Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Poisoner's Handbook

What a kick off to 2012!  Welcome to Miss Georgia and the Saint, we are deeelighted to have you aboard!  We got acquainted over fromage et charcuterie, Chez Chateau, followed by pasta with Italian tuna, roasted bell peppers and pancetta and a tricolore salad, and then chocolatey mini-brownies in individual ramekins with vanilla ice cream and fruit compote for dessert.  So cozy--so delish!--the perfect winter BC.

The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum scored a 6.5, and would have been higher were it not for a dramatic, lowball "3" by Red.  We endeavored to explain the art and science of the BC rating system to Miss Georgia and the Saint, but, like the scores themselves, the discussion was fraught with disagreement.  Only a few clear rules were delineated:  don't wimp out and refuse to rate, no fractions less than 0.5, and always, always, change your score on an ad hoc basis as a result of the opinions of those who rated before you!  But El Jefe digresses...there were a lot of criticisms of this book.  Several of us were unimpressed by our jazz age protagonists, the incorruptible Charles Norris (New York's Chief Medical Examiner) and his trusty sidekick Alexander Gettler (Chief Toxicologist).  According to our group, they were lacking in character (or, at least the author lacked in describing their characters) and their disgusting toils were repetitive and tedious to read about.  No sympathy for these stalwart men, valiantly laboring away under preposterous working conditions (no car service!) and for too little pay in a corrupt and violent city.  Bah!  Others expressed the opinion that although the author tried to create an integrated narrative, the story nevertheless was disjointed, and reading the book felt like taking a chemistry lesson (assuming that's a bad thing).  But on the other hand, there was unanimous recognition that one learned a lot from this book, which illuminated fascinating and little-known historical facts about a time and place that has been endlessly romanticized, dramatized, and made to seem better than the godawful s*&#hole that it actually was.  The book also raised some interesting socio-political questions as we observed how the most poisonous wood alcohol was consumed by New York's poorest residents, while the uptown population somehow managed to score decent hooch--an obvious comparison to how crack cocaine and other lethal street drugs wreak havoc in poor communities today but are not used by affluent people who can afford "safer" drugs.  Finally, we talked about whether, after reading this book, we felt more or less optimistic about modern health and safety and exposure to chemical substances in daily life.  Sadly, while the understanding of industrial poisons has come a long way since the 1920s, most of us feel that there are new and unknown poisons lurking in consumer goods all around us, and science will just never catch up with detecting or monitoring the substances that find their way into food, cosmetics, the environment and our bodies every day.

Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler

"Radium Girls," painting watch dials at U.S. Radium Corp. circa 1917.

Cyanide.  Just a teaspoon can kill.


 Our next meeting is at Logan's Run's house on February 8.  We are reading Eat, Drink and Be Married, and author Rebecca Bloom will be there to discuss the book.  The Highlander is bringing apps and Miss Georgia is bringing dessert.  Until next time, read early and often, especially because the author is coming!