Chemistry · stuff I read

The Poisoner’s Handbook

No, not that type of poisoner’s handbook; think “true crime”.

The Mystery Book Club that meets at my store picked The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum as one of their next reads (I think April, maybe May).  So I was like, “Hmmmm, a history of forensic medicine, specific to poisons and chemistry, in Jazz Age/Prohibition New York….I’ll read that!”

From a true crime/history of forensic medicine standpoint The Poisoner’s Handbook is interesting and fun to read.  Blum focuses on a major poisoning case in each chapter, be the agent methanol, arsenic, thallium, carbon monoxide, cyanide, or radium.  Medical examiner practices we take for granted today (timely autopsies, accurate death certificates, etc) were implemented to lend the profession credibility; corrupt and ill-trained coroner systems as well as the political machine that was New York City politics had to be dealt with.  It’s all very fascinating and readable.

But then there are some things that bug me about this book.  There are no graphs or pictures in this book – not even a Periodic Table.  A picture is worth a thousand words when you’re explaining why radium is taken up by the body in the same manner as calcium (they’re in the same group so they have the same basic chemistry) but radium causes major problems because of its reactivity and radiation (it’s easier to explain radioactive decay of alpha, beta, and gamma particles if you’ve got a picture).  Similarly, I can line up the molecular models of methanol and ethanol in my head along with their acid and aldehyde by-products and understand how those chemicals act in the liver but I’m thinking the average Joe with a high school chemistry background (at most) won’t be able to do that.  I’ve had six semesters of chemistry, up to advanced organic, and I have a degree in biology, so I understand all the physiologic processes described in the book but a non-science-background reader might need a boost.  So, diagrams would be nice and maybe also the photographs of the scientists and other historical players described in the text.  Also, some of the text descriptions of what happens chemically are kind of vague (“titration” is not really described as titration but as a progression of colors when you add acid to a solution); vagueness makes my little chemist’s heart sink (I am a member of Alpha Chi Sigma Professional Chemistry Fraternity – so is Bassam Shakhashiri who is thanked in the acknowledgements). 

I also found the chapter layouts a little weird.  Each chapter revolves around a specific poison, which is nice, but the middle of each chapter gets into the general history of the crime lab for that time period before returning to the case involving the specific poison.  It gets a little confusing to read about cyanide poisoning then about all the methanol deaths during Prohibition (and the enforcement laws about denaturing industrial ethanol) before returning to a case of death by cyanide.  It would have been a little more clear to have separate chapters for the poisoning cases/poisons between chapters about the general history of the department. 

If you love true crime or history of criminology, definitely read The Poisoner’s Handbook.   If you see this on the shelf with the rest of the chemistry books in the “Science” section of the bookstore be forewarned that it might not have as much chemistry as you would like but it’s still fun to read if you’re looking for something light.

Bookclub · movie star drool · stuff I read


I always thought “Pinocchio” was an old fairy tale, I mean really old, and then Disney turned it into the animated-movie-I-will-never-ever-watch-again-because-it-scared-the-holy-bejeezus-out-of-me-when-I-was-3 so I avoided “Pinocchio” so I could sleep.  As it turns out, the original Pinocchio is a children’s novel by Carlo Collodi, the first half initially serialized 1881-1883 and the full novel published in 1883.  Kat wanted to read it for our bookclub – especially the NYRB Classics edition with introduction by Umberto Eco.  Cool.

Pinocchio is not a long novel – approximately 160 pages – and being a story for children (more or less) it takes almost no time at all to read.  Once you sit down to read it.  This has a very Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson feel – the blue-haired Fairy with a coach drawn by mice and a poodle for a coachman, charlatan team the Fox and the Cat, Toyland – so it does feel like an old folk tale.  But it is also a very long parable (parable?  allegory?) – Pinocchio does learn many lessons, most memorable is learning not to lie, on his path to becoming a real boy.  One thing that struck me was Pinocchio’s growing lack of gullibility; each time he is tempted off his path it takes more and more cajoling to get him to stray from the straight and narrow.  He learns but slowly; he is only a puppet, as Pinocchio himself likes to point out.

We watched the 2002 Roberto Benigni Pinocchio adaptation as our movie tie-in.  I am OK with this because it’s not the Disney version.  According to the IMDB trivia the original idea for the 2002 Italian adaptation was to have Fellini direct with Benigni acting as the title role; Fellini died and Benigni continued the project as director and star.

