Sunday, February 17, 2013

Randy Shilts and the Quest to Find the Origins of AIDS

Randy Shilts and the Quest to Find the Origins of AIDS

RIP Randy Shilts (August 8, 1951 - February 17, 1994). Shilts was one of the first reporters to introduce the world to the AIDS epidemic. He died nineteen years ago today, February 17th, but his legacy will live forever, I think even outliving the discovery of an AIDS cure.

Shilts' book, And the Band Played On, chronicles the early years of the AIDS pandemic, 1980 - 1985, offering a first peek at the origins of the pandemic. In his new book, The Origins of AIDS, Canadian epidemiologist Jacques Pepin, picks up the story, capturing an in-depth picture of AIDS from its cradle until it became the pandemic we know today.

My review of The Origins of AIDS was originally published in A&U Magazine. Here it is again, in case you missed it.

As always, thanks for stopping by.

Alina Oswald
Writer/Photographer
Author of Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS
Featuring images by award winning photographer Kurt Weston

Half-Faces: A Self-Portrait with Dab the AIDS Bear. Photo by Alina Oswald

The Origins of AIDS

by Jacques Pepin

Cambridge University Press



The first officially documented AIDS cases surfaced in the United States in 1981. With the epidemic, so started the quest for AIDS origins, and also a cure. More than three decades later, a cure is not yet in sight, but the image of the cradle of AIDS, its time and place defined, has come into new focus, as have the trails the virus first took to take over the world.

There are several theories surrounding the origins of AIDS, some more controversial than others. The widely accepted theories involve a few common factors: Africa as the birthplace of the pandemic; a monkey hunter as its Patient Zero; a virus that jumped species from a chimp to a human, and then tens of millions of individuals.

While many books captured various facets of AIDS after its impact on the mainstream community, Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On offered a chronicle of the early years of AIDS. Following in Shilts’ footsteps, Canadian epidemiologist Jacques Pepin captures an even earlier picture of the AIDS pandemic through its catalysts—social factors that allowed HIV’s incendiary spread and the virus’s innate ability to start a pandemic. In the process, Pepin finds, possibly once and for all, the answers to questions we’ve been asking ourselves for decades:

What (and maybe who) helped the few initial HIV infections to set off a pandemic?
Why?
How could we let it happen?

In his new book, Pepin revisits “the origins of AIDS,” taking us on a journey back in time and place, to early twentieth century Central Africa, offering a scientific documentation of the evolution of AIDS from cradle to pandemic. Pepin follows this remarkable journey chronicling the many factors—including political, economical, and also human—that have facilitated the first few HIV infections to grow exponentially, travel from Africa to Europe and Haiti to reach the United States, and come to light in the summer of 1981.

In his book, Pepin explains his theory that the original HIV infections (from chimps to humans) were very few and thus impossible, by themselves, to set off a pandemic. Human and social factors helped as well: the en-masse immunizations for sleeping disease, while using same needles, and also the virus’s ability to initiate this pandemic under certain conditions. And it was possible because we/humans facilitated these conditions.

The language of Pepin’s book is academic, yet easily accessible to a lay, educated readership. Graphics, charts and maps emphasize the text content. The Origins of AIDS offers, for the first time, an in-depth look into the pandemic prior to 1981 and, with that, the missing pieces that complete the story of AIDS.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Finding the Cool Side of the Pillow: An Interview with Award-Winning Author Gregory G. Allen

Award-Winning Author Gregory G. Allen Helps Us Find the COOL SIDE OF THE PILLOW in a Candid Interview



Book Cover of Cool Side of the Pillow, a novel by Gregory G. Allen
Cool Side of the Pillow, a novel by Gregory G. Allen
He had me at Well With My Soul and, every since, I have been a fan of author Gregory G. Allen. What I found surprising about Allen's work is that it never stops surprising, in a very good way, that is. You never know what you're gonna get... into when starting reading one of Gregory G. Allen's books: an intriguing story of love and life, a story of survival, a seemingly everyday story that, as it turns out, it's not that everyday-life after all... One thing is for sure--you won't be able to put down the book, not until you finish reading it. And once you do, you start wondering when Allen's next book is gonna be out.

As it turns out, Allen has a new novel out and I couldn't wait to put my hands on it. And I have to say, the read kept me up at night. I couldn't put it down. I also had the pleasure to talk to Gregory G. Allen who helped me discover the Cool Side of the Pillow...


