nonfiction

Review of “Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus” by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy [Audio]

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus

One fine afternoon, while walking with my son through the woods just down the road from where we live, we meandered our way down an overgrown path, just off the logger trail, to a hunting lodge,  where I found a sign posted outside the makeshift cabin warning of Tollwut, which means “Rabies” in German.  When I asked my father-in-law about the warning, he said it was something to watch out for in these parts of northern Bavaria where I live, just on the outskirts of the Steigerwald.  Curiosity about the disease seized me from that point on, where luck would have it that Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, husband and wife, journalist and veterinarian, wrote a book about the disease.  Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus was published by Viking Adult in 2012,  so I downloaded an audio version of the book from the Overdrive digital library to indulge my inquisitiveness.  What I found was a comprehensive and engaging look at the historical, the cultural and the empirical nature of this disease.  And it was a damn good read, too.

About the Book

Wasik, a senior editor for Wired, writes jointly with his veterinarian wife, Murphy, of accounts of attacks made on hapless, unsuspecting victims bitten by all manner of creatures, ranging from dogs to raccoons to bats, some with grueling imagery.  Yet, the book does more than recount these gruesome struggles for survival; it illustrates, rather effectively, how rabies as a virus has captivated our imagination over the centuries when scientific scrutiny offered no insight on the terrible nature of this illness, where people would often mistake its symptoms for demonic possession instead.  Wasik and Murphy take the reader on an exploration through pages of medieval texts, revealing how the virus has become more than that, but an inspiration for myth and legend.  One reviewer wrote that the book was “rather slow” during the earlier chapters where the authors build up their case for this mythical association, what with their “[description of] the potential for rabies as the disease that significantly contributed to vampire and werewolf legends,” but later yields that the “pace of the book picks up”  once Wasik and Murphy begin looking at the earlier works of  microbiologists and how the book directs its focus more on the scientific, microbial aspects of the disease (Boury).  It is safe to assume that with this review being published in the Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education, the reviewer may be a bit bias toward the more scientific inclinations of the book.  I do agree with her, though, when in the end, she concludes that “this book was both educational and entertaining and worth reading” (Boury).  I feel this book is well balanced  and offers a little something for all readers about the many facets of the disease.

While the book offers clear descriptive accounts for the symptomatic features of the virus, what with hydrophobia, the fear of water that is typically associated with patients or victims of the illness, there are a few areas I feel it could have been more convincing, namely in its attempts to tie rabies to some of today’s own popular culture.  I couldn’t help but feel that the authors were trying too hard to link the virus to popular themes seen in today’s media.  Yes, it ambitiously ties the associations of the disease found in many primeval texts to such folkloric myths as the werewolf and the vampire, which are the more convincing parts of the book, but it takes this even further still by linking rabies to the zombie narrative.  As it is referenced in the book, though, the zombie is somewhat suspect in having its origins rooted anywhere in the history of rabies, a redeeming point I must give back to the authors.  Be not mistaken, I do find the book’s rational for the werewolf myth to be very informative, especially in the accounts told in the earlier chapters of the book for the dog and its role as man’s best friend and servant, but also for being one of the predominant species that carries rabies in the world, thus revealing where a deeply rooted fear for the animal comes from.  Equally, the association made to the vampire and the appearance of the bat as one of the main carriers for the disease by modern science explains some of the myth stemming out of the nineteenth century, where closely linked ties between victims who would fall ill from the bites of bats were more than abundant. A hat tip to Bram Stoker with regard to this one.

About the Disease

The grim accounts told in the book to illustrate these points linking the disease to its mythical counterparts are not for the squeamish, but they do serve to show how those victims could easily be seen as that of the mythical monster, transforming upon a moment’s notice into a raging, uncontrolled beast, on account of the incubation period of the virus in the body.  Losing all control over themselves, the onset of hydrophobia would drive these victims into a raging frenzy, biting haplessly into the air, uncontrollable spasms racking the body as the nerves’ synopsis fail to inhibit their receptors, causing the victim to die rather terribly without the aid of a vaccine to reduce their symptoms.  An example of what rabies does to animals — namely dogs — may be found in this KOAT Action 7 News video, reporting on a case of rabies in a Valencia county animal shelter in New Mexico.  As the report indicates, footage in this video may be sensitive to some viewers.

