Friday, August 20, 2010

Friday Review, 8/20/10

Ok. Two books today. While travelling, I got 2/3s of the way through Glen Cook's Book of the South, and will review that when I unearth it from a suitcase and read the last of it. I did nibble on John Keegan's World War One as well, and will return to that next week, perhaps with a break for something light. I did, however, finish two books this week, and they are:

Carrie Vaughn - Discord's Apple
A book with a great deal of potential. Vaughn tells a nest of linked stories here, all revolving around a storeroom of magical artifacts - a pair of glass slippers, a sword for the Once and Future King, and many others, including a golden apple once rolled across a table at a feast of the Greek gods, resulting in the Trojan War. This primary story line focuses on Evie Walker - the current heir to the storehouse. Evie returns to Colorado to be with her dying father, and discovers that her family history is far more complicated than she could have imagined. She meets some very interesting characters, including Robin Goodfellow, Sinon the Liar (who convinced the Trojans that taking the big wooden horse into Troy was really a good idea), and Hera, queen of the gods.

Other story lines - a series of short notes detailing the Walker family history backwards to it's start; a series of chapters detailing the history of Sinon forwards from the fall of Troy, some glimpses of the world outside small town Colorado (the novel is set in a dystopic near-future teetering on the verge of various wars - between China and Russia, between terrorists and the terrorized, between the various street gangs which the Department of Homeland Security deputized in Los Angeles to keep the peace. Evie's co-worker, the artist for the comic book she writes, is trapped in LA during a clash between gangs.), and several chapters of a novel that Evie writes throughout the book. The novel chapters are only tangentially related the remaining work, unless you consider that what Vaughn is really writing about is not golden apples and glass slippers, but rather stories and the things that make us tell stories. Looked at in that context, this is actually a moderately complex novel with a somewhat simplistic facade. I liked the complexity, that was the bit that I felt Vaughn did quite well. However, in discussion of the book with my wife, we concur on a couple of things which Vaughn could have done better. They are as follow:

1) tie up loose ends in a satisfying fashion, rather than cut them off abruptly with no warning - alternatively, let the loose ends lie without tidying them up at all.
2) Expand characters beyond Evie and Sinon - in particular, Hera assembles a group of potent magicians in order to break into the storeroom. These magicians sound fascinating, but are not fully realized as characters.
3) Focus on one storyline rather than wander all over the place. Actually, that's not fair - I just said that I liked the multiple stories - but this book could easily have been twice as long, allowing the stories to unfold naturally and completely.

I did like Vaughn's central characters, and won't go out of my way to avoid her series of novels about Kittie Norville, the Denver based werewolf radio host. The fact that Vaughn cut her teeth writing paranormal fantasy  (now a big enough sub-genre to rate it's own section in the bookstore, folks!) prompted some speculation that this was what led to a novel which focuses very strongly on a few specific characters. That, perhaps, is fodder for a later discussion of the genre as a whole - watch for that.

Deborah Blum, The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

I'm pretty sure I heard a review of this on NPR when it first came out a couple of months ago, which is why I picked it up at the library.  This was a fascinating book about Charles Norris and Andrew Gettler, two men who reformed the way that autopsies were done in New York City, and the United States.  Norris was the Chief Medical Examiner during the 1920s and early 1930s, and Gettler was his forensic chemistry expert - the father of forensic medicine. Together, they reformed the way that the coroner's office operated, established forensic evidence in legal cases as reliable, consistent, and understandable, and developed many of the forensic practices we consider pretty basic now.  Norris, for instance, insisted that forensic experts be on hand at the site of questionable deaths as quickly as possible in order to a) determine time of death as accurately as possible and b) to gather as much forensic evidence as possible with as little contamination as possible. These two factors, which are pretty rote for anyone who has ever watched a police procedural television show, were unthinkable prior to Norris. Gettler, in addition to refining the various tests designed to determine how people died, cemented the idea of the medical expert in a court case - previous forensic experts were often laughed out of the court room, or brought in largely to perform for jurors.  Gettler established a method of presenting the evidence he had gathered which was neither sensational (no killing animals in the court room to demonstrate toxicity) nor beyond the comprehension of the jury.

Blum focuses on the use of poison in murders during this period, because poison was difficult to detect, and poisoners were often able to evade conviction.  Each chapter focuses on a specific poison - chloroform, or methyl alcohol, or arsenic, for example - and usually revolves around a specific case or group of cases involving that poison.  Beyond that, the running theme of the book was Prohibition, and the ways in which government efforts to make industrial (methyl or wood) alcohol unpalatable resulted in considerably more deaths than would have occurred otherwise. I've often heard that the government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition, and assumed that this meant they deliberately placed poison into confiscated alcohol and then allowed that alcohol to be re-released into the public. This was not the case. Instead, they forced increasingly stringent standards upon producers of industrial alcohol (which was the base for most of the affordable bootlegged alcohol during Prohibition; the bathtub gin, and such), ensuring that the industrial alcohol, already poisonous (methyl alcohol, unless treated exceedingly carefully, will make you blind, and then kill you), became more poisonous. Producers were required to add things to the alcohol to "denature" it; bitter substances, petroleum derivatives, and other things.  Gettler, Norris, and many other medical examiners across the country decried these practices, and pointed out that by making alcohol illegal, Prohibition meant that people actually drank more "hard" liquor than beer or wine - bathtub gin and its ilk were easy to make; bathtub beer was an entirely different story. Morally, Blum argues, the government was responsible for the deaths caused by methyl alcohol, even if they did not force anyone to drink the poisoned brews.

I quite liked Blum's overall organisation, but occasionally found her digressions within chapters to be distracting. Additionally, the work of Gettler was very "wet" chemistry, involving a great deal of dissection and the like, and so the book was quite grisly in several places - not for the faint of heart. Blum includes a short bibliography and several pages of footnotes, about on par for a popular history, if not quite up to the standards of academia.