[Book Review] Ebola: The Natural and Human History by David Quammen

At 110 pages long, this book has been one of the shortest but most educational books I have read this year. It is dark, scary, and if it was any longer it’d probably have depressed me, but it’s one important read.

Let’s dig in, shall we?

As is a lot of [infectious] diseases, Ebola is forcefully African. Its history goes as far back as 1976, deep in the forests of Congo. Almost simultaneously, another independent outbreak was recorded in South Western Sudan, now part of the republic of South Sudan. Sporadic infections have occurred and recurred in other parts of Africa in subsequent decades-in Uganda, Cote d’ivoire, Gabon and most recently in the epidemic that ravaged Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria in the years 2013 to 2016.

But in light of massive breakthroughs in medicine and research since 1976, why does the Ebola virus seem more potent than ever? That is primarily the question this book seeks to address, while making it abundantly clear that since 1976 nary anything has changed in our understanding of the virus, or our proximity to a vaccine.

Firstly, Ebola is extremely difficult to study. While widely speculated in the Scientific community to be some bat species, the reservoir animal that hosts the Ebola virus in between human outbreaks is still unknown. Science is yet to isolate a live Ebola virus from a bat [or any other animal], which is the gold standard in establishing that an organism is a reservoir for a pathogen. And this is not for a lack of trying. The problem is compounded by the fact that there are more than 1000 species of bats, accounting for about 25% of all animal species, making it a herculean endeavour for any research body.

Secondly, the Ebola virus disappears for years at a time between outbreaks, often furiously reappearing in stints at unpredictable locations.This means that its geographical distribution and physical manifestation can only really be well studied during an actual outbreak, which is difficult and risks further spreading it. As well, the fatality rates within a short time necessitates sparing use of guinea pigs, limiting the pace and scope of any scientific study.

Thirdly, there are quite a few known strains of the Ebola virus, all native to different parts of the world, majorly in Africa (Uganda, Cote d’ivoire, Sudan, DRC and Phillipines). When these strains have spread, they have had completely different outcomes and fatality rates. Presently, it is unknown whether these differences arise from the genetic makeup of the strains themselves or from physical and economic conditions of habitat locations such as diet, weather, medical access etc. It is also not very clear how Ebola [strains] affects other animals it infects (it seems to affect Chimps a lot more voraciously, but then again chimps in the wild don’t have the best medical care).

In summary, Ebola seems to consistently emerge from forested areas, and its spread is highly proliferated by poverty and traditional practises like washing the dead and reliance on traditional healers in areas with poor medical coverage. Be as it may, however, we are all sitting ducks; limited understanding of Ebola’s MO means it can re-emerge anywhere at any time in any part of the world. As of now, no one has the right answers, but at least we seem to know what the questions are.

(I’d recommend this book to everyone. It’s candidly and simply written, well sourced, and just the right length to have understand the magnitude of the problem).

Rating: 4/5 stars

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[Opinion] Why I am Reading the Bible Cover to Cover

About two weeks ago I turned 25 and on top of my birthday wishlist was, of all things, owning a Bible. As it turns out, a Bible is exactly the kind of thing the male of the species is too happy to present to a woman on their 25th; my birthday strung along with it 3 Bibles from three vastly different Kenyan men. I brought the first one home yesterday [the Bible, not the man]; a brown, incredibly well bound Good News Bible.The second, a Gideon’s version, was to be presented to me on Friday, but due to unavoidable circumstances couldn’t, and we await its arrival next week.The third is what I have been informed to be an “African” Bible, which apparently presents the good word in both historical and cultural context, separating real events from metaphorical ones. This promises to be nothing but illuminating and is also to be gifted to me in the coming week. Muchas Gracias, gentlemen.

As I have noted on various platforms, I am not a believer but neither do I have the energy nor mental capacity for [antagonistic] atheism. So why read the Bible at all?

For the last year or so, I have done quite some reading on how religion has evolved for more than two thousand years to what it is today, and its contribution to the formation of the [largely] cohesive society we now experience.It is not in contention that The Bible is one of the main tools through which religion self perpetuates, and therefore I feel that as long as I have not read a religious text in full and in context, I shall not completely understand it for myself regardless of how many second hand sources I interact with. From an intellectual perspective therefore, I will be seeking to understand for myself how the Bible has contributed to the evolution of religion, and how religious text transforms into religious practises.

