Saturday, August 28, 2010

Two Great Books

Above, the book I'm currently enjoying on my new iPod (I loves presents!). It's long, y'all. Really, really long. The book as an audio experience will last 28 hours.

BUT, all the material that's tangential (related, but not totally essential), consists of fascinating, carefully and thoughtfully synthesized descriptions of things you would otherwise really never know: a detailed history of Gibbons v. Ogden, the story of early steam-driven ferries in New York harbor...and I'm only in the very tippy top of part 2 (out of 5!).

Like TJ Stiles's wonderful biography of Jesse James (read it), this book has both penetrating insight and a loose, conversational voice. He's trained academically but writes with the kind of wit and fluidity more often encountered in journalism.

And second, but perhaps even better (much, much shorter) is this book by science journalist Deborah Blum. It's the story of the rise of forensic science in New York. Each chapter examines a different poison (cyanide, mercury, carbon monoxide...), explaining the ways that these poisons work, how they have led to deaths and murders, and how two men working at Bellevue Hospital managed to create modern medical examination out of will and brains.

But the best part is that the stories about murder and accidental death include within them stories about political corruption, Prohibition, scientific innovation (in forensic science but also gasoline production and other advances in chemistry and technology), immigration, gender, and class. It's all there, built into murder mysteries and courtroom dramas.

Both images are links, in case you're short of reading materials. Enjoy...

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