Monday, 16 May 2022

Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini is an exciting adventure story which begins around 1685 when King James II was on the throne of England.

Peter Blood was a thirty-two year old Irish physician who had taken service with the Dutch under the great admiral de Ruyter and fought against France. He spent two years in a Spanish prison and later served with the French in their wars against the Spanish Netherlands.
As the story opens, he was in England working as a doctor, when an attempt was made by the Duke of Monmouth (the illegitimate son of Charles II and Lucy Walter) to overthrow James II after Charles’ death.
Blood watched the men of the town as they rallied under Monmouth’s banner head off to what he knew would be ignominious defeat. It was no concern to him and that night he went to bed early and didn’t wake until 4 a.m. with the sound of hammering on his door.
Blood was called urgently to treat a young nobleman wounded in the rebellion during the night; a man who had been a friendly and generous patron to him and to whom he felt indebted.
This act of mercy was to change his life.




Two months later Blood was brought to trial on a charge of high treason before the infamous Judge Jeffreys. Narrowly escaping the gallows, Blood was sentenced to ten years of slavery in Barbados.
At the first opportunity that presented itself, he devised a means of escaping with a group of slaves. This made a life of piracy their only option.
What follows is a colourful, high spirited tale involving romance, piracy and a good dose of historical detail.


Captain Blood
engaged me from the very first page and never let up with its twists and knife edge escapades. He is a very likeable character, who, despite being involved in piracy, is a man of moral character - you’ll have to read the book to understand this paradox.
Swashbuckling it definitely is. Sabatini was an exceptional writer and it is not surprising that this book quickly became a best-seller after it was published and is still in print.


I was looking through the ‘Old Favourites’ section of a Lifeline book-sale a couple of years ago and an elderly man asked me if I’d seen any books by Rafael Sabatini and explained how wonderful they were. I’d only read Scaramouche so I’ve kept a lookout ever afterwards and picked up a few of his books.
Captain Blood has been reprinted by Dover Publications; they price their books well but they’re not really robust which is a problem when you have a book like this that demands to be read by everyone in the family.
Highly recommended for teen readers or anyone who likes a ripper of an adventure story based on historical events.
Fortunately, Sabatini was a prolific author and his books are available on Kindle quite cheaply.

‘…in the Caribbean, the Spanish Admiral Don Miguel de Espinosa might be said - to use a term not yet invented in his day - to have run amok. The disgrace into which he had fallen as a result of the disasters suffered at the hands of Captain Blood had driven the Admiral all but mad. It is impossible, if we impose our minds impartially, to withhold a certain sympathy from Don Miguel. Hate was now this unfortunate man’s daily bread, and the hope of vengeance an obsession to his mind. As a madman he went raging up and down the Caribbean seeking his enemy, and in the meantime, as an hors-d’oeuvre to his vindictive appetite, he fell upon any ship of England or of France that loomed above his horizon.’



Thursday, 15 July 2021

Goodbye Blogspot - a final post

 After 9 years on Blogger I have decided to move to WordPress. I've spent too much time fiddling around with technology in the last little while and will be happy just to get back to writing!

My new address is: JOURNEYDESTINATION.ORG 

Come and check it out and tell me what you think. And try out the comment section (hopefully an improvement on the Blogger experience) & follow via email! 


Thanks to the blogging friends who helped me and gave up their time to chat and email. Much appreciated!


Cheerio!

Update: All the content from this blog has been transferred over to journey & destination @ Wordpress; AmblesideOnline posts & Australian substitutes have been updated and are listed here.
I have 9 years worth of links from Pinterest & other blogs linked to this blog so I've re-opened it so those aren't lost completely but new content will be posted on the other blog. Sign up over there if you'd like to keep following.




Friday, 25 June 2021

Gentian Hill by Elizabeth Goudge (1949) #20 Books of Summer

Gentian Hill is a book that is based partly on history and partly on legend. Anthony, a fifteen year old orphan, became a midshipman in the British Navy after the unexpected death of his grandmother who had brought him up after both his parents died.

