New release book review: THE AFFLICTIONS by Vikram Paralkar

ScienceThrillers.com book review of The Afflictions by Vikram Paralkar.


BlueStar4

Publication date: October 31, 2014
Category: fiction essay; medical fiction; literary fiction

Summary (from the publisher):

Shadowing an elderly librarian on his first day at the great Central Library, Máximo is thrilled to get a peek at the exclusive Encyclopedia of Medicine. It’s a dizzying collection of maladies: an amnesia that causes everyone you’ve ever met to forget you exist, while you remain perfectly, painfully aware of your history. A wound that grows with each dark thought or evil deed you commit but shrinks with every act of kindness. A disease that causes your body to imitate death, stopping your heart, cooling your blood. Will the fit pass before they bury you-or after?

The Afflictions is a magical compendium of pseudo-diseases, an encyclopedia of archaic medicine written by a contemporary physician and scientist. Little by little, these bizarre and mystical afflictions frame an eternal struggle: between human desire and the limits of bodily existence.

ScienceThrillers review:

The publisher’s summary misses the mark in conveying the spirit of this fascinating little volume. In The Afflictions, Vikram Paralkar, a physician (hematologist) at the University of Pennsylvania, blends the style and form of old-time medical writing with magical realism. The result is a series of very short, psychologically dense entries, each describing a fantastical “disease”. The publisher’s summary emphasizes the macabre aspect–and make no mistake, some of Paralkar’s imaginings are extremely grotesque–but the spirit is reflective. Each disease explores some aspect of the human condition or the soul. Each is like a flavorful stock that’s been reduced and concentrated. This short book (174 pages with plenty of white space) begs to be read in small bites, with the reader savoring and reflecting on each idea.

I found The Afflictions to be an engaging work of literary medical fiction, and my family ended up discussing some of the bizarre syndromes over dinner. Really imaginative stuff, though I’d say the strongest ones are in the first half to two-thirds of the book. The construct of an elderly librarian (who is the sole voice in the book) and a Central Library creates a mood and a structure to the book but is merely a scaffolding upon which the author can hang his entries. There is no “plot” or climax.

An excellent book for a book group, or for a classroom to discuss one piece at a time. For the solitary reader, The Afflictions will provide plenty of food for thought, even meditation.

Recommended for fans of Jorge Luis Borges.

FCC disclaimer: An advance reader copy of this book was given to me for review. As always, I made no guarantee that I would read the book or post a positive review.

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Descartes’ Cove, a math puzzle solving game for middle school students

Gaming can be more than shooting at stuff.

In the spirit of the great puzzle solving game Myst, the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth has created a puzzle-solving computer game adventure called Descartes’ Cove. This game for 6th-8th grade students uses beautiful graphics to challenge kids with material from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards.

In a leaky lifeboat, students survive an ocean storm, marooned on a deserted island once inhabited by Rene Descartes. They discover his parchment notebook, map and other gear, and begin their journey through island tunnels, volcanoes, and many more surprises! At each step, they solve increasingly difficult puzzles and math challenges, earn gold coins, and make entries in their own journal. As they master each math concept, they prepare to tackle the final quest to build a means to escape from the island.

Curious? Here’s a demo:

You’ll need a PC running Microsoft Windows and a CD drive to play (sadly the game doesn’t work on newer Macs). The six CD set ain’t cheap–$150–but schools can get a discount, and your library might have a copy.

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Guest author: Lisa von Biela on science in her technothrillers

ScienceThrillers welcomes author Lisa von Biela, who creates science-themed “dark fiction.” Ideas for Lisa’s thrillers originate in her science/technical legal work. She resides in Seattle but went to school in Minnesota–always a bonus with me!


Technothriller plots based on real science

by Lisa von Biela

Thank you, Amy, for inviting me and to those of you reading this!

I have a confession to make.  Scientific advances amaze me—and they also terrify me.  We can achieve so much good, yet we also have the power to either deliberately misuse science, or create havoc with an innocent error.  And this is precisely what drives me to write the novels I do.  I try to both entertain and explore the more serious “what if” issues raised by various scientific advances.

I base my novels on real science, though I admit to taking some liberties for plot purposes.  I believe it’s crucial to have at least the underpinnings of real science to explore the issues I do with some degree of authenticity.  Despite the liberties I take, some of the technologies in my books have either become reality, or are threatening to do so!

