Me too! Well, mine was a month ago, but still. Also, I don't really do eggs, but after reading this book, Eggs Poached in Tomato Sauce is the kind of thing I might get brave and try one of these days.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Are You Going to be a Muppet When You Grow Up?

Sadly, I think the answer is no, but don't these seeds look like they have potential?

Hard to believe these seeds come from two plants that are, as far as I can tell, completely unrelated. I mean, you know, except that they're both plants.

The red seed comes from my Bleeding Heart, Clerodendrum thomsoniae, seen here: 
You can kind of see where it gets its looks, can't you, with that little tuft of red sticking out?

The orange seed is from this Strelitzia nicolai, the Giant Bird of Paradise. It's a little harder to see the relation here, but if you look at it's more well known cousin, the (not giant) Bird of Paradise, it becomes a little more obvious.

While you're at it, you might as well check out the seeds of the Traveler's Palm--are they gorgeous or what?? (And while you're at that, you might as well click around and check out some more of Jungle Mama's photos-they are stunning!)