Benigni should have gotten someone else to play Pinocchio, as in perhaps a teen or younger adult actor, because a 50-year-old man with a five-o’clock shadow playing a temper-tantrum-prone wooden puppet dressed like a Pollichinelle from The Nutcracker just does not work for me.  It actually got a little creepy during a scene (which, as far as I remember, does not exist in the book) where Pinocchio and Lucinolo (Lampwick) are licking a fish-shaped lollipop in turn….as in child porn creepy…and then the crazy Benigni antics got plain old irritating and boring.  The rest of the movie does work quite well, the sets and costumes have a very fairy-tale/fantasy feel (with the exception of a perspective issue during the puppet theatre show).  I do quite like Nicoletta Braschi as the Fairy with the Turquoise Hair (aka the Blue Fairy) and I think she did quite well to give some depth to what could have been a very flat character.  I did like the creature effect make-up to give the suggestion of a Fox and a Cat as a character but still see the human actor – much like real life where wily people are described as foxes, etc.  I wonder what Italian audiences thought of the film (I don’t read Italian so any reviews I might dig up I wouldn’t be able to read); I think it was a good choice to watch Benigni’s Pinocchio for our bookclub, just to see a non-US adaptation, but it certainly isn’t a movie I want to watch again.

BNBC · stuff I read

The Poisonwood Bible

One of the reasons I love my “Literature by Women” group at Barnes and Noble Book Clubs is that I am either introduced to books I would have never read or have the opportunity to read books I’ve been eyeballing for some time.  The Poisonwood Bible is definitely one of the latter; I’d never read it even though I was intrigued by the plot and owned a copy for quite a while.  Thank you, LbW readers for voting for The Poisonwood Bible.

There are many issues swirling through Barbara Kingsolver’s tale of a (white) family in the Belgian Congo: racism, colonialism, women’s rights, politics, theology, tolerance, consumerism.  The narration of The Poisonwood Bible is carried by the women of the Price family in turn; the mother, Orleanna, introduces each section of the book then the daughters – Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May – narrate the action in turn.  They each have a very distinct voice; Orleanna is filled with guilt, Rachel is spoiled and complaining, Leah is desperate for her father’s affection, Adah speaks to the reader but not to the others, and Ruth May lends a six-year-old’s perspective to her view of an African village.

The Poisonwood Bible is a book that makes me angry and fills me with sadness.  Nathan Price is easily the least sympathetic character in the book; he is extremely intolerant of local customs in Kilanga, he verbally and physically abuses his wife and daughters using religion as his excuse, and puts his family in mortal danger by refusing to acknowledge the realities of the political situation in 1950s/1960s Africa.  The history of the Congo is accurately depicted; having won independence from Belgium the country is immediately torn apart by civil war when the governments of the United States and Belgium interfere to “save” the country from Socialist/Communist leanings (this interference directly leads to the authoritarian regime of Mobutu Sese Seko).   The Prices’ narration depicts the hope and despair of average Congolese as well as the family’s helplessness in the face of their own plight.

I was surprised to find that the narration of The Poisonwood Bible continued after the family leaves Kilanga village.  While it does make the novel seem a little over-long I think the extension of the Prices’ story is important because it shows how the experiences in the Congo shaped each of the four daughters.  I am really pleased the LbW crowd voted for The Poisonwood Bible; it is a very unique novel.

Join LbW in April when we read Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South.

stuff I read

The Possessed

I have yet to read Dostoevsky’s The Possessed (which I think technically should be translated as The Demons or The Devils) but I do like me some Russian literature.  So does Elif Batuman – her collection of essays, The Possessed, revolves around Russian literature and the people who read it.

Batuman’s The Possessed isn’t so much a book examining Russian literature, i.e. lit crit, but how writers like Pushkin, Chekhov, Lermontov, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky comment on the experience of being alive (see also Ilana Simons’s A Life of One’s Own or Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life).  She starts off with an essay about organizing an Isaac Babel conference while a graduate student at Stanford; the experience comes complete with dusty academics and eccentric Babel relatives (the essay appeared as “Babel in California” in the magazine “n+1”).  Other essays cover the veneration of Tolstoy and his estate (which reminds me of Austen and Chawton pilgrimages), a summer spent in Uzbekistan in an Uzbek language intensive, looking for Pushkin in the Caucasus, and the reconstructed Ice Palace in St. Petersburg. 

Batuman has a very welcoming style of writing; it’s funny and ironic but as a fellow lover of literature, Russian or not, it’s like reading the thoughts of a kindred spirit.  I have a picture of myself standing outside Jane Austen’s home in Bath (which I think is now a dentist’s office while the Jane Austen museum is down the street in a different row house) so I completely understand the compulsion to finagle a trip to St. Petersburg so you can see the reconstructed Ice Palace on the Neva.  The multiple essays about Batuman’s summer in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, not only show a culture moving out of the shadow of Soviet occupation but also the creation of a shared Uzbek culture and literature, something that did not exist prior to the creation of the Uzbek Soviet state.

I hope Batuman continues to write about her love of Russian literature; I really enjoyed the essays in The Possessed and made a little list of things I have yet to read.  Which reminds me, I probably need to run a Google search to find Batuman’s essays not included in this book.

movie star drool

Every Little Step/A Chorus Line

All I ever needed was the music and the mirror.

One singular sensation.

