The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

In the days before forensic scientists roamed the globe, poisoners frequently got away with murder. Arsenic was frequently used in situations where a relative lived beyond their expiration date for the inheritors, and thus nicknamed “the inheritance powder.” It was added to drinks (think port, like in the movie Arsenic & Old Lace, a Cary Grant classic) and virtually undetectable by the victim.
The book details the career of Charles Norris (the first Chuck Norris?!) as medical examiner of New York City, a position where the mayor slashed his department’s budget and thus Norris personally funded such things as car service for his agents to get to crime scenes, laboratory equipment, etc. Working in tandem with Norris was his chief toxicologist, Alexander Gettler. The two of them set a high standard for forensic science that permeated the country after Gettler taught a new crop of Gettler Boys the methods of ascertaining whether a poison was present in a corpse.
Along with all the standard poisons (arsenic, carbon monoxide, chloroform), we are enthralled by tales of radium poisoning of the girls who painted glow-in-the-dark clockfaces (and who wet the brushes with their lips before each stroke, ingesting radium which weakened their bones and slowly destroyed them). Also thallium, which rendered its victims hairless before killing them.
During this time, Prohibition went into effect, and the amount of poisonings by wood alcohol skyrocketed. Norris was an outspoken critic of the government’s deliberate poisoning of wood alcohol, and in his own way helped to generate momentum to overturn the amendment.
Enjoyable book that may make you think twice about eating or drinking anything that wasn’t prepared by your own hand.

Top Picks of 2009

I forgot to do the annual wrap-up of favorites from the previous year. Halfway through 2010 already, and 2009 is a dimly-lit corridor with titles I barely remember. That said, here’s what I can conjure from the haze for books I enjoyed reading the most in 2009:
Definitely:
1. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
2. Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
3. The Tanners by Robert Walser
4. Nothing Right by Antonya Nelson
5. Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland
6. I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley
7. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments by Roland Barthes
8. The Tin Drum by Günter Grass
Runners-Up:
1. What to Eat by Marion Nestle
2. Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles
3. The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald
4. Awesome by Jack Pendarvis
5. The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro
6. Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

The Gin Closet

I cut people slack on their first novel, but I also expect substance under the flash. Jamison is getting kudos for her first book, and while it is very readable, it lacks something to dig your hands into and grip. The somewhat tired theme of granddaughter (Stella) taking care of Lucy in New York, with Stella’s mom MIA, only showing up at the end when it’s too late, whispered rumors of Stella’s hidden and missing aunt Matilda, secreted away from view, Stella and Tom burst into Matilda’s mobile home in Nevada to tell her the news of her mother’s death before the formal estate letter arrives. Matilda a hopeless drunk, but who recovers then relapses then recovers, etc. Tilly’s son via prostitution, Abe, in SF, Tilly & Stella move out to his Harrison St. loft to start anew. Stella fucking around with her cousin Abe (too obvious). Maudlin ending of Tilly killing herself. The air slowly deflates from my balloon of hope for Jamison.

I am Not Sidney Poitier

This book has been getting some serious press lately, and after the 5th mention in as many days, I caved to peer pressure and reserved a copy from the library. And it deserves every ounce of attention it’s received– a delight to the mind and imminently readable. Everett even writes himself into the text as a character, and name drops some of his other books.
Basic plot is a poor LA boy named “Not Sidney Poitier” by his mother, and who ends up looking exactly like Sidney Poitier, swept away to Atlanta by Ted Turner when Poitier’s mother dies since she was one of Turner’s biggest shareholders and sitting on a minor fortune. An avid reader, he finds little of value in high school, drops out, buys his way into Morehouse. He collects a light skinned girlfriend along the way, is taken home to her parents as a black wedge during Thanksgiving, eavesdrops on the parents finding out about his wealth and takes Everett’s advice to have fun with that knowledge and mess with the parents. Booted out of T-day dinner, he flies home, loads up his car for attempt #2 to return to LA, and gets lost in Alabama. In Smuteye, Alabama his car breaks down, he is asked by three hungry ladies to help them build a church, he gets $50k from Podgy (his accountant), resulting in an innocent lookalike being murdered.
A whirlwind of entertainment and good writing.

Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime

“Smoking new book!” screams Tina Brown, and Don Imus swears he “read each and every word.” Do these count as reviews? If so, I don’t feel guilty about my blog being lackadaisical about review quality.
Game Change is a book shat out quickly after the 2008 election, and the authors claim hours and hours of research with most sources. I was disappointed in the book, comparing it to the gold standard in this arena, What it Takes, the epic tome about the 1988 election. I’m not overly fond of the “happily ever after” ending, where Obama sincerely extends the offer of Secretary of State to Clinton.
It was as much information as I’d care to ingest about Palin, oddly cool and collected and yet so out of her league. The McCain bits were slightly interesting– his theory of gut instincts and not caring about the details of the campaign. Most of the book was consumed by the Obama/Hillary story, Obama’s backroom Senate meetings where the old guard pushed him to run but they could not formally endorse him due to the Clinton dynasty that had raised so much money for the cause. Hillary’s disastrously run campaign, with power struggles from within and the omnipresent question of “What to do about Bill”.
It’s a tolerable book, but you probably picked up most of the information during the election unless you were braindead at the time. If you’re looking for in-depth exposure of how a political campaign is run, check out What it Takes.

The Girl Who Played With Fire

Oh the guilty pleasure of getting lost in a book; I was especially guilty this weekend, San Francisco filled with sunshine and everyone out playing, me holed up on the sunporch, devouring this in one fell swoop. Does this count as “beach reading” because the story is such a whirlpool, sucking me in?
The story picks up where Girl with a Dragon Tattoo left off; Lisbeth Salander the badass 4’11” waif comfortable in her billions of stolen kroner, doing good in her own way in Grenada by watching a man try to kill his wife in a hurricane. She drifts back to Sweden, buys an apartment, buys all the accoutrements of home life. (This might be my only gripe– holy crap there are pages and pages devoted to the details of her furnishing her new life.)
Mikael Blomkvist’s magazine is working on a story about the sex trade, girls from Estonia ending up in Sweden and systematically raped for small profits. The expose starts to sniff around a character named Zala, and things get dangerous. Meanwhile, Lisbeth’s guardian, Nels Bjurman (famously tattooed by Lisbeth in the 1st book of the series) begins to hatch a plot to be rid of her.
Suddenly, Lisbeth is accused by the police and the media of a triple homicide, and is on the run. Enter the blonde giant who feels no pain. Enter Lisbeth’s famous boxer pal, Paolo, who rescues her girlfriend Mimmi from the giant. Enter Zala, Lisbeth’s dad who was disfigured when Lisbeth, age 12, doused him in gasoline and set him ablaze for nearly killing her mother.
Good stuff, albeit a bit wordy in parts.
Lisbeth lives to see another book– part 3 coming soon!