All right, we’re going to start with the cheesy fiction and move on to very serious non-fiction.
(4 stars) Pandemic (The Extinction Files #1) by A.G. Riddle
Holy exposition, Batman. I have NEVER read a book that did so much telling instead of showing. I swear, a good 50% of this novel is composed of flashbacks, recovered memories or letters discovered in secret hideouts. That being said, I found it wildly entertaining and now feel very nostalgic for the medical thriller books my best friend and I devoured in middle school. Pandemic is like Robin Cook meets Dan Brown, and I’m here for that.
“If you fly too high, the sun will melt your wings. If you fly too low, the sea’s dampness will weigh you down. The story rang true to Desmond. The market’s exuberance and implosion were in league with the allegory of Icarus, but so was life. People who flew too high—who lived beyond their means and ability—were bound for failure. As were those who never took a chance.”
Okay, so — the book starts out with an Ebola-like virus killing hundreds then thousands in Kenya. The disease quickly spreads across the planet. We have our CDC epidemiologist, Dr. Peyton Shaw (who does a lot of things “breastily”, if you know the kind of writer I’m referring to, but does a damn good job of being a heroine despite her luxurious dark hair and button nose) and her team investigating the disease on site. Meanwhile, her ex-boyfriend Desmond (an start up investor with Jason Bourne’s fighting abilities — as well as his amnesia) wakes up in a hotel room in Belgium with a dead body next to him and no memories. He’s fighting for his life while try to recover his past — and quickly realizes he wiped his OWN memories to protect the world from a project he’d been working on.
THIS BOOK WAS NUTS. But it was so fun and the crazier it got, the more I was into it. Desmond has this whole horrible back story that’s revealed in massive chunks as he regains his memories. No one talks like an actual human. There’s another top CDC guy in Atlanta with a whole side-plot about surviving the plague by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a bug out location with his neighbors that could have been cut without anyone ever noticing. LOTS of people come back from the dead. The more I write, the more I realize how nutty it was — and I can’t wait for the sequel!
(3 stars) Five Feet Apart by Rachael Lippincott
So I read this book AFTER I read Salt in My Soul (review below), which is about an actual young woman with cystic fibrosis. Someone who DIED because of the same bacteria that the fictional characters in this book flirt with passing back and forth. So I was slightly irritated by these characters. BUT. Five Feet Apart is 1) meant to bring attention to CF, which is noble and 2) a love story between teenagers, who are inherently dumb (I got married as a teenager, so I’m allowed to say this). So with all that in mind, it’s an interesting insight into living with a disease most people aren’t very familiar with, and young adult romances should always be read with slightly rose-colored glasses.
“If I’m going to die, I’d like to actually live first.”
Stella Grant and Will Newman have something terrible in common — they both spend a significant part of their lives in hospitals due to their cystic fibrosis. This lung disease requires frequent medical attention, and they’ve bonded as a result — but not in person. Will has a bacteria called b. cepacia living in his lungs. If Stella were to contract it, it would automatically disqualify her from the lung transplant she desperately needs. But…hormones.
I’m being hard on it — it’s a sweet book about two teens who fall in love under terrible circumstances. It’s very sad in parts, and also really informative about what cystic fibrosis can mean for a person living with it everyday.
(5 stars) Salt in My Soul: An Unfinished Life by Mallory Smith
Prior to picking up Salt in My Soul, my knowledge of CF came from two episodes of Grey’s Anatomy (the one with the kid from American Pie, and the one with the guy who has to break up with his girlfriend because she also has CF and he can’t get a lung transplant while hanging around her). After finishing Mallory Smith’s book, which is made up of journal entries she wrote as a teenager and young adult and edited together after her death by her parents, I feel like I know a bit more about what the disease and its treatments entail. I also know that Mallory Smith seemed like a bad ass, and it’s a tragedy she died so young.
“For the most part, I wished for a life lived honestly, to do good things, and to be happy.”
Mallory Smith was diagnosed at age 3 with cystic fibrosis. From then on, her life was a series of breathing treatments, antibiotics, emergency room visits and hospitalizations as her medical team fought to keep her as healthy as possible. Her life was ALSO a series of sleepovers, schoolwork, sports and love, as she did her best to live her life as fully as possible. Salt in My Soul documents Smith’s life as a series of journal entries from her childhood through to the last few months before her death. Towards the end, her parents add in their commentary about Mallory’s final few weeks as writing became too much for help.
What Mallory went through on a day to day basis amazed me, but so did her writing. It’s polished and professional while also being raw and honest. It’s a shame that she never got to do more, but it’s unquestionable that she lived her short life to the best of her abilities.
(5 stars) The Perfect Predator: A Scientist’s Race to Save Her Husband from a Deadly Superbug: A Memoir by Steffanie Strathdee
Towards the end of Salt in My Soul, Mallory’s father reached out to a researcher working with macrophages to treat antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Macrophages were rushed to Mallory’s hospital but unfortunately were either not developed enough, or introduced too late to save her. This last ditch effort is only afforded a few pages in the book, but it piqued my interest. They mention how the macrophages saved the researcher’s husband’s life, so I googled her. And it turns out Dr. Steffanie Strathdee wrote a book of her own about her husband’s life threatening illness, and how she researched a mostly-forgotten cure that ended up saving his life.
Steffanie Strathdee and her husband Tom were on vacation in Egypt when Tom came down with a stomachache — super common for him while traveling because apparently he liked to try EVERYTHING. Strathdee gave him some antibiotics, but instead of bouncing back like usual, Tom kept getting sicker and sicker. The Perfect Predator is Strathdee’s account of the months that followed. After spending time in a hospital overseas, Tom was eventually medevacked back to the U.S. where doctors discovered he had an abdominal infection full of the most antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the world. Working with a team, Strathdee began researching “phage therapy” (using bacteriophages to treat pathogenic bacterial infections). This treatment actually pre-dates antibiotics, but since phages must be cultivated and can only attack a certain strain of bacteria, this idea was mostly abandoned when broad-spectrum antibiotics were discovered.
However, in just a few decades we have used and abused antibiotics to the point that many of them are no longer effective. Antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria are killing millions every year. This would have happened to Tom as well had Strathdee not begun to research alternate therapies and then pursued bacteriophages. Strathdee does a great job of relaying the medical aspects of Tom’s case and his treatment in terms that are easy for a layperson to understand. She also divulges her emotional state and the fear they both felt when Tom spent months in the hospital doing so poorly. It’s a really interesting read with a lot of great information about the current state of the antibiotics and the pretty scary direction we’re heading in if alternate therapies are not developed. Finish your antibiotics, folks!