Ah, yes, it’s that time of year again, where the holidays bunch up like they’ve put off celebrating til the last minute and suddenly it’s time to give All The Gifts. Of course, this being 2020, and many of us being in America where the ostensible leader can’t see reality past his artificially inflated ego, this is a complicated holiday season. Many of us will be socially distancing still. Viruses don’t take holidays, even when we wish they would.
Thanks to eCommerce, though, we can still give our loved ones some nice little gifts if we don’t want to skip that part, many of which will help while away a long pandemic winter. Let’s explore!
You know how sometimes you’re kinda sad when finishing a book, because despite having approximately 4,568,892,626,942 other books you need to read, none of them will be quite like this book? Yeah, I felt that way about Raoul McLaughlin’s The Roman Empire and the Silk Routes: The Ancient World Economy and the Empires of Parthia, Central Asia and Han China. There are few books that manage to straddle the line between interesting enough to keep me plugging through to the end, but soporific enough to be a reliable insomnia cure. This book struck that exact balance.
Why shouldn’t women be singing “A pirate’s life for me!” right alongside the men? Laura Sook Duncombe’s exquisite Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers Who Ruled The Seven Seas certainly proves that women have always had the skill and determination to sail and plunder. Many answered the siren call of the sea. Men have tried to write them out of history, but good evidence for pirate women exists, and Laura found plenty of it.
Pirates are for many of us, an inherently fascinating subject. Tales of famous pirates both historical and fictional abound. We dress like them for Halloween, talk like them on one special September day, and flock to movies about them. But outside of a few notable exceptions, most of those pirates we encounter in song, story, and screen are dudes. So many dudes.
Laura uncovers a world full of lady pirates from around the world.
I’ve been a Dame Agatha Christie fan for very many decades now. She wasn’t my fave when I was young – I was a misogynistic jackass and thought she was a pale imitation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve realized that she’s the better writer. I guess I’ll have to do an entire post on that eventually. But for now, just know I respect her story craft immensely.
And after reading A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup, I respect her a hell of a lot more.
This is a very necessary book for any Christie fan. It’s super neat getting to know her killers’ poisons better, especially the rare ones that are featured in this wonderful book. Kathryn does a marvelous job explaining such uncommon death-dealers as eserine, monkshood, nicotine, and veronal. There are even chemical structure diagrams as the section break symbols. If you’re a geek or a nerd, this book will make your heart grow three sizes.
Kathryn begins by singing Christie’s praises for knowing her poisons. She describes Christie’s work as a nurse during WWI, when she worked in a hospital dispensary. She was a natural, and keen-eyed, and saved a patient from getting an overdose when she spotted a grave mistake made by the man who was training her. (That dude later got memorialized as the pharmacist in Christie’s The Pale Horse. Having read this book recently, I can assure you that was a dubious honor indeed.)
Learning that she was actually a trained apothecary, and drew directly on her medical knowledge for her books, shot my respect for her through the stratosphere. And it makes The Mysterious Affair at Styles pop with elements that were taken from her direct experience. This chapter is wonderful for those of us who love her works, but haven’t learned much about her life.
The rest of the book is divided into chapters that are each devoted to a particular poison, and the Christie novel(s) they appear in. Spoilers abound, so if you haven’t read all of Christie’s books, and don’t want to know details, you’ll need to skim in places. Kathryn does warn when major plot elements are being discussed.
Each chapter gives a history of the poison in question, talks about how it affects the human body, and discusses the biochemistry behind its effects. We also learn how Christie’s characters used it, what details she got right, and what she got wrong and/or took some dramatic license with. Kathryn also talks about real-life criminal cases that may have inspired Christie’s stories. There is so much good stuff packed into a not particularly large book!
The appendices are one of my favorite parts. Appendix 1 gives a table that shows cause of death for all of Christie’s novels and short stories, in order of publication, and listed by both UK and US titles. This has simplified my quest to complete my collection by 1000%. The second appendix gives the chemical structures of the poisons. And if you want further reading, there’s a very nice bibliography.
This is one of the books I enjoyed most this year, and I finished it hoping Kathryn has enough material for a Part II. If you love Christie, chemistry, and/or crime, treat yourself to this book. You deserve it!
P.S. The Kindle version of The Pale Horse is free to borrow for Prime members right now. If you haven’t read it yet, you’re going to love it.
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My earliest bookstore memory is of going to the mall (remember when malls had bookstores? Good times) and leaving with two books. One was the first Garfield collection. The other was Little House in the Big Woods.