Alina Oswald: Hi Greg! Congratulations on your new novel, Cool Side of the Pillow! I'm always amazed by the variety of subjects you write about. How do you come up with ideas for your books? Is it a spur of the moment thing or do you plan in advance?

Gregory G. Allen: First off, I want to thank you for always being an early reader of my novels. I can't tell you how much I appreciate it. I really attempt to share different stories and not stick to one genre; usually covering different types of adverse situations. Sometimes I pull from my own life (some of Well With My Soul definitely came from my early years in New York) and other times I'll get a small glimpse of a story in my brain and it grows from there. I usually take the initial story and plot out where I want to go. However, once I start to write - the outline goes out the window and the story goes where it wants to by that point. :-)  


Talking about the books you've written so far, do you have any favorites? Why? Please explain.

Favorites are so hard to name - since they are all my children. Each of them hold a different special place for me and while working on them, they all become my favorite. Right now, I'm trying to work on a sequel to Well With My Soul that follows the life of the son ten years later. A few chapters are written and it may end up being a YA book. So for now, that entire story has come back so strongly into my mind that it's jumped back to the top of the list for me.


Before we get more into your new novel, Cool Side of the Pillow, I have to confess... As with any of your books I've read so far, each night I found myself eager to get back to Cool Side of the Pillow, to see what was going to happen next. I was drawn to the story, rooting for one character or another. That's because the story mirrors a quite familiar real life story, one that readers can entirely relate to. What's the secret to writing these kinds of stories? What does it take--beyond lots of work, talent and dedication, that is--to write these stories?

Wow! I really appreciate you saying that. I realize that many people want books that will take them completely out of their lives and transport them to another place. I tend to read (and write) those that are more grounded in reality so that readers can see themselves in the book. I like to add enough quirky tidbits that create the environment my characters live in and usually throw in something that will be opposite where a reader may believe it's going. Many times my characters are going through such personal journeys that I really want to give them a "happily ever after" or "happy for now"… but there's usually a rough road as they strive for that.


What inspired Cool Side of the Pillow?

I spent many years in children's theatre and thought that would make for an interesting scenario to drop a 'stranger' into the middle of it. I was very drawn to the concept of how perfect my protagonist's life looks on the outside, though when we pull back the layers - people have their own issues to deal with the outside world may not know. Parenting, marital, and even one's own sense of 'self'. I also champion those that attempt to re-invent themselves later in life and wanted to tell that story. There was also an opportunity to explore male/female friendships…if Harry from "When Harry Met Sally" was right saying men and women can't be friends. I'm one to buck the convention of 'write what you know' and prefer to create characters that I don't always know, but can research. Married to a college sweetheart, a dad, Jewish, wealthy - these are not things I know much about. ;-) 
   

For those who may not be familiar with it... can you explain the title of your new book?

You know when you go to bed and you toss and turn trying to get calm and comfortable? You flip the pillow over to the cool side so that you get that rush of 'ahhhhhh' from the cool side. It's a ritual many people go through. Zach Kleinmann in my book is attempting to find that in his entire life. His four-year-old is starting preschool, his wife is married to her work, and he feels since leaving his job to be the stay-at-home dad--he has no way of defining who he is or what gives him that 'ahhhhhhh, this is nice' feeling.


Do you 'root' for any of the characters in Cool Side of the Pillow? Or maybe, because you create them all, there is no favorite?

While the book is told through the first POV of Zach, I always fall in love with my secondary characters in my books. (Hahn from Patchwork Of Me actually SPOKE to me once and said I had to write her story in the sequel to that book: that's just how crazy I am.) In this case, it's Ginger. I think she is Santa Claus and Mother Theresa all rolled into one! She is a very giving and caring person that teaches everyone to stay young at heart, but has much baggage of her own she's been carrying through life.


As your fans have learned to expect from your books, there's also a subtle element of unknown, intrigue, mystery, maybe even potential danger... Why do you choose to include it in your stories?

I think we're drawn in life to those odd stories on the news. The ones that make us go "what is going on there?" Look at the story of Manti Te'o and how we're all interested in that. Things happen in people's hidden lives that we don't always know about just by looking at them. So I love to add those qualities to my books…not making them farfetched, but something that still intrigues the reader. As Zach becomes friends with Ginger and is pulled into her world of theater friends and such, he also begins to find out more and more about her past and secrets. I think it adds another layer to the story as well as adds depth to their friendship.


