read all day

   What could be better than reading about reading? Let me tell you: reading about a woman who made it her goal to read one book every day for a year. Yes, you have done the math correctly, 365 books.And we're not talking picture books, although that would be a worthy endeavor in its own right. When I say books I mean 300-500 pages.

   After losing her sister to cancer, Nina Sankovitch found grieving difficult and was plagued by guilt and fear. She chose the best method she knew to remedy it, and delved deep into the printed page. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair traces her year from the day she spent reading Dracula to see if she could read a novel in a day, to the day she finished off her last day's book. Filled with observations about bereavement and family and books and life in general, this book is well worth your attention. (I will add a disclaimer about a chapter about how reading affects her romantic relationship with her husband)

   I'm not sure how it happened, but I've read more than usual about grief this year, from this book to A Grief Observed (if you haven't yet, I repeat, read it) to short stories about the subject and so on. Even though I haven't lost anyone close to me in a long time, it is comforting to see how the written word (whether writing it or reading it) can help connect us back to our lives and work through the process of recovering after a loved one dies or leaves or is simply no longer there. We are made to be creative, and working in that can bring us comfort and hope, whether that be through reading and writing or music or art.

   I am a big fan of Ted Talks, and I'll leave you with one of my favorites.


Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler in the Medical Examiner's Office

   Often, I have several books on the go at once. It's a disease, I'm sure. It simply can't be helped though, new books are always cropping up, begging to be read. "Begin! Begin! Begin!" they say, and who am I to refuse?

   I recently finished a pair of nonfiction books which complimented each other in odd ways that made them all the more interesting. The first is The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart, and it is a #1 bestseller in the botany category, if that's a recommendation to you. It's almost exactly what you'd expect from a book about plants and booze, with recipes and anecdotes from history and a really fascinating story of the use of potatoes in vodka. Near the end, the list style of the book can be a bit dry, but there is the occasional oasis of obscure plant history or science to keep you interested. For example, did you know that oranges need to get cold in order to ripen to a familiar orange glow, or they'll just stay greenish? Hence why Florida is more known for orange juice than actual orange exports: their oranges are just green enough to be off-putting. Entirely ripe! Just not orange.

   The real star of this past month, however, has been one I picked up as a break from lists of which berries are best suited to liqueurs. The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum has an eye-catching title and I jumped right in. What followed is one of the most fascinating books I've ever read; I've been gushing about it to everyone who will listen, and I'm here now to strongly recommend it to you.

   The subtitle is "murder and the birth of forensic medicine in Jazz Age New York" and if that doesn't sound like the best book ever then I don't know what to say to you. This book has it all. Prohibition, toxicology, politics, bootlegging, courtroom drama, inspiring historical figures, detective work, and on and on. Here you'll witness the birth of reliable toxicological evidence, all surrounded by the strange world of Prohibition in the US which lasted from 1920-1933. At the opening of the books the Coroner's Office is a mess of corruption and incompetence, but all that changes in 1918 with the appointment of Charles Norris as Chief Medical Examiner and his overhaul of the system. He hires the first forensic chemist in any US city, Alexander Gettler, and together they change New York.

   I will warn you that this book contains many forays into the often grisly world of autopsies and mincing of organs to extract poisons. If you can't handle reading about the methods for detecting cyanide in a weeks-dead body, then I feel sorry for you, son. I've got ninety-nine problems but that doesn't happen to be one of them.

   In other news: anyone who can recommend a good book on Prohibition or one about the history of absinthe will get a grateful handshake from me.