Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Sunday Book Review, July 24, 2011: The Poisoner's Handbook

Madame L admits (and assumes that you, Dear Reader, will be happy to know) that she has never been interested in poisoning anyone. Yet when she saw "The Poisoner's Handbook," by Deborah Blum, on the sale table at her local bookstore, she couldn't resist buying it.

And now, though still uninterested in poisoning anyone, Madame L is glad she got this book because it's so full of fascinating history and humanity.

Madame L would probably have enjoyed those high school American History classes about the Prohibition, for example, if they'd pointed out how many more people died from poisoned liquor during the Prohibition than had died from alcoholism before it went into effect. 

She would have been appalled to learn that the U.S. government deliberately poisoned alcohol that poor people bought during that time. 

She would NOT have been surprised to find that people who had drunk alcohol before the Prohibition continued to drink it during the Prohibition. 

But she WAS surprised on reading this book to learn that Herbert Hoover, who ran for president as a Republican, endorsing Prohibition as "an experiment noble in purpose," was not so noble himself as to pass by the Belgian Embassy on his way home from work at the Commerce Department to get some high-quality European liquor, legal on the foreign soil of the embassy. 

But alcohol isn't the only poison Blum writes about. There's arsenic, mercury, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide (really!), cyanide, chloroform, radium, thallium, and so on and on.

Blum says she wanted to be a chemist but it didn't work out, due to her day-dreaming while performing risky experiments, which resulted in the release of toxic fumes on one occasion and the setting of her own hair on fire on another. (A person after my own heart!) But imagine a high school or college chemistry class where you could actually perform some of the experiments performed by the researchers Blum writes about, instead of those deadly dull recipe-book experments.

You don't have to have wanted to be a chemist to be fascinated with the subject, and Blum makes it even more fascinating, bringing even the details of chemistry and toxicology and forensic science into focus in a way that makes it all clear. 

Also, Blum points out the evil (yes, Madame L uses the term evil, though Blum shies away from it) of those who murder using poison. Her portrayal of the cold and calculating nature of those people would have made even college freshman psychology classes more interesting.

The Poisoner's Handbook is on sale at, too, for less than $7.00. 

Dear Reader, can you think of some other books that could be used to make high school and college classes more interesting, which could fire up the imagination and entice students to want to learn more instead of fretting about how boring it all is? Please share!

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