Zombies are the middle children of the otherworldly family. Vampires are the oldest brother who gets to have a room in the attic, all tripped out with a disco ball and shag carpet. Werewolves are the youngest, the babies, always getting pinched and told they're cute. With all that attention stolen away from the middle child zombie, no wonder she shuffles off grumbling, "Marsha, Marsha, Marsha."

- Kevin James Breaux

Friday, August 9, 2013

Book Review: PANIC IN LEVEL 4 by Richard Preston

I’ve been a fan of writer Richard Preston since reading his non-fiction book The Hot Zone many years ago.  He’s always found a comfortable place dealing with killer viruses as a subject in subsequent novel The Cobra Event and his other non-fiction work the Demon in the Freezer but with his novel Panic in Level 4 (Cannibals, Killer Viruses, and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science) we delve deeper into Preston’s obsession with killer viruses as well as other subjects.

Panic in Level 4 may be an ode to get Preston’s big fan base interested in this anthology novel where he describes his first hand knowledge of what it was like to go into the CDC into Level 4 (the most dangerous level in the facility of which only the most contagious and deadly diseases are studied), described in his lengthy Introduction and the chapter “The Search for Ebola”, but he also delves into the mystery of mathematics and discovering the meaning of Pi (“The Mountains of Pi”), the artistry of the seven unicorn tapestries (“The Lost Unicorn”), the disease that is Lesch-Nyhan (“The Self-Cannibals”), a continuation of his exploration of the redwood canopies started in his novel The Wild Trees (“A Death in the Forest”),  and the Human Genome Project (“The Human Kabbalah”).  This is as diverse a subject matter as any of Preston’s previous books.

At the heart of the book is a preoccupation with disease as most evident in “The Search for Ebola” and “The Self-Cannibals” but it is also part of the problem faced in the destruction and extinction of the trees in “A Death in the Forest” and the human nature of the relationship between the Gregory and David Chudnovsky who are “one brain with two bodies” and are their own self destructive disease.  These stories not only delve into disease and obsession but in the nature of the characters presented in each story as Preston becomes an integral “member of the family” in the lives of the characters that he is writing about.  Preston’s writing is not just of the detached observer but a willing participant who gets into his characters’ lives in order to not only better understand them but the so called disease that threatens them.  Being the shortest of the chapters “The Lost Unicorn” stretches this a bit but it does focus on “time” being the disease that threatens the continual existence of seven tapestries which have survived and persevered through their own personal journey and heart-ache which is reflected in their beauty.

Preston has crafted another book that belongs within his cannon of other books and sheds light on his many other interests (in addition to that of his killer viruses) that will go far in establishing that he is still one of the best journalist and non-fiction writers out there.

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