For example, I completed the manuscript for my debut novel, The Genesis Code, back in 2006.  The novel focused on the development and secret implementation of a tiny subcutaneous chip implanted close to the brain.  Ostensibly, the device would be used to download benign items such as training manuals and technical documents.  But…Dr. Josh Tyler intended to make it capable of two-way transmission and alteration of memories.  The novel was published in 2013, and in the intervening time, DARPA has begun experimenting with a similar device in the brains of soldiers to try to alter memories contributing to PTSD.

I take a few more liberties with current real science in The Janus Legacy, in which Dr. Jeremy Magnusson inherits SomaGene, his estranged father’s biotech business.  SomaGene cultivates individual autologous transplant organs in vitro for its clients, and then performs the transplant surgery in its rather high-tech facility.  This technology might not be that far off.  But before his death, Jeremy’s father had also developed a full human clone in the hopes that Jeremy could harvest the intestines to cure his severe Crohn’s disease.  Jeremy faces all manner of ethical issues in deciding what to do with the sentient clone.  Notably, several of my readers who actually have Crohn’s have commented that I captured life with the disease quite realistically.

My next novel, Blockbuster, is due out in January.  For this one, the real-life timeline for drug development created a tremendous hurdle for the plot.  So I set it 10 years in the future and “invented” various items of lab equipment that speed up the drug development process and eliminate the need for human studies.  I also “created” new versions of everyday technologies, like phones and portable computers, as well as special hospital equipment like disposable standalone isolation units.  In Blockbuster’s world, the MRSA  (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a deadly infection) we know is a thing of the past, and considered to be pretty mild.  BigPharma companies are doing whatever it takes to capture market share—including creating a bacteria far worse and more contagious than MRSA—as well as the antibiotic that cures it.  This is Denali Labs’ business model, and when its main competitor, Horton Drugs, tries to follow in the same path, things get out of control.  Way out of control.  I hope this isn’t really happening.

I’m not a practicing scientist, though I do have a scientific background.  I majored in Biology at UCLA (I was pre-vet then).  My life took a different turn, landing me in IT for 25 years before I dropped out to attend law school.  I became active in the American Bar Association’s SciTech section and published a weekly newsletter on scientific/legal developments called the BioBlurb while I was in school.  After graduation, I joined the editorial board of The SciTech Lawyer, a quarterly ABA publication.  I still serve on the board and co-edit issues in rotation.  When I was publishing the BioBlurb, I couldn’t resist making editorial remarks about the articles I’d cited (readers loved my snarky comments!)—and also thinking of all the novel fodder that was passing before my eyes.  I had no time to write during law school, but am making up for that now.

You can check out more of my background and work at www.lisavonbiela.com.  Thanks for reading!

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Best science gifts of 2014 (part 2)

Last chance to get your science-y gifts for Christmas. Click to see my part 1 suggestions for best science gifts of this season. Here I present to you an abundance of cool stuff from the catalog and online retailer Uncommon Goods.

mathglasses

Math glasses, set of four $38

pi bowl

Pi stainless steel basket $118

To view other math items from Uncommon Goods, click here.

earthglasses

Earth science glasses, set of four $38

tableblocks

geekblocksPeriodic table wooden blocks ($31), or super nerdy ABC wooden blocks ($50)

pillows

Chromosome pillows, $35 each

More science-themed items from Uncommon Goods here.


Got a reader on your list? If they like Michael Crichton, Robin Cook, or Michael Palmer, give them a copy of one of my science-themed thrillers Petroplague or Reversion. Visit AmyRogers.com/books for details and purchase links.

REVERSIONfrontcoverCover

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It’s “Take your child to a bookstore” day!

ScienceThrillers.com advocates for science literacy and science education, but basic literacy must come first. The best way to get kids to read is to expose them to a wide variety of books, and let them choose. Libraries: YES! And today, how about taking them to a bookstore to choose a present for themselves or others?

Guest post by thriller author Jenny Milchman, who came up with the idea of designating the first Saturday in December as “Take your child to a bookstore” day.


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Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day

a.k.a.

How to Build Literacy, Support Community, & Make Magic Happen All in One Day

 In 2010 I had two young children whom I was bringing to story hour at our local bookstore almost every week. After all, what better activity to do with kids? It was enriching, fun, even relaxing. I didn’t have to feel guilty when I drank that 700 calorie butterscotch latte from the coffee bar. I was running back and forth between adult fiction and the flower-flocked children’s section—working off the calories for sure.

