Audible listener who's grateful for a long commute!
Amy Stewart just published the already much referenced “The Drunken Botanist: The Plants that Create the World’s Great Drinks” (2013).” I knew when I finished “The Drunken Botanist” I’d never settle for a badly made cocktail. Just yesterday, I was annoyed to see a “martini” menu at a well known chain restaurant (whose name resembles The Cheesecake Factory) listing only “vodka martinis”. Thanks to Stewart’s help, I made sure I got a real martini – made with gin.
“Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities” (2009) is much shorter than “The Drunken Botanist”, and not quite as fun. There are no drink recipes in this one, but plenty of advice on what NOT to eat or drink.
In Stewart’s hands, each ‘wicked plant’ takes on a distinct personality. Some are bullying newcomers, like Japanese-native kudzu, which was imported for erosion control but is invading the American south. Some plants are deceptive, like foxglove. Used correctly, it produces the life saving digitalis. Used incorrectly, foxglove kills. It turns out the ubiquitous but much-maligned poinsettia plant is an irritant, not a poison.
I realized – and was quite disconcerted – that I am surrounded by poisonous plants. There are beautiful but poisonous oleander trees in my yard, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen hemlock in my yard, and, thinking back on it – as much as I loved pulling up and eating raw rhubarb as a child, I’m very lucky I’m here.
“Wicked Plants”, like Stewart’s “Wicked Bugs: The Louse that Conquered Napoleon’s Army and Other Diabolical Insects” (2011), is an A to Z encyclopedia of the bad boys of the natural world.
I wondered if I might have been better off with “Wicked Plants” in print so that I could see what Stewart was describing. I thought about it, and realized that if I had done that, I wouldn’t have had Colleen Marlo’s narration to tell me how to pronounce the names.
I’m not sure that I’ll buy “Wicked Plants” in text (I will buy “The Drunken Botanist” on paper for the recipes!), but it was definitely worth the listen.
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I scanned my bookshelf before I wrote this review. Carl Zimmer's "Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures" (2001), has a top shelf place that belies it's origins: I "borrowed" it from a JPL scientist who was more interested in his own biceps than the universe. Dr Nicholas P. Money's "Mr. Bloomfield's Orchard: The mysterious world of mushrooms, molds and mycologists" (2002) and "Carpet Monsters and Killer Spores: A Natural History of Toxic Mold" (2004) have truly honored places - Dr. Money loves mold like I love my kids, and he's got that dry, Monty Python wit to go with it.
Nathan Wolfe PhD's "The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age" (2012) was a natural fit. if it weren't for the current Ebola outbreak making everyone interested in pandemics, I would wondered just how well Audible knew me. Wolfe isn't as amusing as Money, but I don't think Wolfe aims to be, and I don't think Money can play the serious guy, no matter how deadly on point he is.
Wolfe discusses HIV/AIDS at length. As a virus, it's intriguing and horrifying. It's mutable and recombinant - but it's transmitted by intimate contact and blood, so it's a relatively contained epidemic. So is HPV, a sexually transmitted virus that causes genital warts in some variations - and cervical cancer in others.
Wolfe presciently addresses the current Ebola outbreak two years before it happened. Some might say that Wolfe was making a lucky guess in "The Viral Storm," but Wolfe wasn't guessing. He knew what was coming, period; and he got the who, what, where and why pretty much right, too. Well, Wolfe didn't have actual names for the "who" but he got the professions/jobs/work of those who first contracted Ebola right, and he definitely has the "how" down. Ebola will burn itself out eventually - it's an inefficient transmitter but lethal, burning through its hosts fairly quickly and killing more than half of those it infects. The question is how many will it kill this time?
What makes Wolfe's book truly scary is the cleverness of the viruses. HIV/AIDS hid its hosts, and it took years to develop a diagnostic test. At the beginning of the epidemic, an HIV+ person could unknowingly infect those he or she loved, not discovering the illness for years. And Ebola - it doesn't just kill, it takes the loved ones who care for the infected, too. Viruses are small, with very little genetic material - and some can combine with other viruses to make a lethal new microbe. It's as if viruses are sentient and bent on taking over the world.
It's a fascinating, challenging, and so very frightening listen.
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