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What We're Reading, Feb. 17 - 22, 2010

Nina Totenberg passes judgment on the definitive account of Clinton vs. Starr. A true tale of Jazz Age sleuths worthy of their own CSI spin-off. And an Ahab-like obsession with whales produces a deeply satisfying natural history of these magnificent monsters.

'The Death of American Virtue'

The Death of American Virtue

Clinton vs. Starr

By Ken Gormley

Sixteen years ago, independent counsel Kenneth Starr started looking into Bill and Hillary Clinton's questionable real estate investments. Author and law professor Ken Gormley tells the story of how that investigation grew into a scandal that divided the nation and nearly unseated a president. Gormley interviewed most of the major figures and uses newly available documents to tell the story of Clinton's eventual impeachment in masterful (some might say excruciating) detail.

You might expect this 800-page tome written by a law school professor to be dry and academic. It is not. Duquesne Law School dean Ken Gormley has written a readable and fair account that sheds new light on what went on behind the scenes. Gormley has done lots of work. He has interviewed all the key players, including Clinton and Starr, plus subordinates and witnesses, and even Justice John Paul Stevens, who authored the High Court opinion holding that the president was not immune from civil lawsuit while in office. Perhaps because we know so much about the Clinton side of the scandal, it is the Starr stuff that is most fresh, interesting and discouraging. In the end, though, you really have to be a devotee to do more than skim this very interesting book, because when all is said and done, nobody comes out well — not Clinton, not Starr, not the agenda-driven witnesses, not even the judges who appointed Starr and then kept secret the results of an independent inquiry that concluded the special prosecutor had violated the federal rules on prosecutorial conduct. When I closed the book, my reaction was much like it was when the saga was unfolding: I just wanted to take a bath. — Nina Totenberg, NPR legal affairs correspondent

'The Poisoner's Handbook

Hardcover, 800 pages; Crown; list price: $35.00; publication date: Feb.16

The Poisoner's Handbook

Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

By Deborah Blum

'The Whale'

Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Deborah Blum traces the birth of forensic toxicology to a laboratory in New York's Bellevue Hospital in the 1920s. We follow bluff, fiercely driven chief medical examiner Charles Norris as he launches a one-man crusade against the corruption and lassitude that beset criminal investigations in the years leading up to his tenure. Together with his trusted lead toxicologist, the shy Alexander Gettler, he devises new techniques to test for the presence of once-undetectable chemicals, and ultimately makes New York City a much tougher place for would-be poisoners to get away with murder.

Who knew that New York City experienced a surge in murders by poison during the 1910s and '20s? Blum takes that odd historical footnote and produces a book of exhaustively researched science writing that reads like science fiction, complete with suspense, mystery and foolhardy guys in lab coats tipping test tubes of mysterious chemicals into their own mouths. Comparisons to CSI are going to be hard for reviewers to resist (on top of everything else, Norris was a redhead, like Horatio Caine), and you'll be forgiven for imagining Norris standing over a flapper's corpse and whipping off his pince-nez to make with a pun, but the thing I'm loving most about the book is its clever structure: Blum tells the story of Norris and Gettler's work chronologically, but each chapter is organized around a different poison used in a case they investigate — chloroform, cyanide, mercury, etc. It works; even as she's bringing the investigations to life, Blum finds a way to make all that potentially off-putting chemistry seem ... well, organic. — Glen Weldon, NPR book reviewer

Hardcover, 336 pages; Penguin Press; list price: $25.95; publication date: Feb.18

The Whale

In Search of the Giants of the Sea

By Philip Hoare

Author Philip Hoare has been fascinated with whales since childhood. In The Whale, Hoare combines painstaking research with personal memoir to produce a rollicking chronicle of his Ahab-like obsession. Romp with Hoare through Herman Melville's New York, Nantucket and London as he traces the cultural and natural history of the whale from the Old Testament to movies such as Free Willy. Bored in the big city? Then hop on a 19th century whaling vessel and find out how Melville collected whale lore firsthand for his demented and delicious Moby Dick. Hoare is not a scientist, but the book is alive with sensual encyclopedic facts about the very first whale he ever encountered — Ramu, the killer whale at Windsor Safari park — along with the humpback, sperm, beaked and blue. What Hoare creates is a tough, vulnerable biography of these magnificent creatures. You'll be fascinated to hear what whales eat (um, just about everything, including whole, live humans) and how they mate (just like people — belly to belly) and raise their young.

Author Philip Hoare isn't just fascinated by the giants of the sea — he's in love with them. By the time you've read just one chapter of his book, you will be, too. You don't have to love Moby Dick to love this book. But if you do, The Whale is probably one of the most sublime reading experiences you'll have this year. Be warned: Hoare chronicles the cruel, dangerous barbarity of the whaling business. Yet the reader can't help but marvel at its economic might — whaling provided countless gallons of oil and jobs in the 19th century. For all of his admiration for these magnificent creatures, his tone is not sentimental. He's also a delightful host who takes the reader along for the briny thrill of getting up close and personal with whales off Stellwagen Bank near Cape Cod. I could study his handpicked photos and illustrations for hours. My only regret is that I devoured this book at home by the fire in February — instead of with the tang of salt in the air at the beach. — Ellen Silva, senior editor, 'All Things Considered'

Hardcover, 464 pages; Ecco; list price: $27.99; publication date: Feb.2

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