A New(ish) Look at Ebola

Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus, by David Quammen, (W. W. Norton & Company), 128 pages, released October 20, 2014

David Quammen is one of the best prose stylists writing today. He can make the complicated clear, he can lead readers into abstract issues through the strength of his narratives, and his natural curiosity means that he’ll almost always ask (and answer) those questions that were hovering at the edge of your mind.

In 2012, Quammen received well-earned praise for Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. Given human encroachment on nearly every corner this planet, it’s no surprise that some of the newest and deadliest human diseases are zoonoses, diseases  transferred from animals to humans.

One of these zoonoses is Ebola. A few years ago, awareness of Ebola was probably limited to the scientists studying it, the doctors attempting to treat it, its victims, and enthusiastic readers of popular science writing. Today Ebola is a worrisome presence on the edges of many people’s minds, given the current outbreak in several African nations, which have led to a handful of cases being treated within the U.S.

In this climate, a book about Ebola by a writer of Quammen’s caliber is quite welcome. Ebola, however, isn’t quite a new book. It’s an updated republication of the material on Ebola originally published in Spillover. Quammen has added an introduction and epilogue that contextualize the recent epidemic within the disease’s history. Unfortunately, this book went to press before Ebola moved from Africa into the U.S., so while it’s highly informative, most readers will have a host of questions this book doesn’t answer.

If you read Spillover, you’ve already encountered most of the information in Ebola. If, however, you missed Spillover when it came out—or were overwhelmed by its near six hundred-page length—you’re in for some fascinating reading in this reworked, shorter text.

A Young Heroine in 15th Century Spain

The Last Song, by Eva Wiseman, (Random House of Canada, Ltd.), 234 pages, released October 14, 2014

Last week I wrote about Voyage of Strangers, a YA novel set during the era of the Spanish Inquisition and of Columbus’ voyages to the “new” world. While written for a slightly younger audience (Random House recommends it for ages 10 and up), The Last Song also balances an engaging narrative with a frank depiction of the wrongs committed by the Inquisition.

Eva Wiseman’s The Last Song is told in the voice of fourteen year old Doña Isabel de Cardosa, daughter of the physician to their majesties, Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain. Isabel has not realized that her parents are conversos—both from families that outwardly accepted Christianity several generations ago, but that continue to live privately with Jews. As violence against Jews increases, Isabel’s parents betroth her to the son of a powerful Spaniard with a long Christian lineage, hoping this will provide protection for her within the volatile political and religious climate.

At the same time that Isabel is betrothed she finds out that she is a Jew and also befriends a young Jewish man who serves as a foil to her less-than-charming fiance.  Then Isabella and Ferdinand order the expulsion of the Jews and Isabel begins learning painful lessons about the extent of friends’ and servants’ loyalties in this climate of fear.

Isabel is brave and resourceful individual who takes action to keep her family safe, both before and after her father is arrested by the Inquisition. Perhaps some of Isabel’s luck and planning pushes the limits of probability, but Wiseman makes sure her readers understand how exceptional Isabel’s case is. Wiseman offers other portraits of Jews, Moors, and slaves that convey the prejudice and violence of the time.

This book provides valuable context for Columbus’ voyages. While he is mentioned only in passing, readers see both the world he comes from and the impact of this age of conquest on Europe’s minority populations.

As a teenager interested in questions of justice—both present day and historical—I would have valued reading this book and spending time on the thinking it inspires. I expect this will be true for many young readers who are lucky enough to come across The Last Song.

What Destruction Gave Birth To

Fat Man and Little Boy, by Mike Meginnis, (Black Balloon Publishing), 416 pages, released October 14, 2014

Imagine that each of the two atomic bombs the U.S. dropped on Japan during World War II begat a human being (or a being near human) upon impact. That’s the premise behind Mike Meginnis’s Fat Man and Little Boy. Yes, Fat Man (he changes his name to John) is fat; and, yes, Little Boy (later Matthew) is little. In an ironic touch, however, Little Boy is the “big” brother, born three days before Fat Man.

Fat Man and Little Boy travel, first across Japan, later about the world, trying to figure out who they are. Each remembers coming into being during an explosion, but has very little sense of self beyond that. Strange things happen where they travel: women and animals conceive and give birth in a matter of weeks, sometimes to healthy offspring, sometimes to deformed or incomplete creatures; strange molds grow at an unnatural rate wherever they are.