Secondly, I am interested in how reliable the Bible is as a muse for today’s christian beliefs and how accurately it captures the historical events it purports to relay. This is why I am so excited about a Bible that presents the historical events in context. Religion is problematic in its intolerance to questions, and I feel that context bridges the gap between what is being availed by religion and what is still unanswered. I am the first to admit that my lack of belief is informed by very limited and selected reading of the Bible, and while it’s near impossible that reading the Bible in full will transform me into a staunch believer, I would like to be better informed about my own stance.

Thirdly and finally, I am reading the Bible for mere enjoyment just like I do most books. Due to its cultural significance, I would read it anyway even if it were boring, but it’s a plus that it is arguably one of the most interesting texts in the history of books. The diversity, the stories, the poetry, the conflicts. It is truly a novel worth its name.

PS: I could easily have read the Quran for the same reasons above, but access and relatability is more challenging, so I begun with the Bible. Also, this exercise will quite likely take the rest of the year to complete, but I will provide updates on my progress from time to time .

[Book Review] Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I get a lot of my reading done on my morning commutes, and it has been a while since I have read a book that makes me want to defenestrate myself from a moving vehicle. This book was one of those.

But firstly, let’s get the plot out of the way.

Never Let Me Go is a book narrated by one Kathy H., a 31 year old woman who has been a “carer” for “donors” for almost 11 years. This introduction of Kathy is graciously done in the first two pages of the book, and so one has a fairly good idea what the book is about from the get go.

We are introduced to Kathy’s back story and her two close friends ,Tommy and Ruth, growing up in a special school known as Hailsham and later transiting to fulfil their life’s purpose. As it turns out, Hailsham is one of the centres for cloned children in the country, who are brought up for the sole purpose of making organ donations upon the completion of their training. Before the donations, however, the clones become carers for other donors, which I suppose is meant to create a self-sustenance for the system.

Cool story, right?

Wrong.

Let’s break it down, shall we?

The writing: At first I found Kathy’s narration to be too fragile, like you would speak to a friend to whom you’re about to break terrible news. Except the foreplay doesn’t materialise into the grand becoming. For a premise that is so dark, I expected the narration to be utterly brutal, gory and pained. Instead, I found it shy and sentimental. A bit later into the book, there arose acute elements of circuitousness, where Kathy would magnify insignificant and inconsequential details of her experiences, moving back and forth back and forth ad nauseum. To me, a majority of the chapter conclusions sounded something like this;

That moment wasn’t significant because of what I just told you for the last few pages, it was because of what happened a few minutes before and a few days after

Rinse, Repeat.

The Story: Perhaps because I haven’t read much dystopian fiction,  I naturally found the story to be highly original. However, and this is important, the book feels like it doesn’t care about its own premise. It skirts around it all through, pages crawling with anecdotes about Kathy, Tom and Ruth’s friendships. Which is alright if well augmented with everything else, but even then Kazuo struggled to make Ruth likeable. She was antagonistic and sour and I just didn’t buy it that her friendship with Kathy and Tommy was founded on care for each other. In my opinion, the book’s misguided focus came in the way of its answering basic questions about the story and the characters, not to mention that the lingering on the characters’ love triangle for pages and pages was unnecessary.

Overall, I struggle to point out anything I particularly liked about the book. Not the tone, not the writing, not the execution of the story. Merely thoroughly underwhelming blurbs.

Rating: 2/5

[Book Review] Disgrace by J.M Coetzee

I finished Disgrace over a week ago, and has since been at pains to write how I feel about it. For one, reading this book felt like self-flagellation.