The subtle element I mention above becomes even more... intriguing when part of a story like the Cool Side of the Pillow. Maybe because readers don't really expect it. Don't you think? [I ask this because I think most people can relate to the story. After all, Cool Side of the Pillow is a... family story, mainstream, in a way, or at first sight. Yet, for me, the element of suspense, of intrigue, is Ginger's house itself, and also Ginger's story]

So glad you pull that part out. If readers could dictate where each page was going, it wouldn't be as fun for me as the writer. And come on…who would expect a book with a soundtrack of Neil Diamond's Greatest Hits? :-)


I think your stories do have one thing in common. Well, more than one thing. They are extraordinary reads. Also, they are about the journeys characters have to take in their lives. These fictional journeys mirror our everyday life journeys. Not only that, but have a pay-it-forward effect on readers, I think. That's because the stories stick around in readers' minds long after "The End" flashes on the e-book reading devices or on the last paper page. The journeys characters take in your books can very well serve as... role models in everyday life. Don't you think?

You are making me feel all sorts of good with this interview and I can't tell you how much I appreciate it. It's funny you say "pay-it-forward" as that is one of my hashtags on twitter and something I attempt to do in my life. Perhaps I didn't even know I was putting that into my books. I do write about personal journeys: I can't help it. And I attempt to cover diverse topics to hit different communities in our world. They also all have family in common: those we are born into and those we create. I look back and notice that in each of my books, how we create community/family no matter who we are. We're all searching for that group to lift us up or in the case of Zach who grew up without a father…someone to approve the choices he has made in life.


This is especially true for Cool Side of the Pillow. Maybe because of the story it tells.

Parts of me can relate to Zach. I mean, he starts out so resigned to his life as husband/dad that he has completely let himself go at the start of the book. Weight gain. Doesn't shave. Doesn't seem to care. Perhaps just complacent in life. I honestly think he's a 'good guy'. Better than most of the protagonist I've written. Just a normal guy attempting to keep everyone happy while he deals with it all. He has his wife's favorite drink waiting for her and prepared to massage her feet for god's sake! (Yet she tells him to go out with his friends instead.) But it's those jolts in life that change things and pull the rug out from under our feet that causes us to make choices to take the reins and do something with our lives. And hopefully readers will not only pull for him, but relate to that as well: no matter the gender reading the book.


Where can readers find your book?

As publishing continues to change, ASD Publishing has decided to put this book out just as an e-book in February. Who knows, if it sells well and we see a desire for a print copy, it may go to print next. But as the company compared what happened with different titles of theirs in 2012, they've decided to go e-book with this one. Also - it will be an Amazon exclusive (at first) so readers can find it on the Kindle in February.


Do you have any book events/signings lined up?

Being an eBook, I won't be doing the book tour like I did with the first two. (I traveled to Maine with Patchwork of Me to follow the plight of our heroine in that one.) So hopefully I'll be doing much more virtual tours and signings with this one!


Any ideas for upcoming books or sequels of books you've already written you'd like to share with us?

As mentioned, a YA sequel to Well With My Soul. A sequel to Patchwork that will probably be told in two voices: Sara's and Hahn's to follow both of their stories. But next year I hope to have a novel out based on a stage musical I wrote years ago. The story is about a biracial teacher living in Georgia in 1963 who wants to cross the color barrier and teach in an integrated school. A very historical summer with the civil rights march on Washington that year. I have my first draft finished and hope to get it out next year! Just a mere 51 years after that summer occurred. But what a great time to share it when we have a biracial president leading our country now.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

New Orleans on Superbowl Sunday... and Any Other Day

New Orleans on Superbowl Sunday... and Any Other Day

It's Superbowl Sunday 2013! I don't watch the Superbowl, but have to mention it because this year, 2013, it takes place in one of my favorite cities--New Orleans.

If New York is the Big Apple, New Orleans is the Big Easy, the city of vampires and legends, the city of Ann Rice, of fabulous food, of Mardi Gras and, this year, of the Superbowl. New Orleans, or Crescent City, is sometimes called City of the Dead, thanks to the related vampire legends and stories.

This year's Mardi Gras falls on February 12th. While Mardi Gras parades have already started, they will pause for Superbowl week only to resume on February 6th.

There is more to say about New Orleans, also referred to as NOLA, so let's take a look at this wonderful city:


New Orleans: City Scape. Photo Copyright 2011 by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
New Orleans: Jackson Square Park. Photo Copyright 2011 by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.

