Monthly Archives: February 2014

REVIEW: “The Poisoner’s Handbook” by Deborah Blum

The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum (Penguin Books 2010)

9781594202438_custom-0b4b6f04142734d180d11b428295035e3dca4286-s6-c30Deborah Blum’s page-turning book about the rise of real forensic science in New York City during the Jazz Age is mistitled. It’s not a do-it-yourself tome on how to use poison (legally or illegally) but rather a history of how one medical examiner, Charles Norris, working with a very talented toxicologist, Alexander Gettler, began to bring strong scientific principles to bear on determining how people died–specifically, how they died of poison.

I became aware of Ms. Blum’s book after watching a PBS American Experience show of the same name and on the same topic  earlier this year. The author was interviewed extensively throughout the show, and, while it was a riveting hour of television, it left me wanting to know more. So I went in search of her book.

She’s a good writer who knows how to tell a story, and she sets the stage for her tale equally well. Prior to forensic science’s ability to determine the presence of toxic substances within a dead body, poison was a convenient problem solver for many a malevolent mind. So much so, in fact, that arsenic was dubbed “the inheritance powder.”

Eventually, scientists were able to conduct tests on tissues and organs that revealed deadly toxins in measurable quantities and helped point to those who might have administered them. But even as these scientific advances were marching forward, other obstacles to good criminal detection had to be overcome. Political corruption was one. Ms. Blum points out that, for many years, the position of medical examiner was a patronage job, given by politicians to favored friends. You didn’t even need to be a doctor to fill the position, and many who got it used it to line their pocketbooks–by accepting bribes in order to write a benign “cause of death” on a death certificate, by taking kickbacks from funeral homes to which they’d steer grieving family members of victims.

That began to change in New York City with the appointment of Charles Norris, a wealthy, ethical and determined doctor who then hired a man, Alexander Gettler, as toxicologist, who shared Norris’s ethos and work habits. Together, they began setting the standard for forensic work and police detection.

Ms. Blum organizes her story with chapters titled with poison names: mercury, chloroform, thallium, carbon monoxide, cyanide, and the inheritance powder itself, arsenic. She details how the poisons work on the body and then includes cases that Gettler and Norris worked on involving these poisons, often refining poison detection processes along the way. The individual cases are intriguing whodunnits, some of which have surprising denouements (such as one involving a man accused of poisoning his family with thallium, only to be exonerated by good detective/forensic work and the real culprit fingered).

Along the way, Ms. Blum also throws in a good amount of public safety history. In the days before the FDA regulated such things, poisons were regularly available, with no warnings as to their potential fatal consequences. In fact, many substances we know are explicitly harmful were touted as having life-enhancing qualities, leading to facial creams with arsenic in them, radium tonics, and even more dubious snake oil potions.

She opens readers’ eyes to why regulation of such substances was necessary. Not only were the items toxic, but often, businesses involved in their manufacture denied negative impacts to the point of delusion. In one incident, where workers were being poisoned into insanity by contact with an additive, tetraethyl lead (TEL), to gasoline, she recounts the story of Standard Oil’s rebuttal to concerns:

In answer to this new round of criticism, Standard Oil…brought (Thomas) Midgley, the TEL developer, to hold a press conference at its Manhattan offices. He assured reporters that handled properly there was nothing dangerous about his prize discovery. To prove it, he washed his hands in a bowl filled with TEL.

Eventually, unsafe TEL plants were closed or workers issued and ordered to use protective clothing. Mr. Midgley himself, Ms. Blum reports, went on an “extended European vacation” several months after his hand-washing press conference, “seeking treatment for the effects of lead poisoning.”

Another grim tale of corporate denial was the case of poor immigrant girls unknowingly poisoned by radium as they painted watch dials with the substance to make them glow in the dark. They’d often wet their brushes with their tongues to get a fine point, and this ingestion and exposure led to painful disability and ultimate death. Yet the company that hired them fought responsibility in court.

These and other incidents of businesses fighting regulation provide some useful context to today’s regulatory battles. That said, it’s hard not to have some sympathy for the company owners involved in these public safety debacles of the past. At a time when many poisons were used as “cures” and when Marie Curie herself carried around vials of radioactive isotopes in her skirt pockets to use in lectures, it’s easy to see how public safety concerns could be dismissed as alarmist jabbering. Madame Curie, by the way, eventually died of aplastic anemia, the disease that had claimed many of the radium-paint girls.