The British were fighting Napoleon and Anthony, only two months in service, had not yet seen any action. In fact he shrank from it with dread. All his life he’d been afraid and suddenly it seemed to him that it was impossible for him to continue in the navy. When his ship entered the bay at Torbay on the English Channel, the temptation to desert the ship came and he yielded to it.

After spending some time in hiding and in a state of semi-starvation, he found a miller willing to give him work but the man’s son, Sam, who had brawn but no brains, took an instant dislike to the well-educated young man and made life miserable for him. 

The miller was famed as a wrestler and Sam was obviously following in his footsteps and pummeled Anthony at every opportunity. Anthony was left with two choices - to leave the work at the mill, just as he had left the Navy, or stay and learn how to wrestle.

A wrestling match was coming up in a month and Anthony proposed that Sam leaves off his poundings and that he and his father teach him how to wrestle. When the match was held they would fight together and if Sam won, Anthony would leave the mill. 

The match day arrived and as expected Anthony was the loser, although he put up a good fight. One of the spectators was a doctor and when Sam threw Anthony to the ground he intervened and took the young man home to care for him. As he was carrying Anthony to his carriage another man went to help him and so another thread was added to Anthony’s story that would reveal itself at a later stage.

Anthony’s inner demon had always been fear and he had to learn not to be ruled by it. The doctor was instrumental in Anthony’s growth in this area of his life. He helped Anthony to see that right decisions are not always followed by feelings of relief.

‘You’ve done the right thing...though as far as you can see its not done you any good. Not much glory about it, as far as you can see. You feel damnable. That’s of no consequence - feelings don’t matter. It’s action that matters, and from fine action some sort of glory always breaks in the end…’

The doctor gave this advice to Anthony on dealing with fear:

‘To begin with, don’t fight it, accept it without shame, just as you would accept any other limitation you happen to be born with…Willing acceptance is half the battle…Be willing to be afraid, but don’t be afraid of your fear. As a doctor I can tell you that every man has within him a store of strength, both physical and spiritual, of which he is utterly unaware until the moment of crisis.’

There are many other characters in this story that I haven’t alluded to as well as ‘Providential’ threads, a romance of sorts, and a bit of history and legend thrown in.

As is usual with Elizabeth Goudge, she interspersed this story with philosophical rambles and the inner workings of the minds of her various characters which really flesh out the narrative.

‘You’re not befouled by another man’s obscenities and brutalities, but only by your own.’

Gentian Hill is a satisfying story of second chances, friendship and sacrificial love and of course, Goudge’s trademark descriptions of the beautiful English countryside.

'Fear is a lonely thing. Even those who love us best cannot get close to us when we are afraid.'




Wednesday, 23 June 2021

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri (2019) #20 Books Of Summer

Aleppo was a beautiful city before the civil war brought unrest and violence to Syria. The Beekeeper of Aleppo provides a glimpse of this beauty before the civil war swept Syria with violence and destruction.

Nuri was a beekeeper and his wife an artist whose paintings of rural and urban areas of the country won her many awards. They had a three year old son, Sami. Nuri’s cousin, Mustafa, had introduced him to beekeeping and together they ran a profitable business. It was Mustafa who first realised that trouble was brewing and made plans to send his wife and daughter to England while he stayed behind with his teenaged son to see to the bees. 

‘I just can’t abandon the bees, Nuri,’ he said one night, his large hand coming down over his face and his beard, as if he was trying to wipe off the sombre expression he always wore now. ‘The bees are family to us.’

One night vandals destroyed the hives and with all the bees dead, Mustafa was ready to leave Aleppo along with Nuri and his family. But before he could left tragedy struck both families.

Mustafa managed to get out of Syria in time but Afra refused to leave. Trauma had blinded her, physically and mentally, and it took a threat on her husband’s life to awaken her to their danger. 

The political scene had deteriorated so much that men and boys were forced into fighting and leaving the country was fraught with danger.