 Regrettably, the 12 dogs in the kennel were euthanized as a result of the progressive state of the disease.  There was little that could be done for them.

Like any compelling analytical survey does, the book delivers a full account for the historical development of its topic, in this case the vaccine as it was developed in the 19th century by Louis Pasteur, a French chemist and self-taught microbiologist.  The trials and tribulations as Pasteur set to discover what he did not know about rabies at the time is one of the more remarkable parts of this book.  At one point, Wasik and Murphy account for why trained medical professionals from the 19th century  had such a profound lack of understanding for the disease, given that all the folklore and myth loosely based around the disease had undoubtedly compounded and misconstrued the truths behind the virus and its symptoms, so much so that 3rd century Grecian philosophers and their observations of rabid dogs were more telling about how rabies really was over these learned medical practitioners, some 1,500 years later.  It wasn’t until the discovery of the virus as a microbial organism that the dynamics for our understanding of rabies changed for the better.

Still, the modern world is not safe from this virus, as it kills many animals and even people from less stable regions around the globe each year.  In more remote regions  where government bodies lack an adequate infrastructure, rabies remains a deadly disease, to which even the Center for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledges its danger.  The book discusses in its later chapters several threats that occurred across urban spaces in the United States during 2008 and even an outbreak of rabies amongst dogs on the island of Bali, where “the island’s first attempt to combat the outbreak was an unsuccessful culling campaign in which 100,000 dogs were killed” (Belford).  With these incidents happening as recently as 2010, there is little doubt to the magnitude this disease can have on an isolated population, whether it be an inner-city or an island.  One thing the book does well is that it ends with a hopeful look at what is being done in rabies research.

Raising Awareness

Regardless of the breakthroughs that have happened in the way we understand the virus, though, it still poses a threat to anyone who may be bitten by a rabid animal.  If someone is not immediately treated after having been bitten, the results could be terminal, grueling and painful.  The book does not offer a cure for the disease, but what it does offer is awareness.  For all of the book’s strengths — what in its ability to show the disease’s influence over our imagination — and its weaknesses — making associations it, itself, acknowledges as border-line ridiculous — it tells a compelling story of a disease that has haunted man with his tamed natural instinct for countless years.  The book has certainly got me thinking about that walk in the woods I frequently take.  While it hasn’t deterred me from going outside to enjoy nature, I remain vigilant to the signs that are out there, knowing that deep down there’s more to this virus than its own pathological origins.

Works Cited

Belford, Aubrey. “Dog-Loving Bali Tries to Tame Rabies Outbreak.” New York Times.  The New York Times Company, 29 Sep. 2010. Web. 08 Mar. 2014.

Boury, Nancy. “Review of: Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus.” Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education 14.1 (2013): 139-140. PubMed. Web. 08 Mar. 2014.

Advertisements

Review of “Mortality” by Christopher Hitchens

MortalityIt saddens me to a certain extent that the very first book I read by Christopher Hitchens should also be his last. Originally published posthumously by Twelve, Mortality offers one of the last insights into the mind of a journalist who by way was also a socialite, an intellect and an iconoclast, amongst other things. While this may have been his last book to have been published, there are certainly enough other books that precede this one, should I feel the desire to pick up any of his other writings.  He was quite a prolific writer, after all.  Recommended to me by a good friend, I sat down with Mortality periodically and read about the difficulties Hitchens faced, not just with the discomforts from dying of cancer but also of the struggles he endured to maintain his sense of humanity.  It does not matter if you are reading about his antics with a disgruntled believer or if you are reading about the day he learned of his terminal illness, his ability to pull the reader into his world is a testament to his prowess as a writer. I felt more like I was having a conversation with him rather than reading his book.  If his other works are anything like this one, I can understand why so many reviewers either loved him or hated him.  He seemed to be quite the controversial character in his lifetime.  I do not know much about him, aside from the references made by many for his views on atheism and religion. While these were a central theme in his book — after all, he defends his views against critics and haters, even with the face of death staring him down– he is not limited to discussing them only.  I believe he makes these references more out of spite to his opponents and to maintain his reputation for the debate until the bitter end.  I did not read this book, though, for his religious views, per say.  I was more concerned with something else when I picked up this book to read it. The reason why it was referred to me in the first place was because of a particular point in his discussion where Hitchens describes the feelings he has about losing his voice to esophageal cancer. Like Hitchens, my mother lost her voice three years ago, only for other somatic reasons.