Twice-divorced, David Lurie is a Professor of Communications and Poetry at the University of Capetown in South Africa during apartheid. While he does not particularly have any respect for his job, he goes through the obligatory motions, don’t we all sometimes? His personal life does not ooze or inspire much excitement either; he has paid sex once a week and spends his free time struggling to interrogate the works of famous poets. Until he has a chance meeting with a girl who is also a student of his, and his life noticeably changes. For a while, everything revolves around this girl, and they have a whirlwind sexual relationship [that I found to be deeply disturbing]. But in the hastiness in which this book unravels, this relationship quickly comes to an anticlimactic end, with the girl filing sexual harassment charges against David. And as is often the nature of these things, his misfortune quickly unfolds into a public spectacle, which forces David to resign from his position at the university, in lieu of a public admission of guilt.

Following this ignominious end to his career,David heads to his daughter’s farm in Grahamstown. It’s a good hideout, no one knows him here, or even remotely appreciates his intellectual capacity. His relationship with his daughter, Lucy, is dry but functional. Life is boring, but he gets by. Until one day he and his daughter are victims of a gory attack, and things quickly come to a head. His relationship with Lucy strains, then bitterly sours, and towards the end [of the book], there is a series of bizarre events and decisions-better experienced inside the pages-which are hard to move on from.

This book is brilliantly written. The poetic references especially make even the errant sentences sound important, well thought out,consequential. And at the same time, I felt like some of the pages had that coarse first-draft feeling about them. Raw.I found this nothing if not refreshing.

But I did say it felt like self-flagellation, especially in the days after I finished it. For instance, why did J.M Coetzee write Lucy to be such a complex character, with a decision system that is so hard to understand? Why did he arbitrarily bring up the prospect of a same-sex relationship, and then promptly abandon its pursuit? A relationship, by the way, that I so desperately wanted to see developed. More importantly, why did he, a white man as far as I can tell, decide to write his black characters as he did? Was it in a mere pursuit of a story, or was he deliberately provoking some thought?

Overall, this is a book I am keen to recommend. It is the first of 2017 that made me curse out, shed tears and want to rip it apart. Only in a span of a few pages.Highly recommended.

Rating: 5/5

[Book Review] Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy

My first encounter with this book happened to be on twitter in August 2016 after someone mentioned it in passing. For a moment I mused on what an odd title it has,but without thinking twice I moved along. After all, what is a millennial without digital haste?

The second time was at my usual book stand along Moi Avenue, where my book guy, Peter, gave me quite the marketing performance on the book.

At this point I bit, I bought it.

The book is a memoir of a grown up Lucy Grealy, who at only 9 years old was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma, a potentially terminal form of Cancer. As a result of this illness, a third of Lucy’s jaw was removed so as to manage the disease, and subsequently Lucy went through 2 and a half years of devastating (and told in painstaking detail) bouts of chemotherapy.

While the chemo is an enormous source of pain for Lucy though, the book is Lucy taking the reader on an aesthetic journey of her face. Throughout her life, Lucy went through upwards of 30 surgeries to “rectify” her face, but every time her body swallowed itself in, consuming all grafts and treatments to revert to its most disfigured form. Lucy goes through particularly demeaning mockery in school on account of this disfigurement, and even in adulthood, she narrates gruelling experiences of being utterly humiliated and called ugly, her internal struggles with prospects of finding love despite her physical appearance and her journey through finding solace in poetry and solitude. Often, Lucy had to imagine parallel realities where life could be much worse, so as to feel better, which for the reader is more than heartbreaking, it’s immobilising. With Lucy we travel from Ireland to New York to Berlin to London to Scotland, looking to belong, looking for a semblance of normalcy in its most vane and literal sense.

I have read books about Cancer, but this is not about Cancer. The Cancer is only the means to the lense through which Lucy comes face to face with the concepts of beauty, of belonging, of acceptance, of love and how all these wonderful, complex and profound things can be inexplicably linked to how we quantify our sense of worth, and how others assess our potential to be worthy of these things.

Autobiography of a Face is incredibly well written, and on the first pages I found myself giggling quite a lot despite the heaviness of the subject matter. It is told with a great sense of wit, and sentimentality when it calls for it. It’s raw and honest, and therefore beautiful. This aptly titled book is an exquisite mirror into the innocence of children, a source of important questions and at the end simply a hauntingly beautiful memoir.

 

Rating: 4/5