Book Group Report: Medicine

Our topic for discussion this month was medicine. Two months ago, when we were choosing which medical book to read, the nominations were varied – from real surgeons and psychiatrists or psychologists to fictional surgeons and psychiatrists or psychologists…

  • Saturday – Ian McEwan
  • Outbreak by Robin Cook    Not a red hair in sight – he is not THAT Robin Cook
  • Fragile Lives – Stephen Westaby (which I reviewed here)
  • Case Histories by Freud
  • Rainy brain, sunny brain by Elaine Fox (about Optimism & Pessimism)
  • Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks (800 pages!)

…plus a thriller about ebola. No prizes for guessing which one came out of the hat!

Outbreak by Robin Cook

The first thing was to dispel any lingering hopes that this book had been written by the late red-haired Labour politician. The Robin Cook who wrote this and many other thrillers is American and looks like this (left).

Decades ago, I read quite a few of Cook’s thrillers. The one he’s most famous for is probably Coma – which was made into a film starring Michael Douglas and Genevieve Bujold and was about “accidental comas” induced on the operating table leading to organ farming. That was actually quite creepy as medical thrillers go.

I was sure I’d read Outbreak, but once I started reading it was clear that I hadn’t. I’d been mixing it up with Outbreak the movie – which was based on a section of Douglas Preston’s non-fiction book The Hot Zone which I have read. How confusing!

Both Outbreak and The Hot Zone have the ebola virus at their heart, but where Preston’s book is journalistic,  Outbreak is a novel of pure airport cheese of the most enjoyable, yet cliched type. It predates The Hot Zone by 8 years, being published in 1987.

The main character is Dr Marissa Blumenthal, a young doctor who has recently qualified to join Atlanta’s renowned Centre for Disease Control, or CDC where she’ll be a field officer. Marissa is tiny; one hundred pounds and five feet tall (something we’re never allowed to forget). She’s out with colleagues when she gets a call, she’s about to be thrown in at the deep end:

The call was switched to the duty officer. “Congratulation,” he said jovially. “There has been an epidemic aid request. We had a call from the California State Epidemiologist, who would like CDC help on a problem in L.A. It’s an outbreak of unknown but apparently serious illness in a hospital called the Richter Clinic. We’ve gone ahead and made a reservation for you on Delta’s flight to the coast that leaves at 1:10 A.M. We’ve arranged hotel accommodation at a place called the Tropic Motel. Sounds divine. Anyway, good luck!”

… Those poor, unsuspecting people in California had called the CDC expecting to get an epidemiologic expert, and instead, they were going to get her, Marissa Blumenthal. All five feet of her. (p40)

This is the first of a series of small outbreaks of ebola that occur all over the USA – seemingly unconnected, except the initial victim each time is a doctor. Marissa begins to investigate, Her colleagues think she is mad, including her boss – but she’s five feet of feistiness and is determined to find the source of the virus, she even gets colleague Tad to take her into the high security lab where the reference samples of these viruses are kept under the strictest control, something they could be sacked for. Marissa can’t drop it, and what she eventually uncovers is a shocking conspiracy, and she finds her life in peril – (all five feet of it!) – but not from ebola this time.

Outbreak was scary medical hokum that did keep most of us turning the pages, and it generated quite a lot of discussion. Even book groups can relax, read and enjoy something less literary sometimes!  (7/10)

Rather than give you a link to the book, below you’ll find the a cuddly ebola virus!  Giant Microbes makes a whole host of these – we have a collection of cuddly bacteria, viruses and yeasts at school which we use for the year 5 topic of microbes.


Source: Own copy

Robin Cook, Outbreak (Pan, 1987) paperback 366 pages.

4 thoughts on “Book Group Report: Medicine

  1. I wish I was part of your book club! As you know, I love medical-themed reads. A really good book that touches on Ebola and other outbreaks is Spillover by David Quammen.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Thanks Rebecca. Re Spillover – I’ve heard of that book before, I think Teresa at Shelflove liked it… I shall check it out.

  2. Sounds like enjoyable hokum Annabel – I think it does you good to relax as a reader occasionally (hence my fondness for Golden Age crime!) And I can’t imagine ebola being cuddly – not ever!!

  3. AnnaBookBel says:

    We’ve got e coli, cold virus, chicken pox, diarrhoea, yeast, salmonella, flu, malaria amongst others too. They do provoke great discussion in class and make a great display for that topic! 🙂

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