This concept is brilliant, but I enjoyed the book less than I thought I would. The prose is crisp, but I found I couldn’t stay engaged enough with these two central characters for the full 400+ pages.

I’ll acknowledge that I’ve never been much for science fiction (which is more or less that category Fat Man and Little Boy falls under), so that may explain my lukewarm response. The book has gotten excellent reviews on GoodReads, so clearly there is a readership out there who can appreciate it. If you like science fiction or if you enjoy reading extended parables of a sort, you may want to check this book out for yourself.

YA Novel: Columbus’ Ocean Blue Is Red with Blood

Voyage of Strangers, by Elizabeth Zelvin, (Lake Union Publishing), 270 pages, released September 30, 2014

Elizabeth Zevin’s YA offering, Voyage of Strangers, is essentially a problem novel. But, what problems!: the inquisition, the conquest and forced conversion of Caribbean natives, and slavery.

Set during the time of Columbus’ voyages to the “new” world, Voyage of Strangers tells the story of siblings Diego and Rachel and their Taino friend, Hutia, who Diego meets during Columbus’ first voyage. Diego and Rachel come from a family of recursos: Jews who publicly live as Christians, but who continue to practice their faith in private.

Diego returns from the first voyage determined to find a way to transfer his sister from their aunt’s house in Spain to Firenzi, Italy, where the rest of their family have gone to live. While in Spain, they witness the worst of the inquisition, both the daily slurs and lies of anti-Semitism and the burnings of Jews that serve as a form of pubic entertainment, as well as a reminder of the power of the Christian church.

Rachel would prefer to remain with her brother and, managing to pass herself off as a boy, accompanies him on the next voyage. Once in the “Indies,” both witness the violence of the conquest, including rape, murder, torture, and forced labor. Rachel and Hutia fall in love, which is not just problematic, but life-threatening given their situations.

This book isn’t an easy read. It represents an admirable attempt to wrestle with the past in a way that is appropriate for young adult readers, but that doesn’t gloss over the violence and bigotry of the time. It’s the kind of volume that may lead readers on to other books, both fiction and non-fiction, and a richer understanding of our own hemisphere’s history.

An Array of Sherlocks

In the Company of Sherlock Holmes: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon, eds. Leslie S. Klinger and Laurie R. King, (Pegasus), 384 pages, released November 11, 2014

As lovers of all things Sherlockian know, one needs an occasional break between readings of the A. Conan Doyle originals. My favorite neo-Sherlockian is Laurie R. King, who has edited this collection, along with Leslie S. Klinger. King’s Mary Russell is a remarkable creation, fully worthy of working alongside the great detective. However, authors need time to write books—and readers can plow through them at a pace not even the most prolific of authors can match. So I deeply appreciate King and Klinger taking time to edit this collection.

Holmes has existed in many guises since Conan Doyle created him, and it is great fun to see what different writers do with him. Of course, I like some authors’ Sherlocks better than others’, but at a minimum they all have the benefit of providing me with new perspectives through which to view him.

The fifteen stories offered in In the Company of Sherlock Holmes offer a varied, enjoyable reading. The racehorse Silver Blaze (of the case when the dog didn’t bark in the night) retells his story from is own perspective. “The Hound of the Baskervilles” unrolls on social media in “Dr. Watson’s Casebook,” telegraphing the story to us in snippets leavened with humor:

Dr. John Watson was at the Diogenes Club.

It’s always best to leave Holmes along when he needs to think.

Baker Street Tobacco Supplies likes this.

Marylebone Coffee Importers likes this.

Later in this story we are told that

Stapleton [the villain] has joined the group Inconvenient Heirs No One Knew Existed—Until Now!

My favorite by far was “Dunkirk,” in which a certain Mr. Sigerson (one of Holmes’s aliases) helps with the huge civilian effort to ferry over three hundred thousand British, French, and Belgian troops across the English Channel, away from the soon-to-be-captured city of Dunkirk. I am not a fan of military fiction, but the story had me racing across the pages, heart pounding (really!), worrying about the fates of the boat crews, the soldiers, and, of course, Sigerson. While I’ll leave some of these stories with a single reading, this is one I’ll be returning to.

In the Company of Sherlock Holmes is a great book to give as a gift—to another reader or to one’s self. Its pleasures are many, the assortment of Holmes is varied, the different details from the original stories that inspired these authors are a delight to pick out.

