Tag Archives: WHO

So, he wrote The Da Vinci Code. What else can he do?

1

A review of Inferno, by Dan Brown

@@@ (3 out of 5)

So, today’s subject is Dan Brown.

What can you say about a man who has sold more than 200 million copies of just six novels? Clearly, the guy has got something going for him. And whatever else you might say about The Da Vinci Code and its successors in the Robert Langdon series, lots of people read them.

Far be it from me to advance some psychosexual explanation for this surprising phenomenon. The numbers don’t lie. I can only wonder why.

OK, admittedly, I’ve read all those Dan Brown novels. Yes, I admit it. And I even found the suspense in the first couple of them to be compelling. Brown’s early novels — Digital Fortress and Deception Point — were fascinating to me. And I couldn’t wait to get to the end of The Da Vinci Code because the historical mystery was brilliant and the suspense was excruciating.

Inferno, not so much. Although there were many surprises in store for me in the book’s final chapters, I’d already figured out some of the fast ones Brown was going to pull as he thundered toward the climax. Because, often enough, it’s possible to foresee the plotline based not on what an author writes as on what he doesn’t write. That sometimes smacks of manipulation, which invariably makes me uncomfortable.

Now, just in case you want to know what Inferno is about, listen up: Robert Langdon finds himself in a hospital bed in Florence with a raging headache and a case of short-term amnesia. He can’t remember a thing about the past three days, and he doesn’t have a clue why the back of his head is bandaged or how or why he got to Florence. Sienna Brooks, his physician — a lovely young blonde woman, of course! Hollywood must be appeased — tells him he’s been shot in the head. Meanwhile, we are introduced to a shadowy character who runs a mysterious and powerful global organization from his headquarters on a massive converted yacht anchored somewhere in the Adriatic. He appears to be mixed up in Langdon’s misadventure in some way, but it’s clear we won’t figure out how until we’ve read further in the book. Pretty soon another mysterious character — a spike-haired woman in black leather, somewhat resembling Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo — appears and starts shooting up the hospital, killing one of the doctors. Langdon and Brooks flee to her nearby flat, where . . . well, the plot thickens there. You get the point, right?

I’ll say this much for Brown: his writing seems to have improved a bit since Angels & Demons, and the man does do his research. Dante Alighieri, whose work is the centerpiece of this novel, emerges from the pages of Inferno as a living force in Italy and among scholars the world over. And, as usual in his later, blockbuster career, Brown presents himself in the mode of docent at an art museum, pointing out one priceless cultural treasure after another as the action shifts from Florence to Venice to Istanbul.

You’ll love this book if you like that sort of thing — a travelogue for art aficionados dressed up as a novel. For my money, though, Inferno was too predictable (knowing Langdon from his previous outings), the art commentary was boring, and Brown’s treatment of overpopulation — another theme that figures prominently in the book — was downright preachy. All in all, I found Inferno just a fairly good read. Caveat emptor. 

2 Comments

Filed under Disaster Stories, Mysteries & Thrillers

Where do all those “emerging diseases” emerge from?

A review of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, by David Quammen

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

AIDS, Ebola, Marburg, SARS, H5N1 — every one of the world’s scariest diseases is a “zoonosis,” that is, a virus harbored by animals and transmitted to humans, often by other animals, in a complex minuet that often stretches out into decades.

AIDS, for example. According to the latest research, reported by David Quammen in Spillover, Patient Zero was not that French-Canadian flight attendant you may have read about who went amok in the 1970s but a hunter in Southeast Cameroon around 1908 who killed a chimpanzee and somehow unwittingly allowed the animal’s blood to seep into his own circulatory system, either through a cut or by eating his prey’s raw flesh. This is the phenomenon that epidemiologists call “spillover.” At that point, a particularly virulent form of a recently emergent simian virus found a friendly and familiar environment in the hunter’s blood and flourished, becoming what we know today as HIV-1 (the more lethal form of the virus that causes AIDS). Later, the hunter passed along the virus to one or more women through sexual contact, and the disease slowly spread, both by sex and by transmission through reused needles, undetected as anything out of the ordinary, from Cameroon into what is now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and other sub-Saharan countries, and thence by happenstance to Haiti. It was a Haitian harboring HIV-1 who probably passed it along to that notorious Canadian flight attendant, setting off the epidemic among gay men in North America.

In Spillover, Quammen tells tales like these in fascinating detail, relating the stories of the often-heroic scientists, physicians, and veterinarians who worked directly with deadly diseases, occasionally at the cost of their own lives. Quammen spent years writing this book. He appears to have read all the relevant scientific literature, attended specialized scientific conferences, and spent long hours tracking down and speaking face-to-face with the people who discovered these diseases, isolated the viruses, first treated the symptoms, and labored for thankless years on end in laboratories around the world to help humanity avert the next pandemic.

You may have read Richard Preston’s best-selling 2001 treatment of the emergence of Ebola in The Hot Zone. If not, I can tell you that I vividly recall the book because it was so dramatic, and so terrifying. No doubt I had nightmares about contracting Ebola. But it turns out, according to Quammen and to the eminent scientists he interviewed, that Preston’s account was sensationalized and highly inaccurate in essential details. For example, he described tears of blood, massive hemorrhages, and melted internal organs, none of which has any basis in fact.

However, Spillover, in its own way, is no less frightening. Quammen advances the popular theory that what appears to be the accelerating emergence of dangerous new pathogens became inevitable as a result of the enormous population growth of homo sapiens — because humanity has increasingly encroached on animal habitat and come into intimate contact with animals as never before. In discussions with noted biologists, he explores the concept of “breakout,” the explosive growth frequently seen in some animal species that shortly leads to sudden, catastrophic — through disease. He intimates that, with AIDS — or, all too possibly, with the next pandemic — humankind may experience something similar. Despite all the horrific details about AIDS, Ebola, Marburg, and the like, these are the book’s scariest passages.

David Quammen writes about science, nature, and travel — a total of 10 nonfiction books and five novels to date. A former Rhodes Scholar, he was educated at Yale and Oxford.

2 Comments

Filed under Nonfiction, Science