by Patricia Thomas (Public Affairs, $27.50)

BIG SHOT, science writer Patricia Thomas' timely contribution


Book briefs

Conflicts among those fighting AIDS; another dark pearl from Joyce Carol Oates.


by Patricia Thomas (Public Affairs, $27.50)

BIG SHOT, science writer Patricia Thomas' timely contribution to the growing catalog of works on the politics and science behind U.S. AIDS policy, is an exhaustive and damning overview of the forces that have thwarted the search for an AIDS vaccine for nearly 20 years. Starting in 1983, when French and American researchers first isolated the virus that causes AIDS, and concluding in 2000, when 7,900 volunteers signed up for Stage III clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, Thomas meticulously traces the paths of scientists, biotech firms, and the federal health bureaucracy to paint a detailed and unsettling portrait of the still unfulfilled search for a cure to a disease that infects 16,000 every day.

As Big Shot makes clear, politics, as much as scientific limitations, foiled efforts to find a vaccine. Conservative Reaganites and gay activists formed unlikely coalitions to oppose vaccine research in the 1980s: the former because they didn't believe AIDS affected "ordinary" people (they would soon discover how wrong they were); the latter because they felt funds that went toward a vaccine would be money taken away from treatments like AZT and drug "cocktails," which allow thousands of AIDS patients to lead stable, relatively normal lives. Trials were also thwarted by a lack of government funding, often-unfounded safety concerns (would the vaccine make people more vulnerable to AIDS?), and indifferent pharmaceutical companies, which knew that drugs that must be taken every day—like AIDS treatments—are far more profitable than a shot that can be administered only once.

Thomas sometimes gets overexcited by the minutiae of vaccine testing and clinical trials; a chapter on something called "naked DNA," for example, will zoom over the heads of anyone more than five years removed from freshman biology. And her black-and-white casting of virtuous scientists and villainous bureaucrats reveals Thomas' bias against allowing politics to determine policy. But her clear-eyed portrayal of the personalities—both towering and petty—and political forces that have shaped the AIDS debate makes Big Shot a must read addendum for anyone interested in understanding why, after AIDS has claimed more than 22 million lives, scientists are still searching for a cure.

Erica C. Barnett


by Joyce Carol Oates (Carroll & Graf, $15.95)

ANGST, passion and wicked secrets drip from the confessional narrative of Beasts, Joyce Carol Oates' exquisitely gothic novella that unfurls its tale of horror within a breezy 139 pages.

The least damning secret is that 20-year-old Gillian Bauer burns for Andre Harrow, her married creative-writing professor at Catamount College, a modest-sized New England school that experiences a tumult of arson, anorexia, and suicide during these latter months of 1975. Gillian's not exactly sure why she loves this cigarillo-smoking, D.H. Lawrence-worshipping bohemian whose most striking feature is his eyes, "steely, luminous gray-green, looking as if they might glow in the dark." She only knows he pierces her so when he offers her writing advice ("go for the jugular") and the nickname Philomela, after the mythological figure who metamorphosed into a bird following her rape and mutilation.

Magnifying the creepiness—and eroticism—of this story is Andre's wife, Dorcas, a voluptuous French sculptress of shocking, primal totems (one features a baby's head pushing forth from a vagina) who's been rumored to adopt Catamount stud- ents for her and her husband's suspect sexual explorations. The fateful afternoon she spots Gillian spying on her in the post office near her and Andre's home on the perfectly named Briery Lane, she confronts the petrified girl by fingering her hair and murmuring, "Belle. Tr賠belle."

With works ranging from the immortalized short story "Where Have You Been? Where Are You Going?" to the tome-ish Blonde, 2000's National Book Award-nominated fictional bio of Marilyn Monroe, Oates has repeatedly proven her mastery at spinning a midnight-dark yarn. Though her latest is more about ensnaring a genre than the lurking truths of existence, Beasts offers no less than past successes with its venturing into the instinctual—and sometimes brutal—animal realm of the human psyche. As in some of Oates' other texts, a few patches of wild prose could benefit from a bit more cultivation. But send an editor into the fields; Oates has more substantial tasks in life, like the staggeringly rapid production of quality fiction.

David Massengill

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