Monthly Archives: February 2011

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston

1994. Random House. Hardcover. 300 pages.

Recommended by: Alyce of At Home With Books

From: the public library

In a nutshell: The Hot Zone first describes a family of ‘thread’ viruses which include Marburg, Ebola Sudan and Ebola Zaire.  These viruses have horrifying effects on the human body, and scarily high kill rate.  Ebola Zaire kills nine out of ten people infected with it.

When monkeys start dying mysteriously in a Reston, Virginia quarantine unit for a laboratory products company in 1989, researchers from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) are contacted.  They are alarmed when they realize that the monkeys seem to be infected with a virus very much like Ebola Zaire.  The Hot Zone closely follows the government’s response to the emergency.


I had first heard about the Ebola virus in the late 1990’s, when I was in high school.  When I read about the symptoms in the newspaper, I thought it sounded like one of the worst ways that you could die.  Preston’s book doesn’t do anything to dispel that conclusion.  The experienced researchers and medical personnel quoted in the book readily and repeatedly state that Ebola terrifies them.

The first part of the book describes the outbreaks in nightmarish detail.  One particular account of an Ebola Sudan outbreak is seared on my brain.  I won’t quote it in full, but here is some of it:

The virus transformed the hospital at Maridi into a morgue.  As it jumped from bed to bed, killing patients left and right, doctors began to notice signs of mental derangement, psychosis, depersonalization, zombie-like behavior . . . There is no doubt that Ebola damages the brain and causes psychotic dementia.  It is not easy, however, to separate brain damage from the effects of fear.  If you were trapped in a hospital where people were dissolving in their beds, you might try to escape, and if you were a bleeder and frightened, you might take off your clothes, and people might think you had gone mad.

p. 68

After Preston establishes the wider context of the Ebola virus, he concentrates on the story of Ebola’s arrival in Reston, Virginia.  I liked reading about the decision-making processes that the researchers made, and how they examined their choices.  At the time, the public health crisis was kept very hush-hush.  It makes me wonder – not in a paranoid way – what under-the-radar crises are being dealt with now by people I drive past, or ride on the train with here in the D.C metropolitan area.

I think Preston overdoes the foreboding tone at times.  It reminds me of movie scores that are telling you a scene is scary, because the filmmakers decided you couldn’t be scared without a musical cue, all ‘dun-dun-dun‘.  It’s simply not necessary when Preston has so firmly established from the beginning how dangerous and infectious Ebola is to human beings.

That said, the book is very fast-paced and sucks you right in.  I’m actually kind of surprised Ebola hasn’t worked its way into my dreams yet, as my mind tends to absorb stuff like this and spit it back out into vivid narratives while I am sleeping.

When I told my roommate that I expected to have nightmares about what I had read in The Hot Zone, she said why are you reading it?  I’m not sure what the full answer to that would be. The thing is, I am often drawn to the relatively gritty stuff in my choice of books, with the caveat that hope – however slight and tenuous – remains intact at the end.  In The Hot Zone, while there were shudder-inducing mistakes made in the process of dealing with the virus, I still found most of the medical professionals and infectious disease researchers to be portrayed as competent and humane people.

Others’ reviews:

At Home With Books – “As the author relates how a strain of Ebola is potentially being spread throughout a town in Africa I got the same spine-tingling feeling that I get when watching the young girl in a horror movie step outside ‘to see what that noise was.'”

Bibliolatry – “The Hot Zone is all about EBOLA. In fact, that’s how I imagine the word in my head: all in caps. It’s just that intense.”

Shelf Love – “Preston writes in a journalistic style that is friendly to the general, non-science-oriented reader. There’s enough detail that I put down the book feeling like I learned some science, but there’s not so much technical jargon that I ever felt bogged down in it.”


Filed under Non-Fiction

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King

1999. Scribner. Hardcover. 224 pages.

From: the public library

Recommended by: Teresa and Jenny of Shelf Love

In a nutshell:

Nine-year-old Trisha McFarland is out hiking with her older brother and her mother, when she steps off the trail to pee and subsequently gets very lost.  With piecemeal survival knowledge, she tries to find her way to civilization.  She is buoyed by the baseball games she can hear on her Walkman radio but also frightened by signs that she is being stalked by something nonhuman.


This is the very first book I have read by Stephen King.  I was feeling that I should give him a try since he hails from Maine, my original home state.  When Jenny and Teresa of Shelf Love wrote a post with recommendations for Stephen King newbies, I took up one of their suggestions, this survival tale called The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.

At first, I thought the voice of Trisha McFarland felt forced (the book is written mostly in third-person limited, with some omniscient narrator interjections).  Writing from a young child’s perspective can be tricky, and Trisha’s inner monologues were a bit annoying at the start.  As the business of survival settled in, however, Trisha seemed to crystallize and become sharper as a character.

I think I saw some reviews that said this book was light on scares, but I thought it was satisfyingly creepy and was rapidly flipping the pages to the end.  Getting lost in the woods and feeling ‘watched’ by something malevolent touches on some primal fears.  I thought the slight paranormal element of the narrative was effective in part due to its restraint.