I was curious to learn what he had to say about this.  I have never really found much in the way of popular commentary on what life is like for someone who has been struck dumb by an illness, but it happens all the time.  My grandfather had his throat box removed and replaced with a voice box implant, along with countless other people throughout the world; however, what happens to them socially?  This is something that is seldom discussed, even amongst the closest of friends, unless you know someone personally who suffers from such a dilemma.  This is what Hitchens was afraid of the most, the fear that by losing his voice to cancer he would lose his ability to write.  He confirms this by saying, “Deprivation of the ability to speak is more like an attack of impotence, or the amputation of part of the personality.  To a great degree, in public and private, I ‘was’ my voice.  All the rituals and etiquette of conversation… were innate and essential to me” (48).  I  have often wondered if this is how my mother feels.  You do not have to be a renowned writer like Hitchens to dread losing your voice.  We are all human beings capable of socializing with each other, but when a voice that was always there suddenly disappears, it is easy to fall into isolation and despair.

It has taken my mother a long time to come to terms with this.  She has been told by multiple doctors multiple possibilities.  It was only a year ago that her health problems were resolved, but it was too late for her voice.  It is all but a wisp that she struggles to express beyond her lips.  She has better days than others, but it is straining to say the least.  She told me that the most discouraging part is how most people immediately distance themselves from her.  When she would order from a restaurant, she would have to write down her order because the waiter/ress could not hear her speak.  When her food was served, it was always incorrect.  She tried at first to get her order corrected, however, over time the difficulties she faced with this forced her to be silent.  Hitchens talks about this, too.  It is something I never thought about before, and having since listened to her stories and having read Hitchen’s account, I try to be exactly the opposite of what he “can’t stand.”  He writes, “Timing is everything: the exquisite moment when one can break in and cap a story, or turn a line for a laugh, or ridicule an opponent.  I lived for moments like that.  Now if I want to enter a conversation, I have to attract attention in some other way, and live with the awful fact that people are then listening ‘sympathetically.’ At least they don’t have to pay attention for long: I can’t keep it up and anyway can’t stand to” (48).  Before my mother and I used Skype to video conference with one another, we would talk on the phone for as little as fifteen to twenty minutes at a time.  I can only imagine for her what a conversation must have been like with a stranger, what with our phone calls back then being so short-lived.  Video conferencing through Skype has been the best medicine for us both since she first lost her voice.  Now over long distance, we can finally “talk” to one another.

To end this, I want to draw attention to the very way that Hitchens ends his own book.  His final words, from a memoir’s perspective anyway, are quoting Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams.  He quotes:

With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives.  Grandparents never die, nor do great grandparents, great-aunts… and so on, back through generations, all alive and offering advice.  Sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers.  Nor do daughters of their mothers.  No one ever comes into his own…(original emphasis) Such is the cost of immortality.  No person is whole.  No person is free (qtd. in Hitchens 93).

Sons and daughters may never be able to escape from their parents’ influence, but neither can parents from their children.  We have to be there for one another, through “thick and thin.”  Family is blood.  An incredible ending to an incredible author.  Requiescat in pace.

Works Cited

Hitchens, Christopher. Mortality. New York: Twelve (Hachette Book Group), 2012. Print.