The story follows Nuri and Afra as they escape via Turkey to Greece and the perils they encounter on the way. They planned to join Mustafa in England but everything was so uncertain and the smugglers they depended upon untrustworthy. Even in Athens there were dangers and it seemed as if they’d never find a safe resting place. Trauma had laid its hand on both man and wife and changed them both. Now they had to learn to know each other again.

Christy Lefteri is the child of Cypriot refugees and spent time working at a refugee centre in Athens. The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a work of fiction but it grew out of what she saw, heard and felt on the streets and camps in Athens. A letter from the author at the end of the book describes how the idea for the story came to her and the impact her work with refugees made upon her.

Lefteri doesn’t shy away from the reality of civil war, the trauma suffered by refugees and especially the danger to unaccompanied minors in refugee camps, but she doesn’t dwell on it either. I thought this was handled well, giving the reader enough details but not too explicitly. It is a compassionate look at the plight of people caught up in messes not of their own making and the choices made by individuals to either to help or prey upon those who have nowhere else to turn. 

One thing I wasn’t enamoured with was the shifting timeline of the story. This seems to be a common device of modern authors but it doesn’t always work. I thought it was confusing in this case.

A plus - two nice full page maps showing Syria and Nuri and Afra’s journey. If I were a publisher this would be mandatory for any book involving a journey.



Monday, 21 June 2021

An Episode of Sparrows By Rumer Godden (1955) #20 Books of Summer

 An Episode of Sparrows is another perceptive and sensitive novel by Rumer Godden. Godden’s writing is spare and unsentimental with a gritty realism, but also much beauty.

In the preface to this book she wrote:

'Finally the time came when I had to tell myself miserably, “You have squandered, muddled, and wasted everything, everything from opportunity to money. Wasted.”

There I was wrong. After the war years of hard work, poverty, and loneliness in Kashmir I needed that space of gaiety, companionship, even luxury, and I have come to believe that nothing is ever wasted; out of mistakes, or through mistakes, something quite worthwhile can come, in my case the seed of another novel.’

Living in the busy whirl of post-war London in a tiny little jewel of a house, she spent as much time as she could in the nearby park where she got to know the antics of the ‘London sparrows’- children from the poorer streets nearby. She picked her way through the bombed-out sections of London where weedy flowers pushed their way up through broken masonry and blossomed in the rubble.

Godden wrote that all her stories have themes underlying them, not actually stated, but there all the same. An Episode of Sparrows grew out of her stay in London but it wasn't until ten years later, in 1955, when she started to write it.

There are multiple characters in this story but the central figure, Lovejoy Mason, is a girl of about 11 years of age whose life held little love and no joy.

Lovejoy’s mother worked on the stage and had casually left her with Mrs Crombie and her husband, Vincent, a superb chef wasting away in an impoverished part of town with virtually no clientele, while she went off all over the place for work. From time to time the neglectful mother would return to her daughter who was devoted to her. Then there came a time when she didn’t come at all.

‘Mrs Crombie was kind, Vincent was very kind, but for Mrs Crombie there was really only Vincent and for Vincent there was only the restaurant. Lovejoy was a little extra tacked on.

She had never heard of a vortex but she knew there was a big hole, a pit, into which a child could be swept down, a darkness that sucked her down so that she ceased to be Lovejoy, or anyone at all, and was a speck in thousands of socks, ‘Millions,’ said Lovejoy, and then there was something called ‘no-one.’

The story revolves around a secret garden. Lovejoy who, with the help of some other London sparrows, steals some good soil from the rich neighbourhood gardens to start their own. Godden’s clever use of shifting perspectives brings in all the other supporting characters and gives us insight into their motivations, reactions and thoughts. 

Olivia and Angela are two unmarried sisters who live in the more prosperous area near Lovejoy. Olivia, the eldest, is dominated by her beautiful, high energy and opinionated younger sister. When Olivia finds a small footprint in the garden bed that points to the soil thieves, she says nothing and her heart is stirred to find out more about the Sparrows.