Do I luurrrrve A Chorus Line or what?  Like Val, I never saw The Red Shoes…I saw A Chorus Line and The Nutcracker when I was little.  Hooked.  My dance teacher also staged “One” as a finale to our dance recital when I was little.  Hooked.

Every Little Step is a documentary about the 2006 revival of A Chorus Line on Broadway.  The original production closed in 1990 after about a gazillion performances so a fifteen-year gap before a new staging is appropriate.  The bulk of the film follows the casting process – a marathon because soooo many people want the chance to be a part of the magic and an obstacle course because the parts (Connie, Val, Paul, Diana, Kristine, Cassie, Bebe) are very specific as to type.  Interspersed with the casting footage are interviews with the producers and directors as well as Baayork Lee, the original Connie, and Marvin Hamlisch who wrote the score.  You root for all the performers because they have to get this job (song!) and you really feel for those who don’t make the cut.  It’s all blood, sweat, and tears.  No one becomes a Broadway performer for the money; they all do it because they love it.  A small bonus to Every Little Step is that Charlotte D’Amboise, the daughter of Jacques D’Amboise, happens to audition for Cassie.  Yes, that Jacques D’Amboise is her dad, the one who danced for Mr. B, was Ephraim in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and is interviewed for this documentary.  Love.

So then I had to watch the movie adaptation of A Chorus Line – which is great in some respects because they are able to play with close-ups, etc., that you can’t get with a stage production, and a total clunker in others because of the way the script got chopped up (and Michael Douglas is Zach, which doesn’t quite fit well in my opinion).  But it has all the great songs and dance sequences so I can “One, singular sensation” my way around the house.

movie star drool


I have a soft spot for Merchant Ivory films (especially Howard’s End) so I decided to bump Maurice up on the Netflix queue.  I really wasn’t sure what to expect beyond a standard MI historical film….with naked men.  I will also throw in the caveat that I haven’t read Maurice by E.M. Forster; I’ve read A Room with a View and Howard’s End, so I am used to Forster’s style, and I do know Forster wrote Maurice pre-WWI but it was never published until the 1970s due to the subject matter.

So I was expecting a love story (-ish) about a homosexual relationship that for very obvious reasons must be repressed (because you can get arrested for being a homosexual at that time in Great Britain).  Which is exactly what Maurice is – a film about a forbidden relationship and the protagonists are both male.  It is a very lovely film and all the men are beautifully appointed as to styling which really does lend to the feminized/cloistered college atmosphere where Maurice (James Wilby, who I love in Gosford Park) and Clive (Hugh Grant, in his first major film role) meet.  The relationship between Maurice and Clive is very tender and the parts are very well-played by the actors; the pain and misunderstanding between the couple that occurs when they realize they must act more “straight” is almost palpable.  It did get a little uncomfortable for me toward the end of the film when Maurice begins a relationship with the gamekeeper at Clive’s estate; it’s a little mismatched as far as age, education, and class so it does seem that Maurice, who really can’t supress his sexual orientation the same way Clive can, takes advantage of the gamekeeper.  So it’s a little dirty-old-man and teenager, which is a bit icky whatever the genders of the couple.

I really liked Maurice – I must read the book now.

movie star drool

Post-Oscar Netflix Queue Management

Not only did I have a lovely time watching the Oscars on Sunday (I did miss Hugh Jackman as host, though – that was so much fun last year) I followed up the ceremony by adjusting my Netflix queue.  The Hurt Locker arrived last week (didn’t have time to watch it) and I bumped District 9 and Inglourious Basterds up to the top of the queue so they arrived today.  Squee.

Coming up shortly is A Serious Man, An Education, Up in the Air, and Precious with Crazy Heart, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, and The Young Victoria releasing in April.

However, with over 400 movies in my queue (including the “Saved” section) I might get an itch to watch something else first.

stuff I read

Shutter Island

Shutter Island has a really intriguing premise:  a severely disturbed psychiatric patient has excaped from a high-security island mental institution/prison requiring US Marshals to investigate.  It’s set in the 1950s so the setting invites a little Maltese Falcon-esque noir into the mind’s eye.  When Teddy and Chuck (the Marshals) start to investigate the goings-on at Shutter Island things start to get a little wierd.  And that’s an understatement.

Dennis Lehane has a fantastic gift for descriptions and he sets the mood so, so well.  Teddy has fantatstical dreams and they are so vividly described, adding to the heightened suspense (which was already at a fever pitch due to the hurricaine).

Unfortunately, I had the plot twist figured out by the time the hurricaine passed the island.  While Lehane’s description kept me going I was a little disappointed when the denoument proved me right.  I’m a huge Sherlock Holmes fan and I love the “aha!” moments in those stories, I’m never disappointed to find out I’m right or wrong.  With Shutter Island I just didn’t have an “aha” moment; the revelation just felt old-hat.  Also, I thought Lehane wimped on the plot in the last chapter.

Shutter Island was fun to read, a nice diversion, and I wanted to get the book read before I watched the movie.