Thursday, September 24, 2009

Summertime reading

I did a fair bit of reading over the summer. Partly it was because it was so wet and cold (unlike the fall, which has been splendid so far!) and I had little incentive to go out into the garden. But I also came by some interesting books that I wouldn't normally have found. Back in May, I started volunteering at our public library - not in the actual library itself, you understand, but in the little used bookshop it runs as a fundraiser. A number of libraries in Ottawa do this, but our local Greenboro branch is very new and the bookshop has a special little area all to itself out in the foyer, so I think our bookshop is probably the best in town. Some of the books we sell are library discards, but most - probably 90% - are donations from the public, and they're really very good quality. The sorters try to stock mostly new books, published within the past 5 years, and people donate an amazing number of brand-new hardcover novels, which we sell for $2 each. Paperbacks go for $1, as do dvds, videos, cds, and tapes. Plus we also have a "Free" bin for magazines and other books that are considered too old or shabby to put on the shelves. All the proceeds go to buy items for the library.

What's nice about our shop is that we also sell fresh coffee, water, juice and snacks, so it's not so much like working in a library as running a tiny used bookshop. I really enjoy it - I go 2 hours a week, and very much like looking over the new books that have come in each week. Of course, I always end up buying some for myself, almost every week, and it's gotten to the point now where I've begun to weed out the books I have at home by donating them to the bookshop to make room for the new ones.

A few weeks ago I bought the 6-volume set of Churchill's war memoirs, and have started in on "The Gathering Storm". Naturally, the era he's describing, of time-wasting and passivity as danger closed in, is starting to remind me of our current decadent time. (Mark Steyn termed it "jaunty insouciance", in view of the rather less reflective, more carefree American character.) No doubt I'll be posting quotes from it as I proceed.

Another book I found (in the Free bin) was a biography of Bernard Spilsbury, who was, I guess, the chief Forensic Examiner of Great Britain for the first half of the 20th century. He did autopsies for and testified in some of Britain's most famous murder trials, including the Crippen case, the Armstrong case (both of which were combined and fictionalized in the novel "Malice Aforethought" which was twiced filmed for British TV) the Brides in the Bath, the Seddon case, and many others. The book dealt with his most famous cases, as well as his less public work, performing autopsies all over Britain. He pretty much worked himself to death, and the collapse of his own health, as well as the deaths of his sons in WWII led to depression and eventual suicide. A sad ending for such a brilliant and respected man. I'd never heard of him until I read this book, even though I'd read about the Crippen case before. I suppose he's remembered among people who deal professionally with forensics, but I think the public has forgotten him.

The book was quite dryly written, but it did provide a few humorous moments. One case that Spilsbury investigated was that of a Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Vaquier, who fell in love with an Englishwoman and poisoned her husband with strychnine. He purchased the poison at a London chemist's shop, and, as was required by law, the purchases were recorded in a book. Vaquier must have thought himself very cunning and elusive, because he used a pseudonym:
Between Vaquier's arrival in London in February and the first week of March he paid several visits to Bland's shop, buying toilet articles and a few harmless chemicals which he said he needed for his wireless experiments. Bland could speak French, and the two became on friendly terms. Vaquier gave his name as Vanker, which, when it came to an entry in the poison book, he spelt Wanker.
Oh, yes, if I were planning a nefarious poisoning scheme, that's the name which I'd assume in order to pass unnoticed by any Englishman! "Mr...uh...Wanker?" "Oui...I mean, Yes, zat is my name!"

Another thing I noticed was how trials have changed over the decades. Describing the Seddon trial, the authors write, "The trial began at the Old Bailey on 4 March, before Mr. Justice Bucknill; among the longest of modern capital trials, it was to last ten days." Living as we now do in the Age of O.J., it's almost inconceivable that a MAJOR trial could be conducted and concluded in just 10 days, and that that would be reckoned a LONG trial! This spring we went through a trial involving our mayor, and an Inquiry about alleged improprieties by Brian Mulroney, and they both droned on desultorily for about 3 months apiece. Those snappy murder trials of the British are now a thing of the past.

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