The government, however, has to take the prize for villainous behavior in this tale of poisonous activity. Ms. Blum points out that Norris and Tettler both regularly railed against Prohibition and its deaths due to wood alcohol poisoning, deaths that were surely increased as the government insisted on more and more poison being added to industrial alcohols to deter drinkers from using them as potable liquor.

Some online reviewers have criticized Ms. Blum for some sloppy scientific explanations here and there. For this nonscientist reader, those didn’t matter and weren’t the meat of the story anyway. Instead, the book is a very readable romp through forensic history, every bit as compelling as an episode of CSI.

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REVIEW: Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

Life-after-Life-The part I enjoyed the most about Kate Atkinson’s novel Life after Life was her note to readers after the book, in which she tells the origins of the story.

“I was born at the end of 1951,” she writes, “and grew up feeling that I had just missed the Second World War, that something terrible and tremendous had occurred and I would never know it.”

Much of Life after Life takes place during that war, following the protagonist Ursula Todd and her family and friends through some cataclysmic homefront events, most notably the bombing of London.

I can sympathize greatly with Atkinson’s feeling. Like her, I’m a baby boomer and a novelist (though nowhere near her league in popularity or acclaim), and the war called to me, too. So much so that I penned my own novel about it, and it served as something of a catharsis to write about what I’d only felt through others.

The problem with writing a novel about a war one has only known through the experiences of others, most notably our parents’ generation, is that you always feel you lack verisimilitude, no matter how much research you do, and you can worry that your story will have a certain thinness to it, even if the subject matter is serious and thoughtful.

So I understand the need, too, to dress up a straightforward war story with other devices. And Ms. Atkinson has chosen a doozy. In her story, Ursula Todd is born–or not–in 1910 with an ability to live again. She has premonitions of impending doom, of deaths experienced in the past, and she is able to “correct” her future by reliving pivotal moments.

The story is told as overlapping vignettes. Her birth itself appears numerous times throughout the book. And a shabby and tragic marriage to an abuser ends when she “dies” and is able to avoid the incident–an assault–that led her to be a passive victim to such a man later in her life.

If this sounds confusing, it is, at least at first. Once you grasp the book’s conceit, it’s easy enough to follow, and Ms. Atkinson is a skillful, beautiful writer whose prose truly does sing. You don’t just read of pre-World War I England. You feel its “prelapsarian,” “Arcadian” stillness, to use words she chooses when talking about the book in her Afterward. She’s one of those immensely talented writers who doesn’t just describe something. She yanks you by the scruff of the neck and puts you smack in the scene where you can virtually smell its scents. She does this, not with overwritten passages and purple prose, but with simple observations that have you nodding your head to the deja vu you experience at the scene-building.

All of this, though, is what leads me to disappointment. About halfway through the book, I wanted to give up, jump to the end to see how she wrapped it all up (Does Ursula manage to assassinate Hitler?). I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did–the last quarter of the novel is its best part, when she allows us to stay with Ursula for an extended period in one time period, during the London Blitz. It was only then that I began to care about Ursula and what happened to her…because she remained one person.

In the previous scenes, and their retellings, I felt as if I were reading several related short stories whose protagonists might share the name Ursula along with other plot points, but nothing else. The Ursula of those stories seemed flat, a “cipher” as one critic called her. And, even though she has one Groundhog Day after another, she doesn’t seem to learn a critical lesson, like Bill Murray’s character did in the comedic film of that name, that allows her to finally move forward. Instead, it’s as if we’re seeing a dramatic enactment of Ursula’s versions of those Direct TV ads that rest on “what if” constructs (“When you pay too much for cable, you throw things, when you throw things….”). At the end of each ad, the lesson is clear: to avoid disaster, dump cable. Ursula seems capable of only learning that simple lesson, as well: to avoid disaster, change X.

When readers are finally allowed to settle in with Ursula during the war years, the author begins to drop in some hints as to why she used this time-changing device:

“What if we had a chance to do it again and again,” Teddy said, “until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
Life wasn’t about becoming, was it? It was about being.

Dr. Kellet: Time is a construct, in reality everything flows, no past or present, only the now.”

You can almost see an editor’s margin note: Kate, this is all fabulous! But could you explain to the reader more explicitly why all the time changes?

A number of nonwriters whose opinion I respect read and loved Life after Life. A couple writer friends read it and either didn’t think much of it or didn’t finish it after getting the conceit and deciding it wasn’t worth the time. I haven’t surveyed all my writer pals about it, but I do wonder if some writers might have a lower tolerance for book “gimmicks” because they themselves have left them in their own toolboxes, unused.

