The Poisoner’s Handbook (CBR11 #49)

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

I don’t know what it says about me that I quite enjoy medical history and historic New York, but I do know that it says that The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York is right up my alley. It also wins the prize for longest title of the books I’ve read this year.

Blum’s book tracks the time when a pair of forensic scientists, Charles Norris and Alexander Getler began the chemical detective work that forensic science has become known for and fighting to end an era when untraceable poisons let many criminals commit ‘perfect’ crimes. Chapters are broken up poison by poison, year by year as we follow the cases chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler investigate ranging from workers with crumbling bones to a diner serving poisoned pies. Blum presents each case as a puzzle and outlines the work of Norris and Gettler (and others) creating revolutionary experiments to find the hidden toxins in human tissue. The pair also begin to unearth the toxic threats of everyday life in a modern New York City. Its with some relief that we read about Norris and Gettler’s triumph over seemingly unbeatable odds, becoming pioneers of forensic chemistry and a better justice system.

The book can be repetitive at times, present new toxin, explain related case/crime, lay out the new science Norris and Gettler were developing, solve the mystery, rinse and repeat. Its very detailed, but easy to understand, the explanations of the chemical nature of the various toxins they dealt with,  as well as the sometimes hilarious account of the political in-fighting necessary to even get a qualified coroner appointed in the figure of Norris in the first place. This one can be considered equal parts true crime, twentieth-century history, and science thriller. If that sounds good to you, it may be worth a look.

Read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Girls of Atomic City (CBR8 #11)

I loved the topic of this book, I wasn’t so much in love with its execution. I listened to this one via audiobook, as has become a new obsession of mine, and I’ve noticed that listening to books as opposed to reading them can really highlight poor editorial choices. There were many cases in the course of reading this book where we were revisiting information for the third or fourth time and it bothered me. Not enough to stop listening to this book, but enough to keep me from bumping this book’s rating up from three stars to four.

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II is both exactly what its title says it is, and a little bit more. Author Denise Kiernan runs two narratives simultaneously: the first about the aforementioned women who came to the mysterious Clinton Engineering Works without any idea of what exactly they were working towards, except something that would help end the Second World War quickly, and the second the history of the scientific discoveries which would eventually lead to the development of the world’s first atomic weapon. Each side of the story has its ups and downs, but Kiernan does a good job of conveying the experience of a variety of women (and men) had at CEW both during the war and in its aftermath.

I’ve seen this one compared to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and I think that a fair comparison. Each book tackles a portion of science which is likely unfamiliar to the general reader (how many of us really understand what goes into nuclear energy?) and tells us the tale of the science and the people who were directly linked to it. However, each suffers occasionally from an onslaught of information or a story that seemingly wanders away from the main narrative, but are both well researched, engaging reads.

While working on this review I came across the website for the book and it is full of the stuff I missed not having a hard copy in front of me (I love pictures!) and that has generally improved my opinion, so perhaps this one is best in its paper form.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Packing for Mars (CBR7 #16)

This book wasn’t exactly what I thought it was when I decided to read it. I thought Mary Roach would be writing from the perspective of what needs to be done/brought/invented to get us to a place where we are sending humans to live on Mars. What Roach really does is explain how the same things which had to be accomplished for basic space flight and putting a man on the moon are the things that scientists of various stripes are working on right now to continue the forward momentum of space exploration, and the science of everyday modern life.

I also didn’t expect, and that’s probably because I just wasn’t paying close enough attention, that Mary Roach is hysterically funny. I’m used to reading monographs that are occasionally amusing, but it’s not often that you run across an author who takes the extra effort to make the narrative amusing, whether it be by using puns or footnotes to drop a joke or perhaps my favorite of all quoting the astronauts in question and filling in the blanks. It is obvious from the page that Roach enjoyed the researching of this book and I am looking forward to taking her advice and reading Mike Mullane’s book Riding Rockets, which she suggests as the funniest astronaut memoir. The only problem I ran into is that since my roommate read Packing for Mars first, I did miss out on the opportunity to read the funniest parts for myself without prior knowledge of their existence. Chapter 14, I’m looking at you.

But, if you have an interest in the science and history of space exploration and all the wacky questions that may not have occurred to you that would be a concern (for example, gravity aids in the sense of bladder fullness letting us know we need to go) then I would very much suggest this book to you. I think I’m going to look for Roach’s book Stiff later in the year for more fun science reading.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (CBR4 #27)

I have a perverse sense of what constitutes good beach reading. I tend to stay away from the quick easy reads while sitting under my umbrella. The past two vacations I have spent on the beach I have opted for The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, and Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris. This review is about Ms. Skloot’s book inspired by HeLa cells and the woman who they came from.


Rebecca Skloot became familiar with HeLa cells, the first immortal cells ever reproduced in a lab during her college days. Finding herself mesmerized Skloot set out to discover the person behind cells. However, she discovers more than she anticipated over the course of several years of research. She discovered the story of Henrietta Lacks, born in the rural south to poor tobacco farmers and the family she created for herself in Turners Station, Maryland.


Skloot attacks the layers of the story by flipping back and forth through time and topics. This non-linear story could at times be confusing if not for Skloot’s perseverance in editing and the use of a timeline at the beginning of each chapter. This book is at once the story of Henrietta’s life, the science and discoveries enabled by the discovery of HeLa cells, and the changes in patient rights over the past 60 years.


This is a heavy, engaging read. Well worth your time.