“It was not the absence of a man that Olivia regretted so much, though she could have wished that both she and Angela had married…that blank in her life was not the worst, but I wish children were not so unknown to me…Olivia divined something in children, not in her nieces and nephews…who were precocious and spoilt, but in the children who were let alone, real children…they seemed to her truer than grown-ups, unalloyed; watching them, she knew they were vital; if you were with them you would be alive, thought Olivia.”

As Lovejoy planted her garden in the bombed ruins of a churchyard, her soul grew along with her seedlings…

‘At night now, when she went to bed, she did not lie awake feeling the emptiness; she thought about the garden, the seeds, their promised colours. She had never before thought of colours…except in clothes, thought Lovejoy; now she saw colours everywhere, the strong yellow of daffodils…the deep colours of anemones; she was learning all their names; she saw how white flowers shone and showed their shape against the London drab and grey. She was filled with her own business. She had never had her own business before; directly after breakfast, on her way to school, she went to the garden and was thinking about it all day long.’

She spent most of her time waiting…for her mother to wake up in the mornings; waiting for her while she tried on clothes or went shopping; waiting outside pubs.

‘Why did people take it for granted that children had all that time to waste? I want to garden, not wait, she thought rebelliously.’

Rumer Godden’s writing is similar in some aspects to Elizabeth Goudge’s. They both were both masters of characterisation and understood human conflict. Godden’s style is terse, Goudge tends to be rambling and more philosophically inclined but both were adept at thematic undertones. I think Rumer Godden had a greater insight into children - The Greengage Summer is another example of her way of seeing from a child’s perspective.

Although both of the books just mentioned are focused on children, there are some themes that make them more suited to older readers. Greengage has some obvious mature content, An Episode of Sparrows only has one aspect that would make me hesitate to give it to a younger person - Lovejoy’s mother would entertain her male friends in her room while her daughter sat forlornly on the steps outside. It was a passing observation so it would probably go over a child’s head. However, I’d hold off until about age 14 because there is an underlying richness that may not be appreciated or understood by a younger child. From an adult point of view it is a story that has staying power and lingers in your mind and heart afterwards.

Both authors have been unjustly neglected but Elizabeth Goudge has made a comeback in more recent years and from what I’ve read this has been largely initiated by book bloggers. (Yay!) Rumer Godden’s works need a similar revival.

Biography | Rumer Godden



Friday, 4 June 2021

20 Books of Summer Challenge



Faking this challenge - it's winter here and I won't be reading 20 books but these are some I'm hoping to read:

1) The Power of Geography by Tim Marshall - I really liked his previous book, Prisoners of Geography and I was given this follow-up book for Mother's Day.

2) Under the Yoke by Ivan Vazov -  I've had this for a few years and have been meaning to read it at some point. Set in Bulgaria so will also use this for my 2021 Reading Europe Challenge which isn't going anywhere fast.

3) Mrs. Oswald Chambers: The Woman behind the World's Bestselling Devotional by Michelle Ule - another Mother's Day gift. I've been reading Oswald Chambers' book, My Utmost for His Highest on and off for years so am interested in his wife's story.

4) An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden - this author had an interesting and unusual life and that's reflected in her books. Set in post-war London.

5) Keep Him My Country by Mary Durack - a novel by the author of Kings in Grass Castles. Durack was born into an Australian pioneering family and is recognised as one of the country's great literary figures. I hadn't heard of this one until I came across it in a secondhand book sale.

6) Pennies For Hitler by Jackie French - Australian author and a different perspective on WW2.

7) The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim - I've been wanting to read this for quite a while; set in Italy so will also be part of the Reading Europe Challenge.

8) Gentian Hill by Elizabeth Goudge - an author I've binged on lately but I'll be getting to the end of the books I can source fairly soon. 

9) Crooked House by Agatha Christie - I've been on a Christie catch-up since last year but I haven't been writing reviews...