Thus began a childhood reading the Little House series til the paperbacks disintegrated. I’d read them through probably at least twice a year. My poor patient field spaniel became my baby, stuffed into the wheelbarrow I’d converted into a covered wagon, as we lived the pioneer life every summer. Every few days, we’d pack our belongings into the wagon and migrate to a new homestead in the yard, following the lead of the Ingalls family. I swept my dirt floors clean with handmade brooms, and made a mattress stuffed with dried grass. I longed for real maple sugar candy and Indian beads. I wanted to make hay in the sunshine. I fully identified with that dark-haired, headstrong little pioneer girl.
Still do, actually.
Eventually, I outgrew the books. Other series replaced them in my regular rotations. But I still harbor all the warm fuzzy feels, and sometimes I remember my favorite bits and get transported back to those happy times.
So reading Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder was sort of like watching that grass fire leap Pa and Ma’s hasty fire break and burn the cozy little log cabin to the ground.
Pa, rather than being an enterprising pioneer whose misfortunes were due to circumstances beyond his control, turns out to be a man who had a disastrous knack for making foolish financial decisions. Laura had to get a job as a child because her family couldn’t make homesteading pay. Shit got a lot more real than she ever let on. Domestic violence and attempted murder were things she witnessed all too frequently. Babies died a lot, including her Ma’s, hers, and her daughter’s.
And speaking of daughters: her darling Rose was probably an actual psychopath.
There are always myths involved with fictionalized versions of a life, but the foundational myth of the Little House series, that rugged pioneer folk don’t need no help from the gubmint, proves to be a gigantic lie. Libertarians would probably scream in horror finding out the truth behind the Wilder myth, but I doubt they’ll read this book. And if they do, they’ll probably pretend Caroline is a lying librul shill. Too bad for them she’s got the sources to prove her claims.
So yes, this book kicks childhood nostalgia right in the teeth. But it’s worth it. It’s fascinating learning how the Ingalls really lived. Caroline is so very good at tying together historical events and providing social context. We get a bitter but compelling taste of the real pioneer life, and get to see how pioneers fared as the Old West ended and the 20th Century began. We learn how Laura’s life went after the books ended. We get to gawk at the utter shit show that is Rose Wilder Lane. And there are new, older, wiser fuzzy feels as we survey Laura’s legacy.
If you were even a casual fan of the Little House books, or if you want to see the rugged individual American myth busted, this is a book you need.
You also need Ana Mardoll’s review of it. Trust me. It makes excellent companion reading to this book.
I bought Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything on a whim. It was on sale, and I loves me some sneering at snake oil. I figured it would be enjoyable.
Friends. It far surpassed expectations. Lydia and Nate’s style is easy, breezy, and delightfully snarky. They give a wonderful amount of detail: not enough to get bogged down, plenty to really relish the quackery. They do their best to explain why rational people fall for irrational nonsense, and while the medical shysters preying on vulnerable people get no quarter from them, the victims get empathy. It’s so great!
It seems like entire libraries have been written about the Mount St. Helens eruption. Here are four books well worth reading.
Let me just start by stating the obvious: this is far from a definitive list. It’s just a microcosm of must-reads. These are four books that provided particular insight. Some are out of print, but used copies are fairly easy to find. This is the stack I would personally hand to anyone wanting to learn all they can about that fateful day, who want accuracy, but who don’t want anything too technical or difficult.
You should purchase a box of your preferred tissues to go along with these books. You’ll get to know some of the people we lost up there. And it’s hard. But I feel we owe it to the dead to remember them, how they died, and to try to prevent the same thing from happening to others.
There are incredible stories of survival here. At times, there are frank discussions of terrible injuries. What a volcanic eruption does to a human body is truly grim. So be mindful of that. Take breaks when you need to.
The best part of all of these stories is that science prevented catastrophic loss of life and human suffering. And we learned so many lessons that helped save lives when other volcanoes erupted.
Mount St. Helens is one of the most fascinating volcanoes in existence. These books do her justice.
I’m going to give you the verdict right up front here: don’t waste your money on this book. I got the Kindle edition on sale for $1.99, and I’m ashamed I spent that much. The only reason I didn’t return it was this review.
No, I didn’t finish the book. Yes, I’m reviewing it anyway. I got far enough in to be confident it wasn’t going to improve. There may be a diamond or two in that vat of raw sewage, but why continue to search there when there’s a prolific diamond mine of a book available on the same subject?
Let’s count the numerous issues you’ll encounter in just the first 15% of this book.
The Science: Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts don’t know it. At first, it’s NBD: referring to the steam and ash plumes a waking volcano emits as “smoke” is irritating to those of us who know better, but it’s not an abominable error. Calling the ash “Sulphur ash” when what they mean is it smelled like sulfur is inaccurate and could be confusing, but it’s not that big a deal. But those little errors pile up quickly, making you doubt the authors understand this eruption the way they want to convince you they do.
