Messy, morbid, and entertaining.

POISON

A HISTORY AND A FAMILY MEMOIR

An Australian pharmacist debuts with a lively, if disorganized, story of poisonous death in her family framed within an informal history of toxic substances.

In 1980, the author's great-aunt confirmed the family legend that Bell's grandfather had poisoned two of his sons in 1927. A doctor of naturopathy and an herbalist working around Sydney, William Macbeth allegedly killed his retarded four-year-old son because the boy was expensive to support and then forced his three-year-old son to drink a strychnine tonic as punishment for trespassing in his dispensary. Bell’s research reveals that Macbeth had learned pharmacology as a drugstore clerk but claimed an impressive and uncheckable pedigree including study in Pennsylvania. His bestselling product, labeled Macbeth's Strengthening Tonic (supposedly tested in the Highlands of Scotland on descendants of the great warriors of Culloden), contained a low dosage of strychnine. While gathering information on her crooked family tree, Bell offers a beginner’s course on fatal drugs: strychnine comes from the seeds of the Koochla tree and acts as a paralytic; arsenic is a tissue poison, causing the heart, liver, and kidneys to stop functioning. The author also ventures into famous historical and literary deaths. Cleopatra, who tested snakebites on servants, probably chose a cobra over an asp because the death is easier and the corpse better-looking. Emma Bovary and Napoleon died of arsenic poisoning, and Bell describes Emma's probable treatment if she had arrived in a modern ER. She considers George Orwell's 1946 essay “Decline of the English Murder,” which laments the end of poisoning’s golden era, dated by Orwell from 1850 to1925, before the advent of toxicological testing and the preservation of stomach contents. Bell relishes unusual cases like Anne McConkey's poisoning of her husband with wolfsbane in 1841 and a pharmacist/lover’s attempt to seduce a colleague with Spanish Fly, which killed her and another co-worker.

Messy, morbid, and entertaining.

Pub Date: Oct. 11, 2002

ISBN: 0-312-30679-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2002

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Harari delivers yet another tour de force.

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21 LESSONS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY

A highly instructive exploration of “current affairs and…the immediate future of human societies.”

Having produced an international bestseller about human origins (Sapiens, 2015, etc.) and avoided the sophomore jinx writing about our destiny (Homo Deus, 2017), Harari (History/Hebrew Univ. of Jerusalem) proves that he has not lost his touch, casting a brilliantly insightful eye on today’s myriad crises, from Trump to terrorism, Brexit to big data. As the author emphasizes, “humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers, or equations, and the simpler the story, the better. Every person, group, and nation has its own tales and myths.” Three grand stories once predicted the future. World War II eliminated the fascist story but stimulated communism for a few decades until its collapse. The liberal story—think democracy, free markets, and globalism—reigned supreme for a decade until the 20th-century nasties—dictators, populists, and nationalists—came back in style. They promote jingoism over international cooperation, vilify the opposition, demonize immigrants and rival nations, and then win elections. “A bit like the Soviet elites in the 1980s,” writes Harari, “liberals don’t understand how history deviates from its preordained course, and they lack an alternative prism through which to interpret reality.” The author certainly understands, and in 21 painfully astute essays, he delivers his take on where our increasingly “post-truth” world is headed. Human ingenuity, which enables us to control the outside world, may soon re-engineer our insides, extend life, and guide our thoughts. Science-fiction movies get the future wrong, if only because they have happy endings. Most readers will find Harari’s narrative deliciously reasonable, including his explanation of the stories (not actually true but rational) of those who elect dictators, populists, and nationalists. His remedies for wildly disruptive technology (biotech, infotech) and its consequences (climate change, mass unemployment) ring true, provided nations act with more good sense than they have shown throughout history.

Harari delivers yet another tour de force.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-51217-2

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: June 27, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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