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Zombie Makers: True Stories of Nature’s Undead by Rebecca L. Johnson

October 28, 2013

cover of Zombie Makers by Rebecca L. JohnsonThis is one of those books filled with so much fascinating yet disgusting information that you can’t help but read parts out loud to other people so they can be grossed out right along with you.

Or maybe that’s just me. Because I started reading this book at work one day and just had to read some sections aloud to my co-workers. Like when Rebecca L. Johnson explains how a certain fungus grows inside the corpse of a type of carpenter ant, until “a long, skinny stalk erupts through the dead ant’s head.” Or the description of a wasp laying an egg on a cockroach, then the egg becoming a larva that slowly eats the roach’s internal organs while the roach is still alive. (And then I absolutely had to show my co-workers the accompanying pictures, as well. I mean, just look at page 24.)

Maybe you think zombies aren’t real, but zombification of sorts actually exists in nature. In Zombie Makers: True Stories of Nature’s Undead, Johnson explains how parasites like hairworms and the jewel wasp, among others, reproduce by infecting their host and making them act in weird, practically zombie-like ways. Vacant stares and stilted movements? Check. Unresponsive to pain, injury, even loss of body parts? Check.

Johnson (whose Journey Into the Deep I reviewed several years ago) focuses on just a few parasites in this short but, uh, engrossing book. Her writing is vivid, the design and photo selection effectively complements the text, and a lot of information is packed into this short book. Besides describing how the parasite infects its host and reproduces, Johnson also briefly discusses the scientific observations and experiments that informed our knowledge of the parasites. Back matter includes an author’s note, glossary, and bibliography. Whether you’re interested in science or just want to read a good gross-out book, or both, I highly recommend Zombie Makers.

Book details:
Middle Grade nonfiction
Published in 2012
ISBN 9780761386339

Cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire.

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen

June 24, 2013

I’ve neglected to cross-post my last few reviews for Guys Lit Wire (Bomb by Sheinkin and Sumo by Pham, if you’re interested), but Spillover. Oh my god, this book was awesome and I loved it. If I’d read it when it came out last year, it would have easily topped my list of favorite books of 2012. But since I didn’t actually have a chance to read it until this past March, I’ll have to settle for putting it on my 2013 list.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

cover of Spillover by David QuammenPick an infectious disease.

Influenza. Ebola. Bubonic plague. SARS. AIDS. I could go on.

Whatever disease you chose, there’s a good chance the pathogen that causes it originated in an animal and then jumped to humans. “This form of interspecies leap is common, not rare; about 60 percent of all human infectious diseases currently known either cross routinely or have recently crossed between other animals and us,” writes David Quammen. Such pathogens are known as zoonoses, and the moment when a pathogen jumps from one species to another is called spillover.

In Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, Quammen investigates a handful of zoonoses and how they spilled over, traveling all over the world and going into the field to speak to doctors, scientists, and survivors. He joins a biologist in Gabon who is conducting a biological survey of Central African forests, visits the “wet markets” of Guangdong, China, and helps trap monkeys and bats in Bangladesh. Along the way, he talks to men who were in the village of Mayibout 2 when Ebola struck in 1996, the doctors in Singapore who treated patients suffering from what was later identified as SARS but at first seemed merely a severe case of pneumonia, scientists who identified previously unknown diseases and tracked them to their original hosts, and many others.

Which would make for compelling reading on its own. Yet what really pushes this past compelling to outstanding is Quammen’s prose, sometimes wry (as when he notes “If you’ve followed all that, at a quick reading, you have a future in biology” after a paragraph-long description of the life stages of the Anopheles mosquito, and later “Mathematics to me is like a language I don’t speak though I admire its literature in translation.”), always sharply observant and erudite.

But for all the in-depth sections explaining scientific, medical, or epidemiological terminology, this is not a dry, detached scientific discourse. In a way, Spillover is about the human experience of infectious zoonotic disease–both those who are stricken and those who investigate it. And I could not put this book down. It’s timely and relevant, endlessly fascinating, and eloquently written.

Spillover happens to be one of three shortlisted titles for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, along with Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan and The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death by Jill Lepore. The winner will be announced at the ALA annual conference on June 30.

Book source: personal (purchased) copy.

* If, like me, you are into books about pandemics, David Dobbs put together a reading list at Slate. I haven’t yet read everything he recommends (must work on that!), but I also want to plug one article he didn’t mention, “Death at the Corners” by Denise Grady from Discover magazine. It’s not about a pandemic, but it is about a zoonotic disease outbreak, and probably THE article sparked my reading interest in infectious diseases.