On the streets on Crescent City one may meet people posing at statues at the corner of the street. This man was sitting on a newspaper box, just off Jackson Square.
Man dressed in costume on New Orleans Streets. Copyright 2011 by Alina Oswald.
Man/People posing as statues on the streets of New Orleans. Copyright 2011 by Alina Oswald.

Cajun food at the market in New Orleans, Louisiana:

Cajun Canned Food at NOLA farmers markets. Copyright 2011 by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
New Orleans is known for its fantastic food. Here are a few jars of hot Cajun (pickled) eggs at a Crescent City farmers market. Cajun Canned Food at NOLA farmers markets. Copyright 2011 by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
A visit at the Old New Orleans Rum Distillery, just outside Crescent City:

Old Fashion Phone at NOLA Distillary. Copyright 2011 by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Who knows what this is? A picture of an old fashion phone at NOLA's Old New Orleans Rum Distillery. Copyright 2011 by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.

NOLA Distillary-NEW New Orleans Rum bottles and testing glasses. Copyright 2011 by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
It was an interesting visit, the distillery visit. They offer spiked iced-tea upon arrival (five kinds, too) and as many when you are ready to leave. You can order their famous rum on the way out. NOLA Distillery-NEW New Orleans Rum bottles and testing glasses. Copyright 2011 by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.

Tour bus throughout the entire Crescent City, including the Lower Ninth Ward:

Ruins of houses destroyed by Hurricane Katrina were still there, as were new houses, under constructions, built to ease evacuation during a hurricane or other natural disasters.


Ward Nineth in NOLA. Copyright 2011 by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Ward Ninth in NOLA. Copyright 2011 by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved. (picture taken from a moving bus, while touring the other parts of NOLA)

The Lower Ward Nineth: house remains after hurricane Katrina. Copyright 2011 by Alina Oswald
The Lower Ward Ninth: house remains after hurricane Katrina. Copyright 2011 by Alina Oswald.

The statue of Joan d'Arc at an intersection in Crescent City:


New Orleans' cemeteries are famous. They are cities themselves, though locals advise to visit only during the day and don't stray too far from the group or main gate.


New Orleans Cemeteries. Copyright 2011 by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Angel statue by an iron cross in New Orleans famous cemeteries. Cemetery photography by Alina Oswald.
New Orleans Cemeteries. Copyright 2011 by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Rows and rows of graves in NOLA famous cemeteries. Cemetery photography by Alina Oswald.

Walking from Treme to French Quarter, along Louis Armstrong Park, I spotted two dogs quite interested in whatever was going on inside the park.

Two dogs on NOLA Street, peeking through the fence at Louis Armstrong Park. Copyright 2011 by Alina Oswald.
Curious Pair: Two dogs on NOLA Street, peeking through the fence at Louis Armstrong Park. Copyright 2011 by Alina Oswald.
Mardi Gras Time: Parade Reflections. Copyright 2011 by Alina Oswald.
Mardi Gras parades start way before Fat Tuesday. I caught one on Canal Street, going back to the hotel. Mardi Gras Pre-Season: Parade Reflections. Copyright 2011 by Alina Oswald.


Young woman dressed up in costume and mask waves from a pre-Mardi Gras Parade on Canal Street, New Orleans. Copyright 2011 by Alina Oswald.
Young woman dressed up in costume and mask waves from a pre-Mardi Gras Parade on Canal Street, New Orleans. Copyright 2011 by Alina Oswald.
Mirror Reflections: Mardi Gras Beads. New Orleans photography by Alina Oswald.
Mirror Reflections: Mardi Gras Beads. New Orleans photography by Alina Oswald.


Mardi Gras Masks & Colors. Mardi Gras Photography by Alina Oswald.
Mardi Gras Masks & Colors. Mardi Gras Photography by Alina Oswald.


Mardi Gras lace ribbons decorate a lamp post on the corner of Royal Street, New Orleans. New Orleans photography by Alina Oswald.
ROYAL: Mardi Gras lace ribbons decorate a lamp post on the corner of Royal Street, New Orleans. New Orleans photography by Alina Oswald.
Note: If you visit New Orleans and are interested in taking a Ghosts and Vampires Tour at night in the French Quarters, check out the phenomenal Lord Chaz! He is absolutely fantastic and you'll be in for a real (vampire-ish) treat!

So... are you ready for Mardi Gras? I'm sure you are set for this Sunday.

Thanks for visiting!

Alina Oswald
Writer/Photographer/Author
Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS