08 August 2010

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Arthur Dent is having an exceptionally crappy day. First, his house is going to be bulldozed to make way for a new highway and his impromptu protest is having mixed results. Then, his quirky friend Ford pulls him away to the pub because the unemployed actor has something of great importance to tell Arthur. And, then, Ford tells him that the world is going to end in a matter of minutes--undercover aliens like Ford sort of get a hands up on these kinds of announcements. And then Arthur finds himself on a bizarre outer space adventure with Ford, a two-headed politician named Zaphod, a rather attractive scientist named Tracy who found Arthur quite boring at a party six months earlier, and a chronically glum robot named Marvin the Paranoid Android on a quest for a lost planet while aboard the Heart of Gold, a magnificent spacecraft gained by somewhat illegal means and powered by the Improbability Drive.

Several times on this blog--and in chats--I have lamented my lack of knowledge of the hard sci fi genre. I like sci fi, but most of my readings in the genre have been in dystopian sci fi. My familiarity with sci fi tales sporting aliens and space ships is sadly limited. To remedy this, my good friend Scott, an avid classic sci fi reader, has recommended several sci fi books to me, chief of which is The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the premier sci fi comedy book. I mentioned blogging it last week and was pleased when Serena and Penguins commented on how much they love the book. As always has happened with book suggestions I get from my readers, I was not disappointed. I loved this book and can't believe I have lived 21 years without reading it. *beats head with book* Thanks to all of you!

First and foremost, this book is just flat-out, laugh out loud funny. Though I had moments that were my favorites--the Vogon poetry reading, the mouse experiments *wink wink*, and the police shootout--the whole book was full of delightfully weird characters, silly situations, and witty deadpan narration that reminded me very much of both Terry Pratchett and Jasper Fforde, two of my favorite writers. I also adored the absurdity of so much of the story. I was trying to remember where I had heard Adams' name before and was not too surprised when I flipped the book open and read his bio, which notes that he wrote for Monty Python. This book reminds me very much of Monty Python with the zany verbal exchanges and frequent use of irony.

One thing I particularly loved--and I'm not sure how much sense this is going to make, but here we go--is how Adams embraces the novel's insanity and runs with it. I've read several books where the author creates an interesting world but then tries to smooth over any reader disbelief by adding convoluted "logic" to back up the plot and any deviations from the real world. Adams, on the other hand, never relies on this, which more often than not backfires. Adams makes no attempts to logically explain away the craziness that's going on and that actually makes the novel even more enjoyable than if he had tried the alternative.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the perfect end-of-summer read. Its wildly inventive world will appeal to sci fans and the hilarious plot and narration will delight humor fans, especially for those who are fond of absurdist British humor. Penguins has told me that after finishing this one, I'll have to read the whole series. Indeed! :D
This Week in Literary History:
4 August 1792: Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley is born in Sussex, England. A talented poet--and born rebel--Shelley was kicked out of Oxford, famously ditched his wife for Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and drowned in a boating accident at the age of 29. Along the way he wrote some outstanding poetry, of which "Ode to the West Wind" and "Stanzas Written in Dejection" are some of my personal favorites. I also highly recommend his fascinating prose treatise "A Defense of Poetry" in which Shelley reiterates the need for poetry and provides what may have been a defense of his own notoriously tumultuous personal life in the process. I must admit, for years I was more of a fan of Shelley's wife, Mary--I adore her classic Frankenstein--but as I have gotten older, I have learned to appreciate Shelley's work, as well.


Somewhat Important Announcement: This pains me to write, but I'm going to have to take a break from Blogger for the next few weeks. I don't want to! *nerd tantrum* But I am leaving on Friday for my new college's one week long orientation. Judging by the schedule, my internet time will be extremely limited, as will my reading time. After that, I am going to be carrying a full class schedule at a new school, working a new job, and living in a new residence. I don't want to make promises that I can't keep or post substandard posts, so I think I'm just going to take a little break and resume blogging in early September around Labor Day after I get adjusted to my new life. I'll be around until about Thursday--and plan to post a final post on my other blog later this week--so I should be able to respond to comments until then. Likewise, if you don't see me here on Blogger or Sparknotes or Critique Circle or Facebook or Twitter until early September, don't freak! I am not ignoring you and I have not been abducted by mutant giraffes bent on world domination. I will try my best to keep up with PMs and my e-mail, but it may take me a few days to get to it. I am going to miss all of you so much! But I am not abandoning you. I already have some reviews in the works, namely Markus Zusak's I Am the Messenger--a suggestion from Penguins. :D


A Somewhat Less Important But Less Solemn Announcement: My more observant readers--those of you who looked at the upper right hand corner today--may have noticed that I added two Goodreads widgets. (I stole the idea from Lucy and Bruce and needed help to do it from Windsong. :D) Now all of the books I have most recently read--along with how many stars I give each one--will be on the first widget, and the books on my immediate to be read list will be on the second one. In case you're wondering, yes, I most certainly joined a website just because I wanted awesome book widgets. (Hence, I was slightly disappointed when I uploaded all of the books I've read this year to the site only to find that only a third of them were displayed on my widget. Poor me.) Regardless, I like the site and I love the widgets! If you have a Goodreads profile, feel free to friend me on the site, though, as with my other internet playgrounds, I may not be active until September.

