The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood (199p.)
I picked this up after seeing another’s canonnballer’s recent review. It was a quick, enjoyable read.
For those that aren’t aware of the Canongate Myth Series (I wasn’t), it’s a series of novels in which myths are re-written by contemporary authors with a modern twist, which are being published by Canongate Books (thus, Canongate Myth Series). The authors are all famous in their own right and the myths pull from a variety of mythological traditions and countries. Atwood’s Penelopiad focuses on Penelope from Homer’s Odyssey.
The Penelopiad retells the story of the Odyssey, alternating the point of view from that of Penelope and the twelve maids that Odysseus slaughtered upon his return. Their version of events happens centuries after it all took place, from their current ghostly perspective upon the asphodel meadows in the Greek underworld.
The Penelopiad gives a wonderfully natural stage to the female characters that were disregarded in the Odyssey, and in some cases, provides them with their own sorts of revenge. For the most part, the story works very well, with the sing-song of the maids voiced through song and poem largely in line with Penelope’s story. Eventually their view of what happens diverges, which is fine, but as it does so the maid’s voice makes a jarring change from the poetic to straight prose (in the anthropology and courtroom drama sections). It threw me for a loop and I had to go back and re-start these sections, only to find the maids going back to their sing-songing in the end. That change on the parts of the maids – the way it is written, rather than their difference of opinion – is my only nitpick for the book, which is otherwise quite well done and a great read.
The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum (319p.)
This book is exactly what I wanted from Douglas Starr’s The Killer of Little Shepherds. It is a fascinating account of the first legitimate medical examiner in New York City, Charles Norris, and his team of coroners and toxicologists, most notably Alexander Gettler, who shaped American forensic science in the early 1900s. Norris and Gettler are essentially the ‘Chuck Norris’ of forensic science, their work causing changes in the politically elected coroner systems, regulations of chemicals, and approach to police work throughout the country.
The book covers the years 1915-1936 in detail, with individual chapters dealing with different poisons, like choloroform, cyanide, arsenic, and thallium. Each of these chapters deals with a different case that somehow proved essential to medical examiner’s efforts. This may because it served as an impetuous for Norris and Gettler to create experiments, like finding out whether or not the corpse of a person who dies from carbon monoxide poisoning looks different from a corpse that was murdered another way but left in a room of carbon monoxide to cloak the means of death. Or it could be because the case proved that forensic science worked to the general public, police, or regulators that needed to crack down on companies hawking everything from cyanide fumigation to popular radium-laced health drinks.
The Prohibition provides an underlying narrative for the book, with the rise of ethyl and methyl alcohol poisoning, along with the government-sanctioned poisonous additions to alcoholic factory by-products, being a focus of Norris and Gettler’s work. Coming across the deaths first hand, they offered a passionate rebuke to the supposed moral crusaders of the time.
It’s an absolutely fascinating account on so many levels – the true crime stories Blum choses are intriguing. She highlights the important cases, some of which were not won, and even looks at cases that were clearly mistakes with tragic results. It read like back-to-back episodes of CSI, with Gettler having to create new experiments in order to lock up a murderer or set an innocent person free. Only it’s better than CSI, because it was real-life, and his work laid the groundwork for the field of forensic science in the United States. Extremely well-written and highly recommended.