Monthly Archives: March 2014

Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hercule Poirot, on his way home to London due to a development in another case, finds himself in the midst of a very peculiar murder mystery while aboard the Orient Express train. He’s faced with a train that’s stuck in a snowbank, an unlikeable victim, a host of suspects, and some stories that don’t add up…not to mention a good friend of Poirot’s, a director of the train company, who has pleaded with him to solve the case.

This one really kept me guessing, and the ending was satisfying. Highly recommended.

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Review: Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus
Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I was a child in Texas, contracting rabies from being bitten by wild dogs or bats was a very real danger; we kids circulated the rumor amongst ourselves that the only cure was twenty shots in the stomach with a foot-long syringe. As it turns out, it doesn’t take quite that many, and the syringe is just a regular syringe–but fear of this mysterious disease has existed since the dawn of time.

Rabid is an excellent overview of the fascination and horror that rabies has had for people for millennia. Ancient “cures” could sometimes be worse than the disease, and the only treatment that (sometimes) worked was cauterization and bloodletting immediately after the bite; otherwise, a lingering, painful death was inevitable within a month or so. Louis Pasteur pioneered the first vaccination against rabies, which has saved countless lives, but has tended to blunt people’s understanding and awareness of this still-extant disease.

Highly recommended for anyone who loves a good cultural history.

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Review: Tender Is the Night

Tender Is the Night
Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tender is the Night was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s favorite novel, and it’s easy to see why. It revisits some of the tropes we see in The Great Gatsby: the ruin of a man brought about by his attempt to climb social strata; the idea that a man’s potential can be wrecked by falling in love with the wrong woman; the moral emptiness at the core of the American dream. Certainly, Fitzgerald drew heavily upon his life to create the characters of Dick and Nicole Diver, and Dick’s alcoholism mirrors Fitzgerald’s own; however, he writes a comparatively happier end for Nicole, whose mental health is made whole and who is ultimately insulated from the consequences of her actions, as Daisy Buchanan was, by her family’s wealth.

The novel is presented in three “books;” the first of these describes the events of the summer that sow the seeds of the destruction of the Divers’ marriage, and the second and third outline Dick’s history with Nicole and his eventual downfall even as she rises. Rosemary Hoyt, a young actress, is a middle-class striver whose chance meeting of the Divers sets the plot in motion, but she is the least interesting character presented here.

Overall, Tender is the Night is a great novel, but its essential darkness (including an even greater level of racism than seen in Gatsby, that jars the modern reader) is unlikely to displace Gatsby’s hold on America’s imagination.

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Review: The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever

The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever
The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever by Adam Leith Gollner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was truly fascinating. Ever since humans became aware of themselves and the natural world around them, they have sought to explain, and to conquer, the eternal mystery of death. Gollner explores different faith traditions and interviews various colorful personalities along the spectrum of immortality-seekers: from anti-aging researchers to longevity proponents to cryonics enthusiasts to transhumanists. Along the way, he receives some insights on the human condition, and comes to a realization about his own feelings on the subject.

Plus, there’s David Copperfield and his mysterious fountain of youth island hideaway. You’ve got to love that.

The Book of Immortality is a fine companion to Charlatan, which I have previously reviewed, and even mentions Brinkley. Highly recommended!

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Review: Thirteen At Dinner

Thirteen At Dinner
Thirteen At Dinner by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Poirot and Hastings, who evidently plays a lot of hooky from his Argentinian ranch, are taking in a show one afternoon when they become embroiled in a divorce case that turns into a murder with plenty of plausible suspects. Was Lord Edgware killed for his terrible secrets, for his money, or simply because he had become an inconvenience?

This one really kept me guessing, and it was great fun trying to figure out which clues were the important ones. This novel, as many Poirots are, is elevated through the narrative voice of Hastings, who, with his gentleman’s biases, can be an unreliable narrator with regards to presenting the facts. I particularly found Dame Christie’s suggestion of Lord Edgware’s unusual proclivities rather bold for the times, although certainly tame by modern standards.

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Review: Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam

Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam
Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very entertaining look at the life of one John R. Brinkley–today all but forgotten–and his goat-gland quackery empire which killed some 40 people, maiming and cheating countless others. Thanks to the tireless efforts of AMA investigator Morris Fishbein, Brinkley’s misdeeds were brought to an end by, of all things, a libel suit.

What is remarkable about Mr. Brinkley is his foresight in using radio to advertise his business, as well as introduce America to country and hillbilly music. Brinkley used this music, either performed live or via phonograph records, to fill the broadcast time in between his own shows such as “Medical Question Box,” in which Brinkley prescribed his own dangerous nostrums for the cure of every ill both physical and mental.

Highly recommended as a companion to other medical history books, “Charlatan” illustrates how America has, since colonial times, often preferred to trust fast-talking hucksters with a cheap cure-all over the advice of licensed professionals.

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Review: Black Coffee

Black Coffee
Black Coffee by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Black Coffee is a bit of an anomaly in the Christie oeuvre, as it was written by Dame Agatha as a play and only novelized in the 1990s with the blessing of the Christie estate.

Poirot and Hastings rush to a wealthy scientist’s home only to discover that they’ve arrived too late. Sir Claud is dead, paperwork regarding his latest multi-million-pound invention has gone missing–and someone in the house is to blame.

It’s early in the Poirot-verse, so the Mysterious Affair at Styles is still fresh on the minds of the characters–luckily for them, because this play borrows an important plot point from that story. This isn’t a dealbreaker per se for me, though, as this play was probably a lot of folks’ introduction to Poirot, Hastings, et al.

Enjoyable enough, but a very light read that leaves me longing to see it performed!

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