Monday, August 22, 2011

Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye...

My brother* and I agree on a lot of things, but we part ways on abandoning books.  Because of the sheer volume of books I buy (for which he gives me plenty of grief), I have to ditch out once in a while.  I always give it a solid try unless the writing is too abysmal or the story too flawed to continue.  Most of the time I make it a hundred pages or more, but if I see a bleak future in the remaining pages, I have to say goodbye and move on, albeit with a guilty conscience.

This summer I left behind Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution by Holly Tucker, which I hated to do because she is a friendly and bright presence in historical science and social media.  She's also a clear, engaging writer, and picked a unique subject: the competition among European scientists (particularly the rivalry between academies in France and England) to perform the first blood transfusions between humans.  My problems with that book, though, are largely matters of personal taste.  Firstly, as a pet owner, it was too hard for me to deal with the images of dogs (among other mammals) being used as guinea pigs in the first blood transfusion experiments.  For some reason the tales of human subjects didn't bother me, but it was hard to look my dog in the eye after reading about these procedures.  The second problem was that the "murder" referred to in the title clearly wasn't going to happen in a typical linear true crime-narrative manner.

I gave it a good try, wincing through half the book, and trying to tell myself that the efforts of those early scientists gave modern doctors the ability to help good friends of mine who have fought two different forms of cancer whose energy and strength returned, at least temporarily, after blood transfusions.  While it didn't jibe for me, Blood Work would appeal to many of you with an interest in early medicine and a less squeamish constitution.  Tucker is certainly a talented storyteller and a thorough researcher, so despite my inability to finish up, I'd still recommend the book to a different set of readers.

I can't say the same for Alan S. Cowell's The Terminal Spy, an account of the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a KGB defector living in London at the time.  This book suffers from serious flaws.  I got halfway through, but by the time I put it down, I had only a vague sense of what I'd just read.  The narrative is choppy.  Good true crime explains the background and history of the main event without losing the momentum of the story.  Unfortunately, Cowell, the former chief of the New York Times London bureau, doesn't possess the chops to sustain a narrative this much longer than a newspaper report.  This is regrettable.  What lay behind Litvinenko's murder - intrigue among the Russian oligarchy and governmental powers, private security interests, and the struggle between the old and new order in Russia - makes for rich and scintillating material.  My hope is that someone writes a book on the same subject with a keener eye for a tighter and more linear narrative.  In the meantime, I'll have to move on, my brother's eye-rolling be damned.

*He's been my best friend since the age of 3, so "brother" is the closest approximation of our actual relationship.  I would not allow any other friend to roll his or her eyes at me with such frequency.  


  1. booksandreviewsAugust 22, 2011 9:53 AM

    Same thing happens to me. I buy lots of books so, when I abadon reading one I feel terrible. However, it happenned this summer and I cheered myself up thinking that, maybe, one day I'll get through the book or maybe, it'll find a better owner, someone who will enjoy it.

    By the way, Blood Work sounds great, although I'm not a big fan of non-fiction and I love my pet (a bunny) too much to think of any experiments being performed on him!

  2. What Book TodayAugust 22, 2011 11:13 AM

    Hey thanks for the comment! I usually give away or donate the books if I really don't think I can get through them, hoping just like you they'll find a loving home.

    Please recommend Blood Work to your non-fiction buddies - I honestly think it's well-written and interesting even if it wasn't for me. :)

  3. What Book TodayAugust 22, 2011 9:56 PM

    Also, greetings to your bunny. Adorable. I have a cat too who was not mentioned in the post. Hope he doesn't find out...

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