My kids probably didn’t realize it was as much of a treat for me as for them. Which started me thinking—were other parents in on this secret? How many children knew the pleasure of spending time in a bookstore?

I frequent the mystery listserv DorothyL, and a more avid group of readers you couldn’t hope to find. When I floated the idea for Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, bloggers on the listserv spread the word. My husband designed a poster, a website, and bookmarks, and we designated the first Saturday in December as Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day. This would coincide with holiday gift giving, hopefully giving people the idea that books make great presents. Just two weeks later, 80 bookstores were celebrating.

That summer my husband and I loaded the kids into the car and drove cross-country, visiting more than fifty bookstores. (You can tell he’s a supportive guy). In 2011, the second annual Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day found over 350 bookstores celebrating in all 50 states. Some planned special celebrations—children’s book authors, puppet makers, singers, even a baker who led kids in a gingerbread cookie decorating activity—while others simply hung a poster in the window. When 2013 came around, and the number had risen to over 600 independent bookstores, and one major chain, we knew that word was getting out. Kids + bookstores = magic.

And maybe something even more than that.

There’s a cultural wave behind Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day. The word locavore isn’t just for a Dr. Seuss story anymore. Supporting your local community and the resurgence of Main Street are goals that more and more people recognize as important to build strong citizens as well as strong readers.

You know that old ad campaign, “Orange juice isn’t just for breakfast anymore”? I hear that now as, “Bookstores aren’t just for reading anymore.”

And by that I mean more than the fact that you can also buy toys, cards, gifts, or have your butterscotch latte at a bookstore. Bookstores are places where people come together over ideas and engage in a cultural conversation. That concept is so important I have to say it again. They are places where people come together. And booksellers are a group who know how to zig while others are zagging, so impassioned are they by their life’s pursuit. Their stores are places of physical interaction in an increasingly virtual world.

When you take a child to a bookstore, you stimulate his mind and all five senses. (If taste seems a stretch, just let her have the whipped cream on your latte). There’s a tactile dimension to the experience that seems rare these days. You also make that child a crucial part of the place where he lives, supporting it and helping it grow.

Best of all, these things happen in a guise that to the child is sheer magic. On the shelves of a bookstore sit gateways into whole new worlds. Children go into bookstores—but they come back out having journeyed somewhere else entirely.

This Saturday, December 6, 2014 is the fifth annual Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day. Whether you take your own child, a child you know, or the child inside yourself to a bookstore, together let’s build literacy, support community, and make magic happen.


 Jenny Milchman is a suspense novelist and mom from the Hudson River Valley who once drove past Disney with her children en route to the nearest bookstore.

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Engineering thriller is a rare delight: Guest post on THE JACKHAMMER ELEGIES

Today ScienceThrillers welcomes Stefan Jaeger to tell us about a rare literary delight: a thriller novel starring an engineer, set in the world of professional civil engineering. No, “engineering thriller” is not an oxymoron. Stefan will tell you why as he discusses his award-winning novel THE JACKHAMMER ELEGIES.

An Engineering Thriller Breaks New Ground in Popular Entertainment
By Stefan Jaeger

Author of The Jackhammer Elegies

If you try to count the number of movies that feature an engineer as a major character, you will probably not get off the fingers of one hand before you start Googling for hints. Just to get started, there is Arlington Road (the engineer, played by Tim Robbins, is a terrorist), Falling Down (the engineer, Michael Douglas, goes berserk), Mr. & Mrs. Smith (the cover profession of the assassin, Brad Pitt, is an engineer), and Law Abiding Citizen (the engineer cracks and goes on a rampage of revenge). The problem with these is that terrorist, wacko, assassin, and out-of-control vigilante are not exactly positive role models that you want to invite home for dinner and introduce to your kids.

Amid this sporadic history, including the slim pickings on TV, the most repeated refrain I have heard from engineers in my twenty-eight years of working with engineering associations—the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) and now the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)—is “Why can’t we have a TV show L.A. Engineer?” (For those of a younger generation, L.A. Law was a popular TV series in the late ’80s and early ’90s that featured a cast of characters from a law firm in Los Angeles.)

That refrain of L.A. Engineer stayed with me, and given my ongoing interest in writing fiction, I began to wonder whether I could create something to address the popular entertainment void for engineers. After a long and interrupted road, that speculation resulted in my thriller The Jackhammer Elegies, which features a civil/structural engineer as the main character and hero. The novel won a 2013 SET Award from the Entertainment Industries Council, which honors film, television and other genres that inspire “interest in science, engineering, technology and math through media and entertainment.” Additional 2013 winners included the TV shows The Big Bang Theory, NCIS, and Grey’s Anatomy –“Idle Hands,” and the movies Iron Man 3, Star Trek: Into Darkness, and World War Z, among others.

