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HAF Book Club: July poll and discussion

Started by Sandra Craft, June 23, 2020, 07:20:09 AM

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Sandra Craft

Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of an Iranian American at Home and Abroad, by Firoozeh Dumas. A collection of humorous vignettes by the author of Funny in Farsi, primarily centered on the misadventures of her Iranian immigrant family.  (256 pages)

Monster of God, by David Quammen.  The significance of alpha predators (specifically, in this book, the Asiatic lion, crocodiles, tigers and brown bears) and the humans who live alongside them.  (528 pages)

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard.  Dillard's personal narrative highlights one year's exploration on foot in the Virginia region through which Tinker Creek runs. The result is an exhilarating tale of nature and its seasons.  (288 pages)

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum.  The Poisoner's Handbook opens one riveting murder case after another in this chronicle of Jazz Age chemical crimes where the real-life twists and turns are as startling as anything in fiction.  (319 pages)

A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons, by Robert M. Sapolsky.  Two stories in one: the documentary of a life studying and living with baboons in the wild; and the memoirs of living in some of the wilder parts of Africa.   (304 pages)

Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, by Lydia Kang and Nate Pederson.  Looking back with fascination, horror, and not a little dash of dark, knowing humor, Quackery recounts the lively, at times unbelievable, history of medical misfires and malpractices.  (344 pages)

Annals of the Former World, John McPhee.  The Pulitzer Prize-winning view of the continent, across the fortieth parallel and down through 4.6 billion years.  (720 pages)

The Sky's the Limit, by Anna Magnusson.  In 2004, Vicky Jack completed the Seven Summits - the highest mountains in each of the seven continents. Whilst pursuing her climbing dream, she also carried on a high-flying career. This book tells her story.  (212 pages)

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: a memoir, by Haruki Murakami.  Based on Murakami's journal about training for the NYC marathon, it's about writing, running and how they intersect.   (188 pages)



"Life is short, and it is up to you to make it sweet."  Sarah Louise Delany


Looks like Poisoner's Handbook, it looked interesting. I'm almost done with a book and will start this one in a few days.
Always question all authorities because the authority you don't question is the most dangerous... except me, never question me.

Sandra Craft

Quote from: Davin on July 02, 2020, 09:28:12 PM
Looks like Poisoner's Handbook, it looked interesting.

I do like reading about murder cases.  I've just ordered my copy, should have it in a week.


"Life is short, and it is up to you to make it sweet."  Sarah Louise Delany


This is another of those mostly case work books. While I liked it a lot there isn't much to say about it. The cases were presented well, and the author lead the reader through the process in the same way the investigators went through them. There were many asides that helped to give context to what was being talked about.

The book focused around a big change in forensic science around poisons in New York after the turn of the century. It wasn't simply new techniques and advancing science that changed, it was also how important medical examiners were and their role in police investigations. It was a long and treacherous road to get from a medical examiner showing up drunk on a scene and dozens of experts all contradicting each other without the use of data or evidence to making it a reliable means of evidence gathering.

It was Charles Norris who was put into the position after some shitty political games by the mayor, who took the position and turned the whole field around, not just for New York. Case after case Norris improved the process and made it more and more reliable.

Most of the book focuses around Norris, but there was some before and some after which helped to show how Norris changed things for the better and how his work carried on after his death.

Anyway, it was a good read, I'd recommend it.

Now that that's out of the way. There were also parts in the book that made me say "what the fuck" out loud. You'd think that we'd have made some progress since then... I guess we have, but it's not much.

The current leadership of the time for New York were forced by public demand to make changes in the medical examiner position. It seemed that the people wanted qualified people working in that position, not the mayors cousin's drunk friend or whoever else the mayor owed a small favor to. But because they were assholes, the leaders decided to put it off for three years. Like, "hey we're doing something so stop complaining." But they're real intentions were that by the next election, the new mayor would be all like, "fuck that, I do what I want." And that's what happened, but in a very stupid and political way trying to get the applicants for the position put in jail. I feel like we're almost back to that kind of political environment.

Then there was the unregulated free market putting out products like radioactive soda out into the public. I also feel like we're moving back to that.

Any way, rant over.
Always question all authorities because the authority you don't question is the most dangerous... except me, never question me.

Sandra Craft

I'm about halfway thru, and my favorite parts so far are also Norris and Gettler turning the world of forensics around.   I've also been highlighting the "nothing ever changes" bits for my own review.  In addition to the political shenanigans you mentioned, I was annoyed and amused by Typhoid Mary -- literally doing everything she'd been told not to do, then screaming and cursing about being oppressed as she's dragged back into involuntary quarantine!


