Books: Ravage of the Rainforest

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside Magazine, November 1994

Books: Ravage of the Rainforest
By Andrea Barrett

The Hot Zone, by Richard Preston (Random House, $23). Mess with the rainforest and see what you get: predatory viruses that tear into the human species like a tiger through a pile of fresh meat. In the 1970s, Marburg and Ebola--collectively called the filoviruses--crept hungrily from Mount Elgon and out into central Africa by way of the newly paved Kinshasa Highway. Science writer Richard Preston's thriller-paced, true-life version of The Andromeda Strain leads us from the filoviruses' first ugly attack to the 1989 outbreak of Ebola in a quarantine house for imported tropical monkeys in Reston, Virginia. There, in an atmosphere of growing panic, the world's first major biohazard mission took place: men and women in space suits, desperately sacrificing sick monkeys, trying to contain a virus with the potential to destroy the human species.

How bad are these bugs? Preston says, "Ebola does in ten days what it takes AIDS ten years to accomplish." It eats your connective tissue, pulps your skin, dissolves your brain and other organs; stated bluntly, it turns a human into a skin-covered bag of blood. Preston argues that the virus's emergence "appears to be a natural consequence of the ruin of the tropical biosphere" and that "the paving of the Kinshasa Highway...turned out to be one of the most important events of the twentieth century." Clear, concise, and absolutely terrifying, The Hot Zone, which first appeared in condensed form in the New Yorker and which is also being made into a movie, pursues the unpleasant implications of a world so small that an emerging virus is only a day's journey away from any metropolis on the planet. We're "the human parasite," Preston potulates, and Earth is mounting an immune response against us.

The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog: Access to Tools and Ideas for the Twenty-First Century, edited by Howard Rheingold (HarperSanFrancisco, $50 cloth, $30 paper). Cousin to the best-selling Whole Earth Catalog (1968) and Last Whole Earth Catalog (1971), this century's-end edition of the old counterculture bible wears the same clothes over a very different body. The layout and design uphold the tradition of funky, inspired chaos; eclecticism continues to rule; environmental awareness and community spirit still provide guiding precepts. Implicit on every page is the people-power assumption that we're all intelligent, curious, and capable of educating ourselves, given access to the right tools. Tools for the mind--books, magazines, videos, software, other catalogs--predominate more than in earlier versions; the goats, farm equipment, and batik supplies have disappeared, and the instructions for raising marijuana have been supplanted by "sex and drug education." Entries on "virtual communities" replace those about communes, and the Internet is everywhere, reflecting editor Rheingold's vision of a world dependent now more than ever on technology. Although the "Taming Technology" and "Communications" chapters may stupefy those not yet zipping down the information superhighway, more traditional entries, such as those on natural history, pay homage to the early catalogs' strategy of pointing out excellent but little-known older books. Edgy and savvy, this nineties update makes for delightful browsing, even as it induces a certain wistfulness for the days when the VW Microbus and pillbox hat ruled.

Material World: A Global Family Portrait, by Peter Menzel (Sierra Club Books, $30). For the amazing photographs at the heart of Material World, Peter Menzel and his staff selected, from each of 30 representative countries, a family statistically "average" with regard to location, dwelling type, family size, annual income, occupation, and religion. Then they photo-graphed the families outside their homes, with all their belongings spread on the ground around them. The results are startling, thought-provoking, and sometimes quite eerie. The Uzbekistan family's goods consist almost entirely of quilts and rugs; the Bhutan family's, largely of ceremonial Buddhist vessels and instruments. In Mongolia, a TV adorned with a Chip 'n' Dale Rescue Ranger sticker sits next to the family's traditional ger and near a sheep. The surprises offered by this handsome volume lie in the delicious details rather than in the predictable disparity of living conditions.

The Runner's Literary Companion: Great Stories and Poems About Running, edited by Garth Battista (Breakaway Books, $23). This book teams up a bunch of bad contemporary running stories (featuring lines like, "You are a true champion, Bill. I didn't understand much about all that. Until today.") with equally bad running stories of yesteryear ("Old son, by golly, you won it!"). There are a few gems from the likes of Joyce Carol Oates, whose "Running" features a seven-page-long sentence that echoes the rhythms of a long run, and Max Apple, whose "Carbo-Loading" is about a beer lover who abstains from alcohol in hopes of making it past the 20-mile mark in the Boston Marathon. But for the most part, this book never gets out of the starting blocks.

The Literary Traveler: An Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction, edited by Larry Dark (Viking, $22.95). This inspired anthology scorns the typical travelogue in favor of fiction altogether deeper and more subtle. From Alice Munro's widow prying into the secrets of a Scottish village, to Maria Thomas's African-American college student touring Nigeria, to William Maxwell's middle-aged man revisiting a much-altered Mont-Saint-Michel, the characters in these 19 brilliant stories focus as much on the inward journey as on the destination. Accompanying them, we share in what the narrator of Diane Johnson's "Great Barrier Reef" calls "the mysterious power of distant places to dissolve the problems the traveler has brought along."

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