Category Archives: Book Reviews

Open Letter to the Editors of the Asteroid Belt Almanac

Every now and then. I have one of those days where I just have to go to the bookstore. It’s not because my surroundings are devoid of reading material; my room, the libraries I sit in while I write, the uncomfortable chairs outside of scientists’ offices where I wait to interview my sources, the cafes where I meet with editors and fellow science writers to talk shop, are all alive with books and magazines.

But sometimes a writer just needs to go buy a freakin’ magazine (or seventeen), Just to get a feel for the different types of articles that make it into print. How long are they? What are they about? How much time do those stories spend profiling the scientists versus explaining the mechanisms of the science?

So every six or seven months, I just go through and buy issues of whichever magazines are appealing to me that day (and then feel wracked with guilt because I can’t actually afford magazine subscriptions).

Today I stumbled acrossThe Asteroid Belt Almanac. I hadn’t seen it before; it was with the literary anthologies that no one but creative writing professors ever buy. But I wanted to know more about this little publication that touted “a collection of snapshots and stories exploring the intersection of science and art.” Continue reading “Open Letter to the Editors of the Asteroid Belt Almanac” »

Asleep by Molly Caldwell Crosby: A great epidemic history story, up until the last chapter

The book:

Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic that Remains One of Medicine’s Greatest Mysteries by Molly Caldwell Crosby (2010)

What it’s about:

Asleep is the story of the encephalitis lethargica epidemic that followed in the wake of the 1918 flu. Encephalitis lethargica is mainly known by the nickname “Sleeping Sickness”, but shouldn’t be confused with African trypanosomiasis, a tsetse-fly-borne malady that also goes by the “Sleeping Sickness” moniker. The two diseases are unrelated (as far as we know) but have vaguely similar symptoms.) It is terrifying.

Each encephalitis lethargica case began with an inocuous sore throat. Most people thought nothing of it at first. But then weird things began. Patients began to fall asleep and not wake up for days or weeks. Or else began to lose motor control of their own bodies. They moved like zombies or puppets on strings. Still others retained normal motor function but began to have uncontrollable violent urges, while remaining completely lucid and logical in normal conversation. (There was one story of a teenaged girl who dug her own eyes out of their sockets with her fingernails and then calmly denied doing any such thing because they had “fallen out during the night”. Otherwise, her behavior was completely rational.)

I couldn’t help but think of the Reavers on Firefly. (If you haven’t seen Serenity, I don’t want to spoil it for you. But seriously? Why haven’t you seen Serenity?)

Asleep follows the doctors and neurologists who tried to help these patients. Their efforts were overshadowed by the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, fragmented by war, complicated by the pathogen’s invisibility (whatever caused sleeping sickness couldn’t be isolated under microscopes of the day), and hamstringed by the fact that the symptoms varied so widely, sleeping sickness initially appeared to be several different diseases.

Crosby is working off of case studies from the era, so the overall effect is almost like reading a series of interconnected short stories (featuring some of the same lead detectives). Separately, the chapters are kind of creepy and puzzling, but together they add up into a portrait of the neurology and epidemiology fields in their nascent state.

The Upsides:

It’s incredibly vivid and well researched. My favorite passages in the book actually had nothing to do with science; they were the passages where Crosby describes the bustling streets of 1910s & 1920s New York City. Her descriptions are extraordinarily cinematic, and I loved the way she e presented the history of the disease almost as an anthology of stories based on the original case studies. Plus, it’s just an interesting disease. Creepy, ethereal, & unresolvable. Continue reading “Asleep by Molly Caldwell Crosby: A great epidemic history story, up until the last chapter” »

Epidemic of Absence: A book that made me think too much

What it’s about:

Moises Velasquez-Manoff’s Epidemic of Absence tackles one of the trickiest and trendiest topics in 21st-century biomedical research: the complex relationship between autoimmune disease and the bacteria that live in our guts.

A growing body of evidence suggests that by decimating the number of pathogenic microbes people are exposed to, modern medicine has inadvertently shifted the ecological balance between the human immune system and the human microbiome, leaving millions of people vulnerable to allergies and autoimmune disease.

The basic evolutionary argument is that our immune system evolved to cope with a constant onslaught of opportunistic microbes by developing a complex system of checks-and-balances with our bodies’ microbial populations. With those microbes gone, many of the immune system’s coping strategies are having disastrous side effects. In this book, Velasquez-Manoff implicates the depletion of bacterial biodiversity as a driving agent in the pretty much every non-infectious disease you can think of (cancer, depression, Crohn’s, Celiac’s, allergies, and autism are all covered in this book).

The Upsides:

It’s a rare snapshot of a scientific revolution in progress. And it’s easily the most thought-provoking book I’ve read all year. Continue reading “Epidemic of Absence: A book that made me think too much” »