Final stats for the #48hbc

June 9, 2013
tags:
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I finished up my 48 hours by listening to a couple chapters (roughly 1 hour 14 minutes worth) of The Exiled Queen audiobook by Cinda Williams Chima.

Total reading + listening time: 15 hours 11 minutes
Total blogging time: 2 hours 25 minutes
Pages read: 1727

So I met my 12-hour goals, even with having to work yesterday. Yay!

And a big thank you to Ms. Yingling for organizing this year’s Challenge!

Less than two hours left in the #48hbc

June 9, 2013

My Beloved Brontosaurus, concluded

  • As I said earlier, I’m not interested in dinosaurs. A few hours ago, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you much more than Tyrannosaurus had short arms, Triceratops had horns, Archeopteryx had feathers, and Velociraptor were those scary dinosaurs from Jurassic Park.
  • But! Quoting from p. 121: “However, what we think of as Velociraptor was really Deinonychus. … An actual Velociraptor wouldn’t have been very threatening. While exceptionally well armed, the predator would have been about the size of a turkey, too small to consider a full-grown human a meal.”
  • So, needless to say, I learned a lot reading this book. I did struggle to keep all the different dinosaur names and categories straight, and had to stop and refer to the index several times before I could remember what a sauropod was, so some kind of dinosaur ID chart would have been handy (though I suppose that’s what the internet is for…).
  • But that’s just me. Otherwise, Switek’s writing is thoroughly engaging, with humor and pop culture references to keep it entertaining, but without overshadowing the solid science. And it’s not so scholarly that I couldn’t understand what Switek was saying.
  • It’s about how we know what we know about dinosaurs. So not just this is what we know about dinosaurs, but also how early paleontologists may have reached the conclusions they did, and how scientists since then have come to different conclusions. I think it will interest both dinosaur aficionados and the general science reader.

cover of The Summer I Became a Nerd by Leah Rae MillerThe Summer I Became a Nerd by Leah Rae Miller

  • The book in brief: for the past five years, Maddie has been determined to hide her geeky interests. She’s a cheerleader, dating the quarterback of the football team, and everyone seems to have forgotten the Spectrum Girl incident from sixth grade. Until, desperate to read the final issue of The Super Ones, she sneaks in to her local comic book store and the cute classmate working their recognizes her.
  • This is one of those books I’d struggle to review, because while it was a pleasant, temporarily diverting read, and not a bad book, it also didn’t make much of an impact on me. I don’t really have much to say about it.
  • There is a support small businesses! angle (Logan–the cute classmate–works at the struggling comic book store his parents own) and Maddie learns that her friends are more tolerant than she thought they’d be, but otherwise… Yeah, I don’t know what else to say about this one.

Today’s stats
Reading time: 4 hours
Blogging time: 35 minutes
Pages read: 404

#48hbc update 2: Science!

June 9, 2013

I was very indecisive this evening and could not decide what book to read. I picked up Martha Wells’ Emilie & the Hollow World but wasn’t feeling it, so put it down after reading the first chapter. Maybe I’ll get back to it later.

I did finish the next book I tried, which was

cover of Itch by Simon Mayo

Itch: The Explosive Adventures of an Element Hunter by Simon Mayo (fiction)

  • The book in brief: Some people collect baseball cards. Others collect books. {looks around} Itch collect elements. You know, as in lead, sulfur, phosphorous. His collection is pretty small, since he has to buy what he can’t scavenge from home and other elements are too dangerous to sell. When Itch gets his hands on what he thinks is uranium, but turns out to be an extremely radioactive unknown element that could change the world, he must figure out how to keep the rocks out of the villains’ clutches.
  • Continuing the trend of reading long, 400+ page books for this year’s challenge…
  • It’s overly long. It takes a while before the radioactive rock part of the plot is introduced, and I thought the denouement dragged a bit. Also, there’s reluctant reader appeal in terms of plot and characters, but I think the length will turn off some potential readers.
  • On the other hand, how often do you see a middle grade/YA fiction storyline with this much science that doesn’t involve cloning, genetic engineering, or extreme weather? If you can think of other recent books, let me know in the comments!
  • Another thing I liked: kids in school think Itch is weird, so he is very close to, and has positive relationships with, his younger sister and a female cousin.
  • Includes an author’s note with some background information about the scientific topics that are mentioned during the story.
  • Possible readalikes: The Project by Brian Falkner (which is a much shorter book), the Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowtiz (except Alex is a trained spy and Itch is not), maybe Icecore by Matt Whyman. And Digit by Anabel Monaghan has a similar geek-whose-love-of-math/elements-leads-them-to-a-discovery-with-serious-like-we’re-talking-national-security-here-implications plot.