10) Spain by Jan Morris - this book was published in 1964 while Franco was still ruling in Spain. I don't know much about Spain generally so this will be a history lesson for me as well as a travelogue.



Possible additions:


The Citadel by A. J. Cronin

The Bee Keeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri

Dracula by Bram Stoker


Thanks to Brona for the Southern Hemisphere alteration at the top of the page.

The 20 books of Summer is hosted by Cathy @ 746 Books.




Tuesday, 1 June 2021

Charlotte Mason Highschool: Year 11

This is our Year 11 Australian/personalised adaption of Ambleside Online. We've finished Term 1 and are a couple of weeks into Term 2 so I'll update this post as we continue through the year. 

Bible/Devotions

*  **  * *** In The Steps of the Master by H.V. Morton - Bible History & Geography

Knowing God by J.I. Packer - continued from last year

Family line of Herod the Great

History

*  **  *** A History of the Twentieth Century  by Martin Gilbert

A Short History of Australia by Ernest Scott (1953 Edition) We've used this in Year 9 up to the end of the first term of Year 11. We're using this one for Term 2 and 3 this year:

**  *** A Short History of Australia by Manning Clark - starting at Ch 9: Radicals and Nationalists - 1883 - 1901



* World War I and World War II by Richard Maybury

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain - this is scheduled in Term 1 but it's been slow going so Miss 16 will be reading it this term as well.

Biographies

*  Stalin by Albert Marrin 
** Hitler by Albert Marrin 

Speeches

Speeches That Shaped the Modern World by Alan J. Whiticker is our primary resource for Year 11 as well as some from the AO list that aren't too focussed on the USA. This book includes a couple of speeches made by Australian Prime Ministers.

Australian Literature

* We of the Never-Never by Mrs Aeneas Gunn

** A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

*** Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington/Nugi Garimara


Literature

* Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton (see here for some details) - we used this instead of The Great Gatsby.

I'll be substituting another book in place of Brideshead Revisited but will include all the others.


* Shakespeare - Much Ado About Nothing

Short Stories & Essays

I've been cherry-picking titles from the AO list.

Current Affairs

Conversations John Anderson (former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia) via Podcast or YouTube. 




Archaeology


* Digging For Richard III, How Archaeology Found the King by Mike Pitts - a great book to read after Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time.

** Come, Tell me How You Live by Agatha Christie Mallowan


Geography

* Endurance by Alfred Lansing

** *** Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall - a combination of geography, history, current events and politics.

Science

*  **  ***  Novare General Biology by Heather Ayala and Katie Rogstad - this is a really in-depth biology book so we're not rushing through it. Lab work is included.



* The Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif

* Six Easy Pieces by Feynman - Miss 16 read four out of the six chapters and then I changed to this book:

** Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life by Helen Czerski - only 13 pages in but so far my daughter likes its conversational style. Thanks to Joy H on the AO Forum for mentioning this book. 

Plutarch

* Aristides

Art 

Reading a section of this each week - two to three pages on a wide range of artists; well illustrated, short biographies.


Free Reading

Pastoral by Nevil Shute

The Far Country by Nevil Shute (set in Australia)

The Black Orchids by Rex Stout

The Silent Speaker by Rex Stout

Shane by Jack Schaefer

The Lonesome Gods by Louis L'Amour

The Yellow Poppy by D.K. Broster

The Jacobite Trilogy by D. K. Broster

Son by Lois Lowry

Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie 


Books by Jackie French:

The Girl From Snowy River

Pharaoh

Pennies for Hitler

Tom Appleby, Convict Boy


Stay tuned for updates...



Self Education & Narration - an update

In the ten or so months I've been involved in presenting Charlotte Mason 101 workshops online at  MyHomeschool, the hows, whys and wherefores of narration is a topic that generates many questions. At face value it seems too simple to be effective. Yes, it might suit a younger child but what about a high school student? 
I've used narration over a couple of decades with my children but didn't really think to use it myself until about eight years ago. As a tool for self-education (reading classics, educational philosophy etc. for my own intellectual and spiritual growth) it is invaluable, especially where there is an opportunity for discussion with others.



