Thursday, May 21, 2009

Poison: a history and family memoir

by Gail Bell

This was on my "want to read" list for years, and then one day I passed by it on the shelf and decided to check it out; then it sat on my shelf at home for quite a while, until one day it didn't renew because someone else had a hold on it. I probably could have renewed it in a few days, after that person's hold was satisfied with a different copy of the book, but I decided it was time at last to shit or get off the pot, as they say.

So, after all that waiting, the book is very good, but just a hair shy of excellent — not for any particular reason, just overall it's a B+ and not an A. (It occurs to me now, having just typed that, that the grade analogy is apt: though the book doesn't fail in a specific way, I've read a number of other conceptually similar books that are better, so this book is marked down relative to those that truly excel, as if graded on a curve.) It serves up a nice mix of facts and narrative, in the vein of well-known literary nonfiction books such as Salt; Cod; The Botany of Desire; The Big Oyster; Rats (the one by Robert Sullivan); etc. It even has a theoretical edge over other books of its ilk, in that it incorporates the family history angle, detailing the author's investigation of allegations that her grandfather poisoned two of his children.

Trained as a pharmacist, the author really knows her stuff when it comes to the chemical properties and biological effects of various poisonous substances. The historical information about famous poisoning cases, and also the less-scientific explorations of the literary, cultural, symbolic nature of poison and poisoning — the areas one might have expected her to falter or seem out of her element — are well-researched and well-written. I'm still giving it a hearty recommendation: ain't nothin' wrong with a B+.

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