At any rate, I salute Ms. Atkinson on a beautifully written story, one whose war year tales speak to this writer’s heart. But I would have preferred a more linear, less “shiny” telling without the time-shifting thread.

For those like me who want such a read about England’s homefront stories during the war, try Elizabeth Jane Howard’s excellent series on the fictional Cazelet family.

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BOOK REVIEW: “Grumpy-pants” Paul, the Apostle

Paul among the People by Sarah Ruden (Random House Image Books 2010)

Paul-Among-the-People1-192x300A week ago, the Sunday Epistle reading was Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, verses 10-18, in which Paul urges his fellow Christians to stop being so divisive, to stop focusing on who baptized whom. But in doing so, he tsks at one pont: “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name.”

What a cutting scold he sounds like in this passage! It’s as if he’s muttering under his breath, an irritated curmudgeon. And, according to classicist Sarah Ruden, in her excellent book on Paul, he was something of a curmudgeon–“grumpy-pants Paul,” according to a divinity student she knew. Ruden puts it thus:

“Sometimes after he preached, they whipped him…but he wouldn’t shut up. He had an uncanny gift, not only for inspiring and convincing, but also for causing riots. And with a pen that must have eaten through the papyrus like acid, he cursed his rival missionaries and made fun of his converts…He sat and stitched together pieces of leather tents with an awl to support himself and earn boat fare; there were easier ways for an educated man to make money, but they required cooperation, and in that sense he was probably unemployable. He found some sympathetic people and  started small congregations, but he seems to have been congenitally unable to share authority.”

Nonetheless, Ruden concludes from her study of Paul that he was a missionary for an “uncompromising message of love,” and that, despite his flaws, he managed to establish communities that ultimately ended up renewing the commitment to the Christian ideal.

But Ruden didn’t come to this conclusion automatically. In fact, the reason for her book was because of her acceptance of the divinity student’s — and so many others’ — opinion of Paul, that he was a grump, and maybe a misogynist, too, and, oh, yes, there is all that stuff he wrote condemning homosexuality.

For someone as enlightened as Ruden, these views were hard to get past. Until…she was in a Bible study class and someone started complaining about Paul’s admonitions against sorcery, which the student thought a bit silly. A classicist by training, she knew that in ancient times sorcery could involve torture. She knew that, within the context of his times, Paul was right to criticize such practices severely. This awakening led her to review all of Paul’s writing and his life within the context of the ancient world, and she discovered that he was more a champion of women than he is given credit for, and his views on homosexuality are vigorous condemnations of exploitation. In fact, she believes he is specifically condemning pederasty and pedophilia, so rampant in those times that families with good-looking sons would not let them leave the house without slaves assigned to look after them.

Ruden is no starry-eyed modernist wishing her way to a conclusion about Paul’s views on homosexuality. She is instead trying diligently to apply her knowledge of the ancient world to Paul’s experiences and view his words–which she carefully translates, distinguishing between similar words to find true meanings–as he might have intended them. She points out that he was raised in a traditional Jewish household that would have viewed homosexuality as wrong. But, she says, Paul discarded some traditional Jewish teachings. Would he have discarded this one?

She’s not as glib as some wishful interpreters who posit that Paul does not condemn consensual homosexuality; she finds these interpretations “politically correct disingenuousness.” She argues that we really don’t know what his view on consensual homosexuality was. But she does believe the exploitive sexual practices of pederasty and pedophilia would have colored Paul’s view of homosexuality, and that you cannot rule out the possibility that he was railing against these horrible abuses and, not only that, arguing that everyone is responsible for them if you do not speak up. In other words, those who like to use Paul’s writings as condemnations of homosexuality in general shouldn’t be so secure in their beliefs. The most we can claim about his views on this subject, Ruden says, is that he condemned exploitation. Period.

Be warned: her description of the ancient world is unsettling and made it difficult at times for me to keep reading. It was a barbaric place, which made Christ’s message of love, and especially Paul’s famous message to the Corinthians on love, a revolutionary idea.

Ruden’s case for Paul is compelling. She started her research with the typical contemporary view of him as out of step with enlightened times, and came instead to admire him. Writing this book, therefore, became her own conversion, when she saw Paul in a different light. “Jesus was my teacher. Paul was an embarrassment,” she writes at the outset of Paul among the People to explain her pre-research view. By the end of the tome, she’s taken you on her own journey to Damascus, having her view of the saint turned on its head.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist.

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