Archive for the ‘ books ’ Category

The Poisoner’s Handbook

Cover of "The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder...

Cover via Amazon

I read The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Science in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum before the holidays, and loved it.  I don’t usually get into non-fiction books but this one may be sparking a new trend for me.  I stumbled onto this books while I was looking for books on detective fiction.  While not exactly about detective fiction, The Poisoner’s Handbook  is about the solving of real poison murders and the science that was developed to do it.   The detectives are two brilliant scientists who revolutionized the way we look at crime scenes, process crime scenes and the evidence that is presented in court.  Any fan of CSI owes a lot to these first forensic scientists.

Deborah Blum takes this bit of scientific history and makes it read like a story.  Everything comes to life.  not only does she describe the procedures but she also describes the cold and life of New York.  She did a lot of research before writing the book, even finding journal accounts of the weather and traffic and other events taking place during the murders. So not only are you seeing science come alive, but also 1920s New York, Prohibition, and even the speakeasies.

This book can be a bit gruesome at times and I advise to read it with a strong stomach.  But it’s also fascinating.  The radium poisoning stories are pretty crazy.  Before they knew it was a poisonous substance, women would dust it into the hair, on the skin, and even “Cheshire Cat” their teeth with it.  The shine and sparkle of it was irresistible.   Many people took Radium tonics to keep them healthy.  That is until their hair and teeth began to fall out.

If you like detective fiction, the roaring twenties, and crime scene analysis, or if you just like a good true story, pick this one up.   Blum will show you a glimpse of 1920s New York in gritty detail.


Novels, Books or Literature?

It’s always interesting to me to read books that have been translated from their original language.  The amount of the original language that is kept varies.  Of course, most books will always be better in their original form, but I’ve learned to appreciate a good translator.   Alison Anderson did an excellent job translating A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse.   Though I do wish more of the original language was kept, the pace was very French, and I loved the way the chapters flowed.  Many were short and concise, almost like a series of short vignettes.  The narrator speaks seamlessly, each chapter end comes upon the reader like a breath before plunging into the next piece of the story.  A Novel Bookstore is about a Parisian bookstore that only stocks “good novels” and the reactions of the public to this store that dares to define what a good novel is.  It is also that they dare to exclude books that do not fit their criteria.  Well written and definitely a love story to literature, this book inspired to me to examine my own bookcases.

And here is where I admit that though I have a degree in English literature, I definitely lean more towards mysteries and serial fiction.  I can’t help it, I love to solve puzzles and read about people’s imaginative versions of other worlds.  So looking at my own shelves, I must ask this question: What is literature to me?  What defines a book as a literary novel?  Well written, beautifully composed, meaningful…this is pretty standard.  I came to the conclusion that not only did it need to fill those requirements, it also had to change the way I looked at the world.  I think that really great books open a window so that you can see clearer or perhaps get a glimpse of something you didn’t even dream of.

With this criteria in mind, here are my top 15 “Good Novels” in no particular order.
Amrita, Banana Yoshimoto
Animal Dreams, Barabara Kingsolver
Bleak House, Charles Dickens
The Complete Tales, Edgar Allen Poe (too good to leave out)
The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
The House of Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne
In the Time of The Butterflies, Julia Alverez
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke
Middlemarch, George Eliot
Pride and prejudice, Jane Austin
Swiss Family Robinson, Johann Wyss
Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neal Hurston
Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
The Years, Virginia Woolf
If you’re looking for a great book shop in the Chapel Hill area, I suggest checking out Flyleaf Books.  They have wonderful taste and a great selection.  They will also order any book for you that they don’t have in stock.

The Case of Indiana, Maisie and the Mysterious Twenties

The 1920s that is.  The time between the great wars.  So, you know how I love mysteries?  Well, perhaps you don’t, but I do.  I didn’t realize how much until I overheard my husband tell his Mom that I just read mysteries now.  Its kind of true.  Which is not to say that I only read the mystery genre but most of the literature and fiction I read also has a mysterious bent.  And I do love a good British Detective Novel.  My recent passion is reading British mysteries that take place between the world wars.

Spending my teenage years in Germany, I was constantly surrounded by physical and media reminders of World War II.   I wasn’t taught or exposed to much about World War I or the Great War, as they called it before the 2nd world war came along to join it on the mantle.  Then I stumbled upon the Indian Jones TV series: The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.  Silly, I know, but awesome none the less.  It was aimed at young adults and focused on events before, during and just after WWI.  The DVDs also included short documentaries on the people, events and places that were referenced in the shows.  Those were very cool.  Any history buff would be entranced.  Especially those who also like action, adventure and the Indiana Jones theme song.

