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By , August 10, 2014 4:17 pm

Front Cover


It is odd that I picked up a book called Tobacco (2001). I hate tobacco in all its forms. It is a vile substance in my estimation.

So, oddly, I just finished Iain Gately’s Tobacco which had been sitting on my pile of cheap books for a while, at least two years. I like books about single subjects – ¬†acorns, salt, cochineal beetles – because they reveal so much about social history. Tobacco is no different. Covering a very wide time span, from the Spanish conquest of the “New World” to the heyday of anti-tobacco law suits in the 1990s, the book tells the stories of fads, motivations, restrictions, gender roles, class differences, cultural preferences, advertising motifs and pure old dependence.

Gately has a very English style of understatement that made me laugh out loud quite a few times. He says this of the early Spanish conquest: “Relations between the Spaniards and Americans were limited to exploitation and sex.” I probably would have put the book away for another two years if I hadn’t stopped to read that line over a few times, now aware that Gately is capable of succinct mockery. As one who teaches this horrible period in human history I do appreciate the reference.

Hitler hated tobacco. Duke University was so-named after a gift of millions of dollars to Little Trinity College by Buck Duke, founder of the American Tobacco Company. Smoking jackets were designed so that weak women wouldn’t have to smell tobacco on their aristocratic husbands. Prohibition was a great boon to smoking. The book is full of interesting little nuggets like this. It is a quick trip through American and British popular culture.

What I didn’t like about the book was the ending. Gately seems to have succumbed to his own sub-title: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization. In the end he is seduced by the allure of tobacco, good and bad: “Many great men and women have left elegant testimonies to their tobacco habits, which will be joined, I believe, with others made in centuries to come.” I don’t know if he’s a smoker or not, cigar or cigarette, but as a vehement anti-smoker I don’t have any sympathy for smokers whatsoever and I certainly don’t think their stories are elegant. More recently it seems Gately has taken up the subject of alcohol (2008’s Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol). As a non-drinker I will not be imbibing.






Book Review

By , August 3, 2014 12:16 pm

Product Details


Thunderstruck, by Erik Larson, is another in his historical murder series. Having previously read The Devil in the White City I knew to expect two intertwining stories set in a beautifully described city; this one involves Marconi and his development of wireless telegraphy plus American doctor Hawley Harvey Crippen who gruesomely murders his annoying wife. The city is London in the Edwardian period. Certainly this book is not as exciting or gripping as¬†The Devil in the White City but it does have the same easy to read yet not trite writing style. I enjoyed the descriptions of London’s neighbourhoods so much that I have determined to go there next summer. The two plots come together when the wireless telegraph is used to capture Crippen and his disguised lover on their way to Canada aboard a a Canadian Pacific steamer.

One of the difficult aspects of this book is the character of Marconi. He is awful: socially obtuse, ego-maniacal. Yet he is not the murderer in the book. Larson makes no bones about Marconi’s dislikeable character. Perhaps he is so accurate in his description that he leaves the reader disinterested and morally disgusted. I couldn’t