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review 2017-08-11 12:59
The Inheritor's Powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder, and the New Forensic Science
The Inheritor's Powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder, and the New Forensic Science - Sandra Hempel

Overall, this was good.  Hempel frames the rudimentary beginnings of forensic science - specifically toxicology - within the narrative of a famous poisoning case of the time, that of the Bodle family, which resulted in the death of George Bodle, the rather wealthy patriarch.  


She sets up a rather thrilling beginning; I was at once riveted to the story as we're walked through the morning of the poisoning.  I very much wanted to know what was going to happen next. 


And this is where Hempel falters.  Because just when you're on the edge of your seat, she launches into the science, the scientists and the research of the time, which leads her into side avenues of other contemporary cases. These are also interesting, but she throws so many names and events at the reader in these side alleys to her narrative, that by the time she wends her way back to the Bodles, I've lost track of who everybody was.  


This becomes slightly less of a problem in the second half of the book, as things become too exciting for Hempel to get sidetracked, but it's still a regular occurrence.  And the thing is, these deviations are the part where all the interesting science-y bits are; about all the attempts at trying to detect arsenic definitively; how Marsh was inspired to create his game-changing test, and how it wasn't *quite* the game-changer so many pinned their hopes on.  And it's all good stuff.  But Hempel is a victim of her own success at spinning a gripping narrative; I started out wanting the science-y bits but ended up just wanting to know who killed George Bodle.


Worth reading, definitely.  But it's not necessarily an easy read for unexpected reasons.

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review 2017-08-01 10:24
The History of Birdwatching in 100 Objects - sort of a DNF
A History of Birdwatching in 100 Objects - Dominic Mitchell,David Callahan

I'm stopping midway through; it's not bad, but it's definitely a case of a trendy bandwagon that's suffering from over-crowding.  Nobody is ever going to convince me that Microsoft's PowerPoint changed the world of Birdwatching forever.


I'll likely pick it up again at some point in the future, but right now I'm just too impatient with their stretching of the envelope.  Non-fiction should not require me to suspend disbelief (unless it's string theory).  If you ask me, they might have been better off sticking with 50 objects.

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review 2017-08-01 07:27
The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time
The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time - Keith Houston

I have to start by saying this poor book was an innocent bystander to the just-completed 2017 BookLikes-opoly game.  That is the only reason it took me 2.5 months to read it; it certainly wasn't due to any shortcomings on the part of the subject or writing itself.


The Book is exactly what it says it is on the cover: a history of every physical aspect of the book as we know it today; from the creation of the writing surface (clay, wax, papyrus, parchment, paper) to the development of writing itself, the process of putting one on the other, and the evolution of the useable and practical units (scrolls, codices, etc.) of collection.  Each part of what makes up the book is labeled, as can be seen on the cover itself.  No part is ever labeled more than once so it doesn't become tedious.


Far from being the dry, academic dissertation my description makes it sound like, The Book is really well written and very easy reading.  The author is knowledgeable and just relaxed enough and funny enough to remind you of a really good, relatable professor whose lectures you never mind attending.  Enjoyable enough, even, that a few dropped articles from the text weren't quite enough for me to ding my rating.  For those academically minded, there are very comprehensive notes and bibliography sections at the back.


I have the hardcover edition of this and it is beautiful. As close as you can come, I imagine, to a handmade book on a mass market scale.  My only quibble is that in the spirit of showing the reader what a book is made of, the covers are left as the raw fibreboard; it looks nice but it's not going to be durable unless care is taken with the corners.  I intend to take care, but still, I half wish they'd at least varnished the boards as a way of reinforcing those delicate corners.


If you not only love books for the stories they contain, but for the physical objects that they are, and you enjoy a bit of history, this book might be one for your permanent collection and it's very much worth having the physical hardcover edition - just make sure to watch those corners.

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review 2017-07-05 06:16
Lincoln as I Knew Him
Lincoln as I Knew Him: Gossip, Tributes, and Revelations from His Best Friends and Worst Enemies - Harold Holzer

My problem with history books, generally speaking, until recently, was the most of them tended to focus on statistics in one form or another (dates, battles, treaties, laws, etc) and very rarely about the people, the culture.  One without the other is history without context and as such either put me to sleep or went in one ear and out the other.


But I've always had more than a bit of hero worship for Abraham Lincoln.  Just looking at his portraits, there is something compelling to his visage, something that implies the hidden depths are deep indeed.


So when I heard about this book, it sounded like just the thing I was looking for: mostly contemporaneous anecdotes of Lincoln, told by those that loved him, worked with him, or worked for him - and a few by those that worked against him.  Short of asking Lincoln's cat what he thought of him, I can think of no better way of really learning the true quality of the man himself than from what his friends and opponents thought of him.


Holzer puts together a slim but comprehensive volume of such anecdotes, groups by relationship to Lincoln: family, friends, press, etc.  In the introduction and at the end in the author's notes he is clear that the collection is but a drop in the bucket, but is representative of the whole, and that he has left each alone save for editing for readability (i.e. swapping em dashes for periods to comply with modern grammar).


By far the most eloquent of the pieces, and likely my favourites on first reflection, are those written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass.  Beecher Stowe for her beautiful writing, Truth for her passion and grace, and Douglass for his honesty.  My least favourite, although Holzer gets credit for avoiding bias, are two excerpts from John Wilkes Booth; it brings balance to the work, but feels blasphemous somehow, to include his assassin's memories.


The number one thing in common amongst all these anecdotes - whether the writer admired or reviled Lincoln: that he was honest, kind and moral.   How many historical figures have the respect of their detractors?  


I read this for the Optional 4th of July Main Street Read for space #13.  Pages: 262

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review 2017-05-14 10:11
Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation - Judith Mackrell

Is it possible to be both ambitious and balanced?


The answer is yes, of course it is; there are manifold examples of men and women who have achieved great things while maintaining balanced, rational lives.


Reading books like Flappers though, one can't be blamed for wondering.  No doubt that the more outrageous lives make more exciting reading, but as seems always the case after reading these omnibus biographies, I'm left with the feeling that these women - who inarguably achieved great things in the face of extraordinary obstacles -  are not the ones we should be holding up as shining examples of success.  At least Flappers doesn't outright label them as heroines as one similar recently published book hailed its subjects.


But boy, does the outrageous make for delicious reading (if you can overlook the numerous and egregious copy-editing errors).  These women were rebellious, emotionally starved, unstable sometimes to the point of madness, and ambitious.  Their determination and stubbornness were admirable, if their lack of moral compass was not.  I'm not referring here, by the way, to their collective sexual escapades, of which I can only sit back and applaud with awe.  It's more the way they all believed, no matter how humble or grand their beginnings, that the rules didn't apply to them.


About the only woman I came out of this admiring was Josephine Baker.  While her compass most certainly did not point north, the author seems to chalk up some of this to naivety and ignorance (although I'm pretty sure she knew bigamy was a no-go and just didn't care).  Diana Cooper might have also made it to a happy old age, but Josephine showed the most ability to adapt, to learn, to grow, and to do it all without seeming to compromise her dignity.  


Take all this with a grain of salt, of course; condensed biographies like these are necessarily incomplete and leave out a lot of details that might change the reader's perspective, but the writing is engaging and Mackrell manages to connect all five women's lives into a relatively cohesive narrative.  The women themselves do the rest.

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