Tom Gordon is a baseball pitcher idolized by Trisha, and thoughts of her hero help steady her as her ordeal drags on.  As her mental and emotional state deteriorates, she even imagines that she sees him walking beside her at times.  In this, the book reminded me strongly of Geraldine McCaughrean’s book The White Darkness which I read last year.  In The White Darkness, the teenage protagonist idolized the doomed explorer Titus Oates, and ‘conversed’ with him as she fought for survival in Antarctica.

I thought the climactic encounter of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon was contrived and a bit underwhelming, but I liked how Trisha’s story ended overall.  Also, Stephen King did a great job of describing the Maine / New Hampshire woods.  Having grown up there, I could definitely visualize the terrain he described.

Other reviews:

A Life in Books – “There are some truly scary moments in this novel, including a feverish dream involving robed priest-like figures, and I think if I had been reading this book in front of a fire in a cabin in the woods, rather than on the deck of a beach house at sunset as the ocean breeze wafted over me, I would have been really frightened, and probably would have had nightmares myself.”

Caribousmom – “[King] keeps it interesting from beginning to end with palm sweating descriptions and suspense.”


Filed under Mysteries & Thrillers

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

1977. Penguin. Paperback. 204 pages.

From: the library

Author recommended by: Vishy

In a nutshell:

Bruce Chatwin became fascinated by Patagonia when he was a child.  His grandmother had a scrap of prehistoric animal skin in her house, sent to her by her cousin, Captain Charley Milward, from one of the ends of the earth: Patagonia.

This book is the story of his travels in Patagonia as an adult, complemented by scraps of relevant history.


I think one reason I am fond of travel writing is that I love a good anecdote.  I like the short tales of people met, lives and places encountered, conversations with strangers.  When I visited cities as a child from a small Maine town, I was astounded by the throngs of people.  I wondered what all of their stories were.  Reading travel writing taps into that brand of wonder.

When Bruce Chatwin was in school, the Cold War was in full swing and everyone expected imminent destruction from bombs.  This prompted research into where one could flee from the fall-out:

We fixed on Patagonia as the safest place on earth.  I pictured a low timber house with a shingled roof, caulked against storms, with blazing log fires inside and the walls lined with the best books, somewhere to live when the rest of the world blew up.

p. 3

Later, traveling in Patagonia as an adult, Chatwin encounters people who find Patagonia an ideal remote refuge and others who are homesick for their original homelands.  Chatwin inquires locals about Butch Cassidy and members of his gang who fled to Patagonia to escape the law.  He is often on the trail of some local legendary and infamous figure.

As Chatwin’s travels take him further south to Tierra del Fuego, he increasingly focuses on the life and journeys of his relative, Captain Charley Milward who had spent time down there at the end of the Americas.  He even includes fascinating excerpts from Milward’s own memoirs of his seafaring days.

I did wish that I knew more about Argentinian and Chilean history while reading In Patagonia.  Chatwin often makes fleeting references to conflicts, revolutions and military leaders that I only half-understood.  It wasn’t enough to make me completely lost in the text, but I did feel that I wasn’t getting a full comprehension of certain anecdotes.

Chatwin tends to let tragedy and people’s callousness speak for themselves.  While on Navarino Island, Chatwin meets Grandpa Felipe, the last member of the Yaghan people lives in a shanty on base.  Grandpa Felipe tells Chatwin of how his people lost their language to compulsory English education, and then lost their lives to epidemics.  In another anecdote, Chatwin talks to an old English farmer who refers to the Ona people in terms of ‘tame Indians’ and ‘wild ones.’

After reading this book, the overall picture I get of Patagonia is that of a hardscrabble, lonely place, a place where one would likely  feel inconsequential.

Here are a couple excerpts from the book:

Paco loved his truck and called her Rosaura.  He scrubbed her and polished her and hung her cab with lace frills. Above her dashboard he fixed a statuette of the Virgin of Lujan, a St Christopher and a plastic penguin that nodded with the corrugations of the road. He pinned nudes to the roof, but somehow the girls were an abstraction whereas Rosaura was a real woman.

p. 79

Offshore there were grebes and steamer ducks, and out in the strait, sooty albatrosses wheeling effortlessly, like knives flying.

p. 134

Other reviews:

A Brooklynite on the Ice – “The tales Chatwin tells of them are typical of his unparalleled nose for backstory, his ability to find the choice historical nugget that gives a place meanings unrevealed by classical history.”

Macumbeira – “And what a story teller Chatwin was! We get it all and all in a same breath, in a short elegantly starved down style we switch from Paleontological Monsters to Mythological Unicorns, from American desperadoes to Communist agitators, from Wells and Darwin to Bakunin and Mandelstam.”

ricklibrarian – “The sharp-image quality may make little sense to someone plowing through the book quickly. To them it may seem to be just one thing after another. Readers need to pause and contemplate what Chatwin has shown them to draw their own conclusions about the place and its people.”

For credit, please click on photo.


Filed under Travel Writing