In his book, Man - The Dwelling Place of God, A.W. Tozer (a self-taught man himself) has a chapter on self-education where he lists intellectual activities in the order of their importance:

Thinking 
Observation
Reading

Conversation may once have been part of this list but Tozer made the comment that conversation today is mostly sterile. He was writing over fifty years ago and it made me wonder what he'd think if he was alive now and could listen in on the average adult conversation.

I believe that pure thinking will do more to educate a man than any other activity he can engage in. To afford sympathetic entertainment to abstract ideas, to let one idea beget another, and that another, till the mind teems with them; to compare one idea with others, to weigh, to consider, evaluate, approve, reject, correct, refine; to join thought with thought like an architect till a noble edifice has been created within the mind...
and all this without so much as moving from our chair or opening the eyes - this is to soar above all the lower creation and to come near to the angels of God.

Of all earth's creatures only man can think in this way. And while thinking is the mightiest act a man can perform, perhaps for the very reason that it is the mightiest, it is the one act he likes the least and avoids most.

To think without a proper amount of good reading is to limit our thinking to our own tiny plot of ground. The crop cannot be large. To observe only and neglect reading is to deny ourselves the immense value of other people's observations...

Extensive reading without the discipline of practical observation will lead to bookishness and artificiality. Reading and observing without a great deal of meditating will fill the mind with learned lumber that will always remain alien to us. Knowledge to be our own must be digested by thinking. 

Charlotte Mason wrote something that ties in well with Tozer's observations. She suggests that before turning off your light that you read:

...a leading article from a newspaper, say, or a chapter from Boswell or Jane Austen, or one of Lamb's Essays...

Then narrate silently what you've read...

[You] will not be satisfied with the result but [you] will find that in the act of narrating every power of [your]  mind comes into play, that points and bearings which [you] had not observed are brought out; that the whole is visualized and brought into relief in an extraordinary way; in fact, that scene or argument has become a part of [your] personal experience...

You know - you have thought and made observations.
You have assimilated what you've read.
The knowledge has been digested.


Monday, 24 May 2021

Reading Europe: The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden (1958)

According to the author, The Greengage Summer is true, or at least partly so. In 1923, when Rumer Godden was fifteen years old and her elder sister Jon nearly eighteen, their mother announced,

  “We are going to the Battlefields of France and when perhaps you see the rows and rows of crosses for those young men who gave their lives for you, it might make you stop and think of your selfishness.”


In the Author’s Preface to my copy of the book (a lovely Folio Edition that I picked up for $3 in a secondhand book shop 🙂) she gives a brief outline of her childhood experience that became the basis for The Greengage Summer. In the book the two girls were called Joss and Cecil and they were aged 16 and 13 years respectively. Godden had two younger sisters and the book replaced them with three young siblings, Hester, Willmouse and Vicky.

The Greengage Summer is narrated by Cecil and I nearly gave up on the book in the first chapter until I realised that the thirteen year old’s perspective was so well done that it coloured the whole narrative and seemed to jump around in the telling. I’m very glad I persevered as its quite an unusual story overall as well as a rather scary look at five children who were basically left to their own devices in a foreign country. With their mother very ill in hospital after an insect bite became infectious on the trip to France and their father somewhere unreachable in Tibet on a botanical expedition, Joss and Cecil are thrust into an adult world in post war France - living in a French hotel alongside some questionable characters, expected to pay their way, look after their younger siblings and get by with their limited experience of life - they were quickly initiated into the vagaries of human nature.

Joss’s beauty complicated matters. A jealous Mademoiselle, her enigmatic lover who becomes infatuated with Joss; a feral young waiter and then a murder, The Greengage Summer is a combination of mystery, deception and coming-of-age that depicts young people trying to navigate the world of adults before they're ready for it. Added to all this is a good smattering of French throughout the narrative.