The effort is not without precedent. A number of other novelists have written on engineer-related topics, and a number of those authors have been engineers themselves. One example from the late ’90s is Engineered for Murder, by consulting engineer Aileen Schumacher. This mystery features a structural engineer heroine who helps solve a puzzling murder. Schumacher followed up by giving her protagonist additional starring roles in a mystery series. In his 1984 novel Skyscraper, civil engineer Robert Byrne paints a picture of corruption and questionable design choices that threaten structural failure for a New York City skyscraper. Going back to the Cold War ’50s, aeronautical engineer Nevil Shute (a pen name) wove scientific and engineering principles into his stories. His novel On the Beach looks at life after a nuclear holocaust.

As for my novel The Jackhammer Elegies, the full genesis from concept to publishing spanned about two decades, interspersed with other fiction projects and undergoing some widely spaced revisions. I started planning my novel in the ’90s, getting my initial plot hook from a story I heard about a New York City professional engineer who had been caught in an elevator after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and his ordeal in getting out. A fictionalized version of his experience became the opening scene in The Jackhammer Elegies, where the location is transported to Rosslyn, Virginia (across the river from Washington, D.C.), and the man trapped is Scott Carter, a structural engineer who had designed the steel frame to the building.

In the novel, a powerful basement blast rocks Carter from his everyday life into the media limelight—and ultimately into the crosshairs of a technically cunning terrorist. Carter’s knowledge of the building’s structural framework helps him alert the city about potential collapse, but that turns him into the conduit of threats from the mastermind of the attack, alias Jackhammer. Carter becomes a consultant to the FBI as it investigates the engineering angles to the case, teaming up with Special Agent Michelle Taylor, whose striking presence pulls Carter into the complications of a growing love. The partners soon find themselves matching wits with an elusive mastermind targeting the lifelines of a city’s public works.

In the same way that a John Grisham novel provides insights into the legal profession, I hoped to create an exciting plot while portraying the world of civil and professional engineering through Carter’s character and the world in which he travels, weaving in aspects such as engineered technology, private practice firms, engineering licensure, and promoting engineering careers to students during Engineers Week.

In these sidelights to the overall plot of the book, I did not want to whitewash the profession and portray Carter as an idealized figure. He fights self-doubts about his move into management to achieve a higher salary when his true passion is design, and health issues can at times undermine his confidence as he faces the stresses of his hunt for the terrorist. As one professional engineer reviewer of the novel said, “The book . . . portray[s] the engineering profession with all of its strengths, weaknesses, and foibles.”

My goal was to produce a thriller that offers an engaging story for all audiences while shining a spotlight on a profession rarely seen in entertainment.


Stefan Jaeger, CAE, serves as Managing Director of Member and Corporate Communications at the American Society of Civil Engineers in Reston, Virginia. His thriller The Jackhammer Elegies (www.TheJackhammerElegies.com) is available on Amazon.com (paperback and Kindle) and BN.com (Nook Book).

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Best science gifts of 2014

Every year at this time, ScienceThrillers.com posts a curated selection of gifts for the science/engineering/math/medicine enthusiasts on your list. (Click here for a peek at previous years’ suggestions.) Welcome and let us put some science in your shopping!

Click to see more science gift ideas in part 2

1. Science plush toys

The Particle Zoo

The Particle Zoo

Biochemies

Giant Microbes

I-Heart-Guts heart & kidney

2. Science jewelry

 
DNA Reversible Winter Scarf

3. Kitchen & Beverage

4. Biology of the self

5. Books published in 2014 by ScienceThrillers Media

  • Reversion by Amy Rogers ($14.95 paperback; $5.99 ebook). Superb medical thriller with real science. Great gift for Michael Crichton fans.
  • The Neanderthal’s Aunt by Gina DeMarco ($12.95 paperback; $4.99 ebook). Brilliant satire with heart. Perfect gift for women in science.
  • Amoeba Hugs and Other Nonsense by Katie McKissick ($14.99 paper; $2.99 Kindle ebook). Collection of science-themed cartoons. Appeals to anyone with an interest in science.