See all of you in a few weeks! *waves* :)

01 August 2010

The Poisoner's Handbook

This week I was filing a book away in my library's true crime section when the title A Poisoner's Handbook caught my eye. I am a bit ashamed to say that my first thought was "Oh my God! We have a book on poisoning people!" and, as a consequence, I couldn't resist picking it up. (In my defense, I am not plotting to poison anyone's tea. I am merely stumped on a short story I have been working on for quite some time, in which poisoning plays a vital role to the plot. And I'm a little morbid, but that's a different story . . . ) As I thumbed through the book--rather than filing the other books I should have been attending to--I quickly saw that, no, this book is not a literal handbook for would-be poisoners. Author Deborah Blum does one better. She relates the strangely engrossing saga of forensic science in the 1920s New York City, as NYC's first medical examiner, Charles Norris, and his brilliant toxicologist, Alexander Gettler, transformed forensics from a little understood discipline to a highly respected science crucial to crime investigation.

In the 1910s, NYC's coroner's office was a joke. In one disturbing anecdote, Blum relates that a corpse found holding a gun and sporting an obvious gunshot wound to the mouth was declared dead as a result of a "rupture of thoracic aneurysm." Um, right. But this isn't too surprising, seeing as one didn't even have to be a physician to be a coroner at the time. Coroners ranged from carpenters to milkmen, while many of those who did hold medical degrees were incompetent. But the aristocratic Norris, a Yale graduate, cleaned up the department when he took over in 1918 and turned the city's pathology department into one of the best in the country. Alexander Gettler, the son of poor Hungarian Jewish immigrants, pioneered toxicology research during his tenure as the department's chemist. Along the way, Norris and Gettler's work helped solve crimes, paved the way for industrial safety standards, and provided a blueprint for other pathology departments across the nation.

The Poisoner's Handbook is a fascinating blend of science, true crime, and history that brings Jazz Age New York City to life. I have always been fascinated by true crime, as far back as I can remember, and one of my favorite historical periods is the Roaring Twenties, so I naturally enjoyed the cases Blum presents and the evocative description of the era. And as someone who finds medicine and pathology interesting, despite possessing a severe science handicap, I enjoyed the explanations of how different poisons work. One thing I did not expect to enjoy--let alone understand--was the explanations of the chemical compositions of poisons. I mean, I am Zella "Chemistry hates me and beat me up and called me names and stole my lunch" Kate. Chemistry and I are not good friends. But Blum's descriptions of the chemical nature of poisons was straightforward and fairly easy to comprehend, so I didn't mind reading them.

However, for me, the true draw was the colorful characters. Though I was familiar with a few of these cases--including the bizarre story of Michael "The Durable" Malloy, a homeless alcoholic who survived over thirty murder attempts when a group of his acquaintances decided to kill him for his meager insurance money, and the pathetic case of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, who conspired to murder Ruth's husband so they could be together, and inspired two of James M. Cain's most famous novels as a result of their inept murder plot--most of these cases were ones I was unfamiliar with, and not all of them were tales of vindictive or greedy poisoners. In fact, quite a few of the tales involve accidental poisonings, which were alarmingly common in a time when everyday household products had ingredients like cyanide and arsenic, and alcohol-related poisonings that were caused by drinkers indulging in industrial products for their alcohol content to dodge Prohibition.

I enjoyed this highly original book very much, but I will say the book's structure takes some getting used to. Each chapter is devoted to a specific poison and a specific point in chronological time in the department's history. (Hence, chapter 5 deals with mercury and the years 1923-1925). For the most part, I thought the author did a great job of chronicling Norris and Gettler's work while balancing it with a specific poison's profile and related true crime cases, but sometimes a few of the stories seemed a bit random at first read, though they always did tie together in the end. I didn't find the structure distracting--in fact, I was impressed with Blum's skill in juggling so many story lines so thoroughly and so seamlessly--but I can see how some readers may find this approach frustrating. Also, I am not a science person by any stretch of the imagination, but I was reading on a forum that there are a few minor errors in the book, like with measurement conversions. But I am not sure how qualified the people posting those comments were, so I'd love to hear what my more scientifically-minded reader think.

If you're interested in history, crime, and science--or any combination of them--you'll probably enjoy this intriguing tale of poison in the Big Apple. After reading this one, I want to see a CSI: 1920s New York edition. :D


Announcement: As some of you already know, I celebrated my one year blogiversary on my second blog earlier this week. Feel free to stop by and partake in e-cookies, which I swear are absolutely 100% poison-free. :D


Next Week: Not sure. I'd like to blog Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which I promised Scott I'd read this summer, but I can't promise anything.


This Week in Literary History:

25 July 1897: Jack London departs from his native California for Alaska, joining hundreds of others en route to Alaska's gold rush. While living in Alaska, London begin sending his short stories off to publishers, eventually leading to the publication of his classic novel The Call of the Wild, which was one of my absolute favorite books in middle school, though I remember very little of it now. (All the more reason to unearth my copy and reread it. ^^)