A tense read at times but it resolves well, and I have to say I LOVED THE ENDING!

The Greengage Summer wasn’t published until 1958 and it would be ten years later that Rumer Godden officially converted to the Catholic Church. Several of her later novels dealt with women in religious orders, for example, In This House of Brede, which is a very different book to The Greengage Summer.

Linking to the 2021 European Reading Challenge: France


Thursday, 20 May 2021

Charlotte Mason Highschool Update (May 2021)

 I tend to only do a year end exam but we're using this week as an exam week as we've finished Term 1 of Ambleside Online Year 11. Being Year 11 and covering the 20th century, there are a lot of things happening over short periods of time so having a break to reflect and look back over what we've covered so far seemed like a wise thing to do.

I've made a few changes to the AO schedule like I always do but we're following the general outline, adding in some Australian content, dropping some of the American focused titles, as well as using some books we already had in place of books that were scheduled and we didn't have. I generally post what we've used at the end of the year's work but I'll also highlight bits and pieces as the year progresses.

Nature and Science Notebooks



A simple experiment for illustrating osmosis that only uses a potato, salt and water.


Experiment with a homemade Calorimeter


We used the instructions here to make the calorimeter and do the experiment.

 




Enjoying the sunshine while drawing & listening to me read James Herriot and Charlotte Mason's 'Ourselves'



Current Events/Culture

I like to listen to John Anderson's Conversation Podcasts from time to time. This conversation with Matt Taibbi was very good so I played it on YouTube and we watched it today. I'd never heard of Taibbi before but he has a fascinating background - a journalist who has lived in Soviet Russia, played basketball in Mongolia and who is very articulate. I like John Anderson's style of interviewing - respectful and thoughtful. He interviews people with a wide range of views and is a good listener who asks intelligent questions. In this interview they discuss the state of journalism in the West & Taibbi gives some good advice to young people who want to pursue journalism. 

*Update: I shared this interview with one of my sons who's into politics etc. and he commented that Taibbi's had an odd journey to where he is now & he wouldn't exactly call him a role model. As I said I didn't know a thing about him and just took the interview at face value. I did a little searching and it looks like his former views have changed somewhat. Anyhow, I thought this interview was well done and very topical.



Some favourite free read books so far this year

Black Orchids by Rex Stout
The Silent Speaker by Rex Stout

The Virgin in the Ice by Ellis Peters
The Holy Thief by Ellis Peters

Green Dolphin Country by Elizabeth Goudge







Monday, 17 May 2021

The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum

 

So many crime novels of the Golden Age dealt with murders that involved poisons such as chloroform, arsenic and cyanide. It was the ‘weapon’ of choice in many cases back then because at that time (during the 1920’s and 1930’s) commercially made poisons were readily available and there were few tools available to detect those substances in a corpse. Solving a suspected murder was fraught with difficulties due to this inability to detect poison in the body and the lack of proper coronial procedures. Murderers often could not be convicted due to lack of substantial evidence.

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum details the rise of forensic medicine in New York during the Jazz Age and concentrates on the work of two men: Charles Norris, a pathologist, and Alexander Gettler, a talented chemist. Both men were extremely driven and over a period of many years battled corrupt coroners, who often had no medical background, and a lax justice system. In the face of pathetic working conditions, lack of resources and meagre pay, Norris and Gettler pioneered forensic chemistry in the USA.

The author explores ten poisons, their use throughout history, and criminal cases in which they were used during the Jazz Age: 

Chloroform

Wood Alcohol

Cyanide

Arsenic

Mercury

Carbon Monoxide

Methyl Alcohol

Radium

Ethyl Alcohol

Thallium

'Carbon monoxide can be considered as a kind of chemical thug. It suffocates its victims simply by muscling oxygen out of the way…

The attraction between hemoglobin and carbon monoxide is some two hundred times stronger than that between hemoglobin and oxygen. No wonder that CO - as an invading gas - can cram into the blood cells, its tighter grip allowing it to displace the looser oxygen bonds…

In the alcohol-hazed 1920’s doctors tended to mistake CO poisoning for drunkenness, according to records kept by Norris’s office.'