Watching this TV series and  the included documentaries, I became aware of the brutalities of the Great War’s trench warfare.  Most of the soldiers had no idea why they were fighting each other and governments saw their armies as numbers not individual people.  The soldiers and even the civilians who came out of the war, were damaged by it.  Life was no longer a sure thing, you could die at any moment and so could the person next to you.  And if it was the person next to you.  You would survive to risk another day.  Shell shock and post traumatic stress syndrome were common for soldiers.   Their loved ones struggled to understand the changes the war had wrought.

I think it’s no great surprise that a rise in murder followed WWI.  Human life was no longer considered precious, and people had become a mystery to each other.  It was not incomprehensible that a dinner guest could be a murderer.  People were proven capable of doing horrible things to each other.  In a sense the Great War was the murder of the civilian world’s innocence.  The detective fiction genre became more popular.  Readers were drawn to the clean lines of blame and discovery.  They weren’t guaranteed answers in everyday life, but a book was a world they escaped into where every mystery could be solved.  They needed the explanation for why.  Why did Jimmy kill the butler?  I believe that in our ever-changing world of violence, we still crave that security; the protection of a good detective and of a mystery solved.

If you take my love of British mysteries and swirl it up with my love of history, vintage, and my fascination with the between world wars years; it isn’t surprising that Jacqueline Winspear‘s Maisie Dobbs books are on my favorites shelf.  They take place after WWI with WWII looming in the horizon.  Maisie Dobbs is a nurse during the first war, and returns shell-shocked and damaged in spirit.   She then finishes her education with her mentor and takes over his detective agency.

Yes, she drives a cool car, comes from a poor background and has rich friends and benefactors.  She’s also got a keen mind, uncommon courage and curiosity for the whys of her world.  All the things that a 20’s girl needs to become an independent woman of that time.  And the mysteries all deal with the psychological effects of the war on its survivors.  Its brilliant.  A thoughtful approach to the whys as much as the hows of a murder mystery.  The motive matters to Maisie, it is the answer to the question.  With each case solved, she also learns something about herself, and heals a bit more.

If you’re interested in the years between the war and like mysteries, you should check out the Maisie Dobbs series.    I also recommend the Young Indian Jones Chronicles and its accompanying documentaries.

The Thirteenth Tale…one of my favorites

The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield, 2006.
I first came upon this book in a wonderful bookshop in Maine.  I was on vacation at the time, and  I forgot the title by the time I got home, and searched book stores in vain for months.  I stumbled upon it online, and firmly believe that it was fate.

If you love books… if you love the feel of a hardback in your hands as you turn each textured page… then this one is a treasure.  The Thirteenth Tale is a mystery revolving around two women that slowly unfolds in a gothic manor.  It sounds so Jane Eyre, but its not.  Yes, there are dark corridors and pregnant silences.  There are also libraries and gardens, and people who seem to be coincidental and small details  evolve into being the reason behind everything.  It is a story within multiple stories wrapped up with a story.

I feel that I cannot say more without rubbing away the beauty of this book.  I will be honest and say that if you want give yourself a gift.  Give yourself this book.

This is not Doris

Please Don't Eat the Daisies (film)

Image via Wikipedia

Please don’t eat the daisies, Jean Kerr,1954
I discovered this book a small used book store at the beach in North Carolina.  I am a big Doris Day fan, so I thought, “How cute!  It’s the book that the movie was based on.”  Well, it is the book that the movie was based on, but that is where all similarity ends.  In fact the book is pretty saucy compared to the movie which features Doris Day as a housewife and mother of 4 rowdy boys.

Please don’t eat the daisies is a collection of essays by Jean Kerr about her life as a playwright, mother and wife in the early 50’s.  She writes frankly that her goal in life had always been to sleep late, so she married and found a career that enabled her to do just that.  I am really interested in vintage books, but rarely do I come across anything so frank from a woman’s perspective.  I highly recommend this collection of essays if you ever come across it.  I don’t have kids, but I found what Jean Kerr says about her own pretty funny.  She survives her 4 boys  and juggles home and work with wit and brazen style.  Or at least, she writes that she does.

Don’t expect the Doris Day version, the real thing is so much more.

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