Then it starts becoming more obvious they don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. When describing the geologic history of the Lesser Antilles, they say the islands are “the result of volcanic eruptions forcing the ocean bed up 10,000 or more feet.” That’s absolutely not how it works! Extrusive volcanic activity that builds islands isn’t shoving the ocean floor up: it’s piling stuff atop it.
It gets worse. In Chapter Two, they begin describing the lava streaming from Peleé’s summit. There’s just one problem with that: Peleé didn’t emit any lava flows during the eruptions in May 1902; not on the 2nd, not on the 8th, not on any day. Most contemporaneous accounts by eyewitnesses and investigators don’t mistake mudflows or pyroclastic flows for lava, either. So even if Jules Sequin, their supposed eye-witness, did report seeing “a long tongue of fresh lava,” it’s incumbent on them to state what the actual material was. They never do. The reader unfamiliar with the 1902 eruption would be left thinking lava flows were totally happening.
At this point, we’re less than 10% of the way through this book, and I’ve had it with their incompetence. But I read on, and get treated to a long passage about lava invading Le Prêcheur, an event which never happened. I have no idea where the authors pulled their “facts” from, but I suspect they emerged brown and stinky.
They of course continue to mangle facts (they think volcanoes happen when the Earth’s crust cools and cracks, apparently), but at this point, the horse I’m beating is definitely deceased. We have abundant proof we can’t trust their geologic descriptions. So let us move on to their other sins.
The history: Writing about historic events where all the eyewitnesses are long dead is difficult. Reconstructing conversations, actions, and thought processes is risky: you want to be engaging and make things feel dynamic rather then dry and academic, but you can’t get too creative unless you’re writing fiction. Most authors proceed with caution. These two proceed with wreckless abandon. They presume to know every thought, mannerism, and movement of their subjects, even the ones who left no detailed accounts behind. You begin to wonder if a) they have a really great medium on retainer or b) they’re just making shit up.
I’m sure they’d say they’re working from reports and documents of the time, but they don’t quote anything directly. They don’t show their work. And I frankly wouldn’t believe they found accounts that described every step, every adjustment of clothing, and every single thought and word of people who died nearly instantly in a city-leveling catastrophe. That level of detail belongs in a novelization, not a book which purports to be a true and faithful record of events as they actually happened. After a certain amount of mind-reading, I just can’t take the writers seriously anymore.
I won’t deny they have an engaging writing style, and the novel-quality description and prose was engaging. I might have kept reading the book while pretending it was billed as based-on-a-true-story and marketed as fiction, which would have allowed me to get my $2 worth.
But then we got to the misogyny and fat shaming, and that’s where I stopped.
The bigotry: The misogyny wasn’t entirely awful, but when they describe a woman as crisp and capable on one page, then have her hysterically screaming for an entire hour a page or two later, I’ve gotta roll my eyes. Even if you do witness your dad and his employees getting eaten by a mudflow, as a crisp and capable woman, you’ll scream for a minute at most before doing something else. Even if the horrific event completely breaks you, the human throat isn’t fucking capable of that much sustained screaming. The authors would know this if they weren’t inclined to think of women in a crisis as hysterical.
But the part that made me close my kindle app in utter disgust is where they spend several pages sneering at Governor Moultet of Martinique as fat and ugly. They lavish details on the situation. They go on at some length about how handsome he used to to be. Disgust fairly drips from their pens as they describe how the man had the sheer audacity to lose his looks due to bouts of dysentary and malaria, and his waistline due to love of good food. By the end, the authors leave you with the feeling they despise Moultet far more for his appearance then for the many errors in judgement he made regarding Peleé.
I read on for several more pages, but I was done. Between the glaring geological errors, the frankly unbelievable writing, their casual sexism, and their villainizing a man not for his actions but his appearance, I’d had enough.
There’s no reason to waste your time with this book. Read Ernest Zebrowski Jr.’s excellent The Last Days of St. Pierre instead. You deserve a better book than these authors are capable of delivering.
This book made me incredibly angry*, and it’s one of the most important books I’ve ever read. If I had tons of money, I’d give a copy to literally everyone. Should you buy this book? Yes.
Do you know anyone who’s skeptical about the necessity of monitoring volcanoes? Send them this book and let them know their opinions won’t be entertained until they’ve read it in full.
Do you know anyone who’s thinking of becoming a volcanologist? They need a copy.
If you read it yourself, you need to be prepared.