The early twentieth century brought a flood of modern poisons into the USA. Morphine could be found in teething medicine, opium in sedatives, arsenic was included in pesticides and cosmetics, and many poisons were available to the general public in grocery stores.

January 20th, 1920 saw the official introduction of Prohibition in the USA. With legal drinking at an end, the availability of illicit alcohol grew and with it some deadly brews. In that same January, poisonous alcohol deaths increased and ‘speakeasies’ (unlawful places selling alcoholic drinks) became part of American life. This illicit alcohol could contain traces of other substances such as carbolic acid, Lysol or kerosene. The years after the introduction of Prohibition saw an increase in alcohol consumption and an associated recklessness. The Prohibition era was a great source of material for building an excellent science of alcohol intoxication if nothing else.

Forensic medicine in those years was quite gross. Gettler obtained organs from cadavers that were often months old and putrefying. He minced up these organs, boiled them, decanted, distilled, tested and retested them and came up with specific procedures for determining if poisonous substances were present. It was a growing technology that took years and a massive amount of effort to develop into a science that was finally recognised.

Norris and Gettler’s work not only helped to solve murders but also assisted in determining a person’s innocence. 

Indifference, greed and ignorance had allowed poisonous substances to become a part of everyday life in the USA. Doctors believed there were beneficial effects to smoking – it helped to control the appetite and therefore obesity and enabled people to cope with the stresses of living. Companies often mislabeled products and sometimes it took a major crisis for the government to take action. In 1938 Congress passed the Food, Drugs and Cosmetic act which gave the FDA the power to hold manufacturers legally responsible for harm caused by their products after a pharmaceutical company marketed a cough syrup that killed more than a hundred people, most of them children.

Thallium was put into depilatory creams and advertised in magazines like Vogue. Yes, thallium containing creams removed facial hair on women but it also made them bald. 

In 1928, Norris was approached by a colleague, a fellow graduate and crusader, Harrison Stanford Martland. Martland had some bones that belonged to a young dial painter who had died and he wanted to check them for radioactivity. Marie Curie’s ‘beautiful radium’ was the new miracle cure for all sorts of things, the ‘next best thing to drinking sunlight.’ It was anything but beautiful.

Martland discovered that radium has an affinity for bones. The dial painters, who practiced 'lip-pointing' their paint brushes covered in paint containing radium, became known as the ‘Radium Girls.’ They swallowed bits of the paint and absorbed radium into their bones. The radium blasted holes in their bones causing jaws to disintegrate and anaemias to develop in the bone marrow. As their bones decayed, they produced radon gas that the women exhaled while they were alive. Even five years after their death their bodies were found to be strongly radioactive. 

I enjoyed the medical and historical aspects of this book and Prohibition was an interesting thread running through it. The criminal cases were a bit too detailed for my tastes. Golden Age crime writers such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Ngaio Marsh tended to stay clear of the gory side of the crimes and concentrated on plot, character, motives and solving the crime. Most of the perpetrators in Blum’s book were just nasty and evil; others did not intend to kill but covered up their actions that caused harm – some companies, the U.S. Radium Corporation, for instance, who treated their staff abominably and used their legal team to wrangle themselves out of responsibility and deprive their staff of compensation.

It was the research publications of Martland and Gettler that enabled the women who were still alive to get a settlement in the case.

When Norris died at the age of sixty-seven, he left behind a carefully built team of forensic detectives who had a reputation for excellence.

Overall this was an interesting look at poisons and forensic detection. The author is a scientific journalist and the book reads like a journalist wrote it – a bit too much of a chatty sort of writing with too many diversions. She also concentrated on alcohol poisoning more than the other poisons.

A good read that was written in 2010 that would suit anyone interested in forensics, medical issues and the pharmaceutical industry.