"Life is short, and it is up to you to make it sweet."  Sarah Louise Delany

Sandra Craft

My FB review:

The Poisoner's Handbook: murder and the birth of forensic medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum.  Right off the top, I loved this book.  It was my "bedtime book" and I never managed to stop reading at just one chapter a night.

My hot take on it: chemistry is fascinating and Prohibition was profoundly stupid.  The book advances, by poisons discovered, from the years 1915 thru 1935 while also chronicling the creation of the first medical examiners office to research those poisons and assist investigations into crimes committed with them.

(If you're curious, the poisons are, in order: chloroform, wood alcohol, cyanides, arsenic, mercury, carbon monoxide (this one gets 2 chapters), methyl alcohol, radium, ethyl alcohol, and thallium.)

Naturally, a discussion of making a medical examiners office that's free of the corruption and incompetence that haunted the coroner's office cannot happen without finding out a lot about the politics of the era, not so very different from those of this era:

"Tammany Hall [as the Democratic Party machine was called] considered Hylan a man with potential [for the NYC mayor's office].  People noticed him -- big, pink-faced, copper-haired, with a showy mustache and a booming, blustering voice.  He was gratifyingly unlike the pedantic reformists running the city, especially the annoyingly preachy Mayor Mitchel.  In 1917 the party tapped Hylan to run against Mitchel.  The new candidate confidently assured the voters that reformers were intellectual elitists, all talk, no action, filling the city offices with 'lazy do-nothings, rolling around in city automobiles with cigars in their mouths and making themselves conspicuous at baseball games when they should be in their offices.'  A majority of New York voters agreed.  Hylan's election was considered a stunning upset and, by many, a depressing defeat of good government.  Even President Woodrow Wilson was startled into impolitic comment, 'How is it possible for the greatest city in the world to place such a man in high office?'"

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.  And yes I had to look up how to write that in French.

But on to the poisons, which are much more interesting.  The chapter on radium covered, in part, the case of the Radium Girls -- factory workers who painted the dials of industrial equipment with glow in the dark numbers using radioactive paint:

"The painters were teenage girls and young women who became friendly during their hours together and entertained themselves during breaks by playing with the paint.  They sprinkled the luminous liquid on their hair to make their curls twinkle in the dark.  They brightened their fingernails with it.  One girl covered her teeth to give herself a Cheshire cat smile when she went home at night.  None of them considered this behavior risky.  Why would they, when doctors were using the same material to cure people?  When wealthy spa residents were paying good money to soak in the stuff?  When a neighboring company promoted the popular tonic Radithor?  No one -- certainly not the dial painters themselves -- saw anything to worry about.

Until one by one the young workers began, mysteriously, to fall ill.  Their teeth fell out, their mouths filled with sores, their jaws rotted, and they wasted away, weakened by an apparently unstoppable anemia.  By 1924 nine of the dial painters were dead.  They were all women in their twenties, formerly healthy, with little in common except for those hours they had spent, sitting at their iron and wood desks in the factory, painting tiny bright numbers on delicate instruments."

Naturally there was a lawsuit and thanks to the findings of the medical examiners office of NYC, the U.S. Radium Corporation finally settled it after several years and the deaths of 14 more Radium Girls.  The women suing had asked for $250,000 each, they received a one-time payment of $10,000 cash, an annual pension of $400 and a guarantee of complete medical care.  But at least a few of them got something before they died.

Well, that was also depressing which, interesting as it is, is inevitable in a book about poisons.  So let me add some pure science, one among the many tidbits I found engrossing in this book:

"Arguably the three most important atoms on Earth are carbon, oxygen and hydrogen.  Carbon provides the fundamental chemical base of every life-form on the planet, past and present.  When fuels derived from the decomposed and fossilized life of the past -- such as coal or gasoline -- burn, they release carbon into the air.  Oxygen is vital to keeping carbon-based life forms alive, barring a few odd creatures like anaerobic bacteria.  And if two hydrogen atoms attach to a single oxygen atom, the result -- H20 -- is that gloriously necessary liquid called water.

Mixed together, rearranged, and stretched out into long chains, elaborate arrangements, and simple atomic blocks, these three chemicals write the story of life on Earth.  They form sugars, proteins, acids, hormones, enzymes -- the list is nearly endless."

Isn't that so much better?  I don't expect the science to stick to my brain longer than a day or two at most, but it makes a refreshing balance to tales of political corruption and stupidity, and poisonous misuse by nearly everyone.

All in all, a book I strongly recommend to anyone with an interest in chemistry, the history of American politics (esp. the Prohibition era) or stories of poisoners running rampant.


"Life is short, and it is up to you to make it sweet."  Sarah Louise Delany