Beautifully Bitter

Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes, by Jennifer McLagan, (Ten Speed Press), 264 pages, released September 16, 2014

I’m not sure that bitter is an acquired taste. Yes, as author Jennifer McLagan points out, the number of our tastebuds decreases as we age, turning flavors we hated in childhood into favorites. Some people come to bitter gradually, others like it from the start, and there are those who never learn to like it. Jennifer McLagan likes bitter—really likes it—and has the culinary, historical and scientific chops to offer us remarkably thorough treatise on this loved/hated flavor.

I’ve liked bitter since I was a kid: mustard, not ketchup, better yet, horse radish; Sen-sen, horehound, or salted licorice, not fruit pie. (OK, that’s an exaggeration. I did like pie. But I did also love those bitter candies.) As a result, as soon as I saw the cover of McLagan’s Bitter, I knew this was a book I’d want to spend time with.

McLagan breaks bitter tastes into six groups, each with its own chapter, everything from “Liquid Bitter” (beer jelly, tea poached pears, even homemade tonic water) to “Dark, Forbidden, and Very Bitter” (lamb with dark chocolate pepper sauce, tobacco chocolate truffles, roasted squab with ganache).

While there are a few “standard” offerings here (Belgian endive bathed in butter, bratwurst in beer, Brussels sprouts, bacon, and chestnuts), things you might find in an issue of Eating Well or Fine Cooking, most of her recipes fall into the I-would-never-have-come-up-with-that-on-my-own category (see the previous paragraph).

Her book gives us the histories of these foods and explains their taste chemistry. There are lots of recipes, but having this additional information makes for interesting reading—and might well convince you to taste something you thought you’d never try.

I acknowledge that I’ll never cook with marrow (yes, there’s a recipe using it) nor with cow bile (only mentioned, no recipe offered), but I’ll be making active use of this book for a good time to come.

A Saint’s Lives

Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured, by Kathryn Harrison, (Doubleday), 400 pages, released October 28, 2014

Kathryn Harrison’s Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured is the best biography I’ve read in quite some time—probably the best one I’ve read in years.

I’m one of those non-Catholic girls who grew up reading lives of the saints and fantasizing about converting (at least while I was still in junior high). My first encounter with Saint Joan took place in the gift shop at Holy Hill, a large Catholic church near my mother’s childhood home that was a destination for Catholics and non-Catholics alike because of the views its tower gave of the surrounding countryside. I picked up a comic-book version of Joan’s life, read it in the car on the way home, and was hooked.

Harrison’s book is very much unlike that first version I read, which was pure hagiography. I may be wrong, but I suspect Harrison has been interested in Joan for quite some time. She’s thought about Joan, looked at her from this angle and that, pondered the way she’s been received by different generations.

In fact, Harrison’s book is something like four books in one (or perhaps the best pages of four different biographies excised and stitch together within a new cover. There’s the straightforward biography; the discussion of the way Joan’s life has been interpreted in the arts (theatre, film, painting); the consideration of Joan in the notions of gender prevalent in her own time; and a very interesting comparison of Joan with Christ. Early on she tells readers:

The life of Joan of Arc is as impossible as that of only one other, who also heard God speak: Jesus of Nazareth, prince of paradox as much as peace, a god who suffered and died a mortal… a messenger of forgiveness and love who came bearing a sword, inspiring millennia of judgement and violence…. More than any other Catholic martyr, Joan of Arc’s career aligns with Christ’s.

Harrison goes on to list some of these similarities in the opening of her book—a birth prophesied, an ability to command the natural elements and foresee the future, a body transfigured—and returns to these regularly throughout the book. (I’m hoping the above quote gives you a taste of her compelling prose style as well as one of her primary tropes.)

Harrison ends the first chapter with a penetrating observation: “It seems Joan of Arc will never be laid to rest. Is this because the stories we understand are the stories we forget?” Not only is Joan remembered, every generation wrestles to understand its own version of Joan. Shaw presents her as a religious reformer (despite her devotion to the religious practices of her own time). Brecht told her story twice; she becomes a hero of the working class in his Saint Joan of the Stockyards. In discussing these works, Harrison illustrates how tempting it is to hold up the mirror of Joan’s life and to see one’s own time.

