The Poisoner’s Handbook, by Deborah Blum

2012 Book 149: The Poisoner’s Handbook 

written by Deborah Blum, narrated by Coleen Marlo

Reason for Reading: October Halloween theme

My Review

This fascinating book outlines the development of forensic science in the 1920’s. It begins by describing the poor state of forensics the late nineteen-teens, and pointing out WHY it was so necessary to develop a proper procedure for determining cause of death. I’ve always taken such things for granted and never even thought about the effort it would take to develop the science–not only scientifically, but also as a social movement. Although the Prohibition theme resonates throughout the book, each chapter focuses on a different poison–including the background/development of the poison, the effects it has on the victim, and the measures taken by forensic scientists to discover cause of death. This book was fascinating on so many different levels. It’s interesting as a Prohibition-era history, but it would also be interesting to lovers of popular science. Highly recommended for a little light reading.

Zone One, by Colson Whitehead

2012 Book 138: Zone One

written by Colson Whitehead, narrated by Beresford Bennett

Reason for Reading: I read Zone One for A More Diverse Universe blog tour, which aims to increase awareness of authors-of-color…-of-speculative-fiction. (Is that the correct punctuation for that term?) Zone One is particularly fitting for this blog tour, since it is being considered for this year’s Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. Though this book is a “literary” zombie novel, so of course it is, by definition, genre defying. 😉 I also read this book for a the Surreal September LibraryThing theme read, and for the  R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VII challenge.

My Review

This post-apocalyptic book takes place in on Manhattan Island (Zone One), where Mark Spitz and his colleges work as “sweepers.” Their job is to remove all the straggler-zombies from the area and bag them for disposal. This book isn’t plot driven so much as world-building-driven. Whitehead uses beautiful prose to describe the “reconstruction” of America. As spell-binding as his sentences are, however, this flowery language distracts from the few action scenes…making this book not so much about zombies as about compulsive and overwhelming mediocrity. I don’t mean that Whitehead’s writing is mediocre–not in the slightest!–but that the book is about mediocrity. The mediocrity of Mark Spitz is described in beautifully pregnant prose. In fact, Mark had “unrivaled mediocrity” and all the “advantages this adaptation conferred in a mediocre world.” The zombies themselves were a metaphor for the mediocre masses of Manhattan. Many of them harmlessly flipped non-existent burgers over ovens that had broken down long ago. They window shopped in front of boarded up displays and vegged in front of dead televisions. Thus, the book had a rather dark view of humanity…that we are descending irrepressibly into mediocrity. 

On top of that mediocre metaphor, Whitehead flirts with an allegory for the post-Civil War reconstruction. He compares the “untold Americans” who were not a part of the reconstruction to “slaves who didn’t know they’d been emancipated.” I pondered the meaning of this slave metaphor for a long time. Did Whitehead mean that these slaves hadn’t been told about the reconstruction? That there were untold numbers of them? That nobody would ever tell their story? Maybe he meant all of that? Following through with his mediocre-zombie metaphor, it seems that Whitehead meant that America is filled both with mediocre masses who live like zombies and their slaves…slaves of technology, slaves to the whim of the mediocre masses, slaves to the unpredictability of a fickle universe. 

I had a hard time reading this book because of all the flashbacks and literary musings–I don’t recommend people listen to the audiobook version due to these unexpected and frequent changes. I probably would have enjoyed it much, much more if I had physically read it. 🙂 I think this is an excellent work for its meaning and its prose, but it’s going to get bad reviews from the zombie-fiction-lovers out there, because, in the end, it’s not really about zombies. 

P.S. After writing that review, I’ve decided to give it 4 stars because it made me think…I was originally going to give it 3.5 stars because it was difficult for me to get through, and I didn’t immensely enjoy it. 🙂 But that may have been the fault of my choice of medium (audiobook).

About the Author
Colson Whitehead was born in New York City in 1969, and he grew up in Manhattan. After graduating from Harvard, he wrote for magazines and has published five novels. On top of that, he’s quite handsome. 😀

Iron House, by John Hart

2012 Book 5: Iron House, by John Hart (1/9/2012)

Iron House is a beautifully written mystery/suspense novel that delves into the psychological effects of a childhood of violence and abuse. Michael is an orphan who, after running away from a violent scene at an orphanage, grows up to be an enforcer for a powerful mobster. When he falls in love with a beautiful waitress and retires from organized crime, he is suddenly thrown into a violent mystery leading him to explore things he had left behind. Despite my need to suspend disbelief a few times (and to frown upon a few clichés), I feel that Hart kept up the action (and mystery) throughout the book, making for an engaging read. This is an excellent book for people who enjoy mystery/thrillers (assuming they don’t mind violence). I gave the book 3.5/5 stars…it lost points for violence and small clichés.