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Science proves it’s impossible to roast a perfect turkey

During this week of Thanksgiving, a little scientific stress relief from ScienceThrillers.com (originally written for my “Science in the Neighborhood” column at Inside Publications). At least, I took it as a relief that roast turkey perfection is an unreasonable goal. But maybe this news will only freak out some holiday chefs…

Are you wondering how to roast a whole turkey?

Science says, good luck with that.


 

The science of a perfect turkey

By Dr. Amy Rogers

Science and cooking go together.

Much of what happens in a chemistry lab resembles cooking. Chemists measure volumes and weights, they mix, heat, and transform one substance into another. Much of what happens in the kitchen is chemistry: salt crystals dissolve, water changes phase from liquid to gas, runny clear egg white stiffens into meringue.

I love the science-y aspects of cooking. I like knowing that olive oil has a lower smoke point than peanut oil, and that enzymes in fresh pineapple (but not canned) will prevent Jell-O from gelling.

So this month, when I’m faced with one of the toughest culinary challenges—cooking a whole turkey that’s done, but not dry—I sought advice from Harold McGee’s classic book, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.

McGee explains everything a kitchen scientist could want to know about cooking meat. He reveals that meat gets juicy at about 140 degrees, when shrinking protein fibers release water. He tells me that denaturation of myoglobin pigment explains the bleaching of fresh red meat when it’s cooked, and that the honeycomb structure of bones makes them insulators that slow the transfer of heat.

I’m enjoying all this until I get to a section titled “The Challenge of Whole Birds.”

In case you had any doubt, science has proven that roasting the perfect turkey is hard. The problem is, breast meat and leg meat are chemically very different and have different ideal cooking conditions.

In general, turkeys don’t fly much. They walk. So in life, the turkey’s leg muscles get a lot more exercise than the breast. The more a muscle is worked, the more connective tissue it has. Connective tissue, made mostly of the proteins collagen and elastin, is like a scaffold for the muscle. It provides support for the muscle fibers to pull against. Turkey breast doesn’t need much connective tissue. Turkey legs have quite a bit: two to four times more collagen than breast meat.

You can easily tell a high-collagen meat from a low-collagen one by cutting or chewing it. Collagen protein is solid and tough. Meats with little collagen in the muscle are naturally tender. A tough cut of meat can be made tender by cooking. If you heat collagen long enough, it dissolves into gelatin, which is tender and tasty. That’s why cheap, fibrous meats are delicious when stewed.

(Incidentally, this is a separate issue from “white” and “dark” meat, which is related not to how much a muscle gets used, but the way it is used. White muscle fibers are adapted for fast, brief spurts of activity. Red muscle fibers specialize in sustained activity. Ducks, which use their breast muscles to fly for hours at a time, have “red” breast meat.)

So the chef’s solution to tough turkey legs should be to cook the meat a long time. Unfortunately, muscle fibers respond to cooking the opposite of connective tissue. Collagen gets softer; muscle gets tougher. (Think of what happens to a low-collagen meat like beef tenderloin when it’s overcooked.)

This creates a dilemma for the cook who is preparing a whole turkey. Leg meat needs to be roasted to 165 degrees to get rid of the collagen. But above 155 degrees, breast meat dries out and loses its natural tenderness.

What to do?

One option is to cut the bird up and roast the legs and breasts separately. Another is to try to physically slow down the cooking of the breast. McGee suggests covering the breast with foil, or draping it with strips of pork fat, or before cooking to chill the breast with an ice pack while bringing the rest of the bird to room temperature.

I plan to use a chemical option. Brining can compensate for the tendency of the breast meat to dry out. To brine a turkey, soak it overnight (or longer) in a 3-6% solution of salt water. That’s about 2-4 tablespoons of salt per quart; you can add herbs, too.

Salt loosens the protein structure of muscle, tenderizing it, and allowing the fibers to absorb more water. (For you chemists out there, this is an effect of protein-salt interactions, not osmosis, which would do the opposite.) With that extra water on board, brined meat can tolerate some overcooking before it dries out. In the case of a whole turkey, this translates into moister breast meat and fully cooked legs.

Brining meat does leave a little salty taste, and the absorbed water dilutes the meat juices, making them less flavorful. But a proper Thanksgiving dinner ought to include other foods to balance this out.

That’s a task for the art of the kitchen, not the science.


Dr. Amy Rogers

Dr. Amy Rogers is a novelist, scientist, and educator. Learn more at her website AmyRogers.com

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