The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum
Filed under: Book Reviews,General Reading,Reader of the Stack Goes Scientific — Ibis at 7:40 pm on Saturday, October 29, 2011

From the back cover:
“Deborah Blum, writing with the high style and skill for suspense that is characteristic of the very best mystery fiction, shares the untold story of how poison rocked Jazz Age New York City. In The Poisoner’s Handbook Blum draws from highly original research to track the fascinating, perilous days when a pair of forensic scientists began their trailblazing chemical detective work, fighting to end an era when untraceable poisons offered an easy path to the perfect crime. ”

My thoughts:
I loved this book, the story of the two men who drove the formation of a scientific medical examiner’s office in Prohibition-era New York City. A great mix of chemistry, interesting anecdotes of purposeful and accidental poisonings, political wrangling between several mayors and civil servants who just want to do the job they’re mandated to perform, the effects of Prohibition, the Depression, and the burgeoning machine age upon the populace. There could have been a bit more chemistry and biology, a little less detail about various animal experiments, but overall I think Blum struck the perfect balance to keep readers interested. A fascinating look at what things were like prior to regulated industry (proof to all those crazy libertarians that industry can’t be trusted to look after the best interests of people). A testament to two great men who worked tirelessly not just for knowledge for its own sake but in order to help people. There’s just so much material for thought here, but the presentation makes it a quick and easy read. Great book for a book club to read.

My rating: 8.5/10

King Henry VI, Part 3 by William Shakespeare
Filed under: Book Reviews,Infinite TBR,Reader of the Stack Goes Canonical — Ibis at 11:25 pm on Sunday, August 28, 2011

From the back cover:
“In the Third Part Shakespeare extends his essay on monarchical politics by contrasting two kings, the good but ineffective Henry VI with his rival, the sensual and victorious Edward IV. He also offers more evidence of the perils of aristocratic factionalism in a series of scenes that display the grievous wounds caused by the Wars of the Roses. Here we watch the savage death of the Duke of York at the hands of Queen Margaret, the moving lament of King Henry as he witnesses the slaughter of the battle of Towton where the Lancastrians were defeated, and finally, Henry’s death at the hands of Richard of Gloucester, later King Richard III.”

My thoughts:
The penultimate chapter of the War of the Roses tetralogy (or pentalogy if you count Richard II where the whole thing begins, though that was a prequel of sorts). Warwick, won over to the Yorkist cause and then left hung out to dry when Edward changes his mind about his embassy to France to woo the French princess, dominates the play–at least until Act IV. We get the set up for Richard III as Richard proves both ambitious and bloodthirsty. Lots of back and forth as first one party then the other holds sway, with tragic losses on both sides, this would be pretty exciting to watch as a play even if we know how it all turns out.
My rating: 9/10

Timon of Athens by William Shakespeare
Filed under: Book Reviews,Infinite TBR,Reader of the Stack Goes Canonical — Ibis at 11:11 pm on Sunday, July 24, 2011

From the back cover:
“A complex exploration of a corrupt, moneyed society, and Timon himself as a rich and philanthropic nobleman who is forced to recognize the inherent destructiveness of the Athenian society from which he retreats in disgust and rage.”

My thoughts:
This play was in some ways a lot like Coriolanus: a once-well respected citizen becomes an hated exile and is requested to come back into the fold. But the similarity ends there. Timon begins the play as a generous friend and benefactor–he’s willing to give everything he has away to his friends, willing to patronise the arts, willing to pay his servants well, willing to entertain even the lowest beggar at his table. But he must borrow to live this lifestyle and his addiction to generosity is as bad as an addiction to gambling or drink. He’s brought up short when it turns out he’s run out of money. But that’s all right, he thinks–these friends to whom he’s lavishly gifted will surely return his good will and loan him some money. But he’s wrong. Were these men just using him all along and now have no use for him? or are they just being wise with their own money, knowing that Timon can’t be trusted to pay them back? Either way, they all turn him down and he loses it. He’s angry and trusts no one to be honest. In a moment he turns from philanthropist to misanthrope. He ends up trying to be a hermit outside the city, but no one will actually leave him alone. He finds some gold, but he doesn’t want his old life back. It’s too late. The last part of the play is a study of the kind of indiscriminate bitterness against the world that takes hold and doesn’t let go. Not one of the best plays, and one gets the sense that there’s a whole subplot with Alcibiades basically missing.
My rating: 7/10

Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
Filed under: Book Reviews,Infinite TBR,Reader of the Stack Goes Canonical — Ibis at 8:14 pm on Thursday, June 16, 2011

From the back cover:
“Written in a time when criminal biographies enjoyed great success, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders details the life of the irresistible Moll and her struggles through poverty and sin in search of property and power. Born in Newgate Prison to a picaresque mother, Moll propels herself through marriages, periods of success and destitution, and a trip to the New World and back, only to return to the place of her birth as a popular prostitute and brilliant thief. The story of Moll Flanders vividly illustrates Defoe’s themes of social mobility and predestination, sin, redemption and reward. ”

My thoughts:
Moll Flanders is one of the great characters of English literature. In one way, she illustrates how dependent women were upon men before the feminist movements of the past couple of centuries, in another, she herself is a proto-feminist doing her best to survive in a patriarchal culture. Born to a criminal in prison, she must work for her keep from the start. She has ambition, but it is not the ambition of, say, a Becky Sharpe. She just wants to live comfortably and work for herself rather than as a servant. She is blessed with intelligence, a likeable personality, a bit of beauty, and some fortunate occurrences that happen when she needs them the most (bad fortune comes her way too, so it doesn’t seem too contrived). Though she calls herself a whore, in fact, looking on her with liberated, twenty-first century eyes, the closest she gets is living for a few years as a kept mistress (without many other options I might add). She marries a few times, but one gets the impression that this is out of practical necessity rather than desire. Marriage (as long as it’s good) grants stability and respectability. Once poverty drives her to take up thievery though, she’s perfectly content to apply herself and her talents to it as a career that provides both her and her friend with a living. One could imagine Moll dropped into modern times taking up a far less ethically dubious profession. Though at the end she protests her true repentance, there is really little change to her character. She doesn’t allow herself to feel the shame and remorse that religion and men would demand of her. And it would seem that Providence doesn’t require it since she finishes up happy and well off.
My Rating: 9/10

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