which put me in a scientific mood, so I followed that up with the first third of

cover of My Beloved Brontosaurus by Brian SwitekMy Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs by Brian Switek (adult nonfiction)

  • I’m not actually interested in dinosaurs per se, but how and why our knowledge of them has changed? And what “they’ve begun to teach us about evolution, extinction, and survival”? I’ll give a book about that a try.
  • Hey, he quotes Mike Brown in How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming.
  • Switek is a genial paleontological tour guide, part of what I’m beginning to consider the Mary Roach Road Trip School of Science Writing. Case in point: chapter three, “Big Bang Theory,” about dinosaur sex.

Then I decided I needed to go to sleep and will finish the book in the morning.

Today’s stats
Time read: 4 hours 9 minutes
Blogging time: 50 minutes
Pages read: 511

A #48hbc update: two books completed

June 8, 2013

I think my book reviewing muscles are out of shape, so back to the bullet points.

cover of This Is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. SmithThis Is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith

  • The book in brief: an email accidentally sent to the wrong address sparks a relationship between two strangers. Ellie lives with her single mother and doesn’t know the guy she’s emailing is movie star Graham Larkin. So what will happen when the movie Graham’s filming goes on location in Ellie’s small hometown in Maine?
  • Great choice for a book challenge like this one. I don’t know how memorable it’ll be in 48 (well, 46) hours, after I’ve hopefully read a bunch more books. But it was a very fast read. Fun, charming, and sweet, without being heavy or making me feel like I need to take a break.
  • Liked it better than Smith’s last book, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, which I thought was pretty meh. Maybe because the time span of this one covers more than one day? Or the third person narration being less distant? Or, even though Graham is a movie star, it seemed more grounded (no pun intended).
  • Possible readalikes: Shooting Stars by Allison Rushby, Teen Idol by Meg Cabot

Maid of Secrets by Jennifer McGowancover of Maid of Secrets by Jennifer McGowan

  • The book in brief: Meg was raised in an acting troupe. Although women are not allowed to perform on stage, Meg has learned how to disguise herself, to act, to pick pockets. Which catches the attention of Queen Elizabeth I and Sir William Cecil, who press Meg into the Queen’s service as a spy.
  • A typo (smell instead of small on p. 26) and some anachronisms, or what I think might be anachronisms (e.g., Meg calling herself an actress, when, at least according to this, the word didn’t come into use until 1580-90 and the book is set in 1559, though of course it could have been used in speech prior to it appearing in print…) took me out of the story several times.
  • Which, yes, is totally nitpicky, but otherwise, the book is enjoyable. I mean, the last Elizabethan-set YA novel I tried was The Other Countess by Eve Edwards, and I don’t think I got more than a fourth of the way through it before giving up. Maid of Secrets, on the other hand, features spy girls. (Which, obviously, is a point in its favor.) Plus a complex plot, a sympathetic and engaging narrator, and female friendship.
  • Possible readalikes: Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers (although Maid of Secrets doesn’t have as much swoon, or depth), the Lady Grace mysteries by Patricia Finney (although the series is for a younger audience)

Reading time: 4 hours 58 minutes
Blogging time: 50 minutes
Pages read: 812. Yeah, besides being written by an author named Jennifer, both books are 400+ pages and, though they don’t feel bloated, could still be tighter.

Back to blogging for the #48hbc

June 7, 2013
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48hbc I know, I haven’t been around the blogosphere much this year. But it’s 48 Hour Book Challenge time, which is always a lot of fun. Although I do have to work on Saturday, which I haven’t had to do the previous times I participated, so we’ll see how this goes.

My goal is to read for at least 12 hours, reading primarily YA fiction. If I need a break from the YA, then head to adult romance (the new Tessa Dare book is just begging to be read…) or nonfiction. Or listen to an audiobook instead, since I’m up to chapter 13 of Cinda Williams Chima’s The Exiled Queen, read by Carol Monda, and really want to know what will happen next.

Starting: Friday, 7 pm
Ending: Sunday, 7 pm

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