Month: January 2019

Book Review: Silent Witness

Silent Witnesses: The Often Gruesome But Always Fascinating History of Forensic ScienceSilent Witnesses: The Often Gruesome But Always Fascinating History of Forensic Science by Nigel McCrery

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a thing for true crime and a passion for history and Nigel McCrery delivered on both fronts with his book Silent Witnesses. McCrery’s book takes an interesting look at the history of forensic science in crime scene investigation. It’s a nasty business but the book outlines just how far the science has come throughout the past century.

Each chapter covers a different part of forensic science and traces the path of discovery throughout the ages. Starting with identity and ending with the study of DNA, McCrery discusses what detectives relied on before the advances and the major cases leading to the discover and use of certain techniques. The paperback version also includes some fantastic color photos to accompany each of the chapters explaining the techniques and cases highlighted.

This one is not for the faint of heart. It’s gory and intense. McCrery discusses some very nasty and cold-hearted murder cases that might upset some readers. For those interested in true crime and scientific history, this one is for you!

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Book Review: The Ghosts of Johns Hopkins

The Ghosts of Johns Hopkins: The Life and Legacy That Shaped an American CityThe Ghosts of Johns Hopkins: The Life and Legacy That Shaped an American City by Antero Pietila

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I really wanted to love this book. As a current Johns Hopkins graduate student, I spent two weeks in 2018 traveling around Baltimore getting to know its history and its people. I learned so much as a student and I was thrilled to grab an advanced copy of this book in hopes of learning a bit more about the city and the history of the university that calls Baltimore home. Alas, it was not to be.

It’s difficult to write a book about a man who destroyed all of his papers and correspondence. I get that. However, Antero Pietila tries to cover a Johns Hopkins the man, Johns Hopkins the University, and Johns Hopkins as the city of Baltimore. It’s just too great a swath of time and place to discuss well. Rather than a succinct history of a person, place, or time, Pietila has left us with a rambling narrative that only briefly touches on Johns Hopkins the man but also highlights struggles in funding a university, Civil War strife, grave robbing, building various railroads, race riots, mobs, and more. It’s incredibly difficult to follow as time jumps from the 1700s to the 1920s to the 1850s and back again. I often wasn’t sure who was being profiled or what century I was even in anymore.

While there are some really interesting bits of information (the part on Arabbers and the history of rent-to-own homes were fascinating) the book is just so difficult to follow and tedious to read that I quickly lost interest. For those who have an intimate knowledge of Baltimore, very little in the book will be a revelation. Most importantly, this book isn’t really about Johns Hopkins at all but an overarching view of the history of the university with a greater focus on the city of Baltimore.

It’s not often that I don’t finish a book, particularly an advanced copy, but this one is going to sit on the “to finish” shelf for a bit longer.

Book Review: Killers of the Flower Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBIKillers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“History is a merciless judge. It lays bare our tragic blunders and foolish missteps and exposes our most intimate secrets, wielding the power of hindsight like an arrogant detective who seems to know the end of the mystery from the outset.”

Killers of the Flower Moon is an intense read and as usual, David Grann does not shy away from the gory details. Grann’s carefully researched book tells the tale of the systematic murder of the Osage Indians, cut down in cold blood for oil rights that the white settlers thought should be rightfully theirs. What’s even more shameful, is that the murders aren’t the result of a couple of greedy psychopaths, but a deeper plot involving the entire town, desperate to increase their already overflowing bank coffers.

I, personally, had never heard of the murders of the Osage despite the fact that they happened less than a century ago. It is painful to think that this erasure may be intentional but Grann seeks to give the dead a voice.

I don’t know why I’m always surprised by the human lust for money but this book was shocking. Despite that, the lessons imparted were more important than my discomfort. A must read for sure.

Book Review: The Royal Art of Poison

The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most FoulThe Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul by Eleanor Herman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Who doesn’t love a good murder mystery set in the beauty and wonder of the Renaissance?

The Royal Art of Poison was disgusting, horrifying, creepy, nasty, and just plain delightful! Full disclosure: I’m a history nerd and a true crime geek (who knew, right?!) and this book fed my love of both. Eleanor Herman starts off with a brief history of poison and there was a lot of it in ancient times. Not just poisons like deadly nightshade but common household items, like makeup and even medicine, with full of arsenic and mercury! Not only was poison a common fear, but the sanitation levels were dismal. If it wasn’t the disease killing you, it was the mercury enemas.

Following the history lesson, each chapter tells the tale of a different historical figure who died under mysterious circumstances. Herman presents the reader with a case study for each, telling the reader about the person’s marriage, the times in which they lived, and the symptoms they presented with prior to their death. Then the reader is left to ponder, did the person die because of poison or were they just unlucky? Never fear, the reader isn’t left hanging! Herman then presents the formal diagnosis along with medical records (if there are any) and the fallout in the event of an actual poisoning.

Eleanor Herman is an historian by training making her books well-researched tales complimented by her vast knowledge. Nonfiction books have the potential to be wordy and difficult to read but Herman’s books are easy to digest, even when the subject matter isn’t. A must read for any history nerd, lover of the macabre, or true crime buff.

Book Review: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop CafeFried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“You never know what’s in a person’s heart until they’re tested, do you?”

How is it that I went so long without reading Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe!? The movie is only one of my top three all time movies and yet the book sat on my To Read list for years. Anyway, I finally read it and I was not disappointed.

First and foremost, Fried Green Tomatoes is a love story. Whether that story is about Idgey and Ruth or Evelyn and Ninny is up to the reader but love, friendship, and a willingness to fight to the end, come what may, ties everyone in this story together. In 1985, Mrs. Evelyn Couch meets Mrs. Ninny Threadgoode in a nursing home one fateful morning. From there, the two develop a powerful bond as Ninny tells the tale of coming of age in Whistle Stop, Alabama. We meet Idgey, Ruth, Big George, and the rest of the Threadgoode clan as try to make ends meet in the segregated south during the Great Depression. We watch Evelyn find herself while Ninny loses herself deeper and deeper in the past. It’s an achingly good book.

Told through a series of vignettes throughout the years, the book has an unusual style that may be off-putting for some readers. If given the chance, however, the book has some wonderful lessons to impart. You’ll probably want to read it alone because you’ll start looking crazy in public. At times I was laughing so hard I cried and other times I just plain cried.

Don’t expect this book to be exactly like the movie. In fact, it’s very, very different but far better than the movie.