In her own time, Joan was a heretic simply because she donned men’s clothes: a fact that was overlooked during her early victories, but made much of when leaders of church and government found it useful to have her toppled from her pedestal. Although witch burnings had occurred before her execution by fire, Harrison see Joan’s death as a turning point in European history: “Her trial, its verdict, and the publication of her example united for the three centuries’ worth of zealous, often hysterical, witch hunts amounting to the theatrically cruel execution of as many as a hundred thousand women.”

Harrison is a perceptive, eclectic thinker, and being able to savor four hundred pages of her research and reflections on Joan of Arc is an exceptional treat. Although the year’s not quite yet over, I feel confident that Harrison’s Joan of Arc will be the best biography we see this year.

The Kitchen Ecosystem, Update

The Kitchen Ecosystem: Integrating Recipes to Create Delicious Meals, by Eugenia Bone, (Potter), 408 pages, 400+ recipes

Last week, I reviewed Eugenia Bone’s The Kitchen Ecosystem. I had mixed feelings about the book, but some of the recipes did sound mighty good. So for dinner Wednesday night we had her Brussels Sprouts with Cranberries and Shallots. Yum!
Brussels sprouts

The mix of flavors was wonderful: pungent sprouts, tangy berries, salty bacon, and shallots cooked to a lovely sweetness. Last thing – serving with the fabulous set from https://urbankitchen.shop.

If you do pick up a copy of The Kitchen Ecosystem be sure to cook up some of these.

Eating a (Complicated) Ecosystem

The Kitchen Ecosystem: Integrating Recipes to Create Delicious Meals, by Eugenia Bone, (Potter), 408 pages, 400+ recipes

The back cover of Kitchen Ecosystem observes that “Seasoned cooks know the paradox of great meals is this: the more you cook, the less you actually have to do to produce delicious food.” This is a premise I can embrace. Who wouldn’t want to produce delicious food while doing less? I was imagining simple, fresh recipes that I could work up when I get home from my commute at the end of a work day.

Unfortunately, there’s little in this book that will meet that need. What “do less” means in this context seems to be “do a whole lot of work using ingredients you already did a whole lot of work to produce.” In other words, the work seems doubled, not halved.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. The idea is that when one buys something fresh—a fruit, a vegetable, a cut of meat—one can use some of it fresh, preserve some of it, cook later recipes with the preserves, and whip up interesting concoctions (usually cocktails) using scraps. And the organization of the recipes is useful. They’re clustered alphabetically by key ingredients: Apples, Apricots, Artichokes, Asparagus, etc.

For someone like me who lives on the west coast, ingredients like these are easy to get fresh. Other key ingredient choices seem more quixotic: Currants (fresh, not dried), Duck, Figs, Lobster, Mussels. I don’t know which part of the country has fresh currents or where one can buy a duck one hasn’t shot one’s self. I’ve never had such a surfeit of lobster that I needed multiple recipes to use up the extra.

The Kitchen Ecosystem also presupposes a remarkably well-equipped kitchen, with recipes that call for canning jars (and know-how), food dehydrators, stovetop smokers, and several pounds of potter’s clay (for chicken baked in clay with onion sauce, which appears in the Onion chapter, not the Chicken one). Even if I had the time and desire to prepare them, many of these recipes would be out of my reach without several hundred dollars’ investment in new equipment.

The logic of the book also breaks down in places. In the Beef chapter there are recipes for Filet Mignon with Gorgonzola Sauce (sounds good, though not a new idea), Braised Beef Cheeks with Cloves, Veal Tail Stew with Potatoes, Canned Beef, Beef Cannelloni, Canned Beef Pot Pie, Beef Stock, Beef Stock with Poached Eggs and Meatballs, and a Bullshot Cocktail. But recipes for filet, beef cheeks, and veal tail all seem to presuppose that not only have I picked up fresh, grass-fed beef at the local farmers’ market, I’ve decided to splurge and buy half a cow, as well as the back end of a calf.

I have highlighted some recipes that seem reasonably straightforward and yummy: pestos made from asparagus, mushrooms, and carrot greens, procini salt and porcini butter. However, most of these are sides, condiments, or small bites; they won’t  work as entrees and would require buying ingredients in very small quantities.

Bottom line: if you’re an adventurous cook with a cutting-edge kitchen and you enjoy devoting hours to getting a complicated dish just right, you’ll enjoy this book. If you’re someone looking for fresh, fast meals for yourself and your family, you’re only going to find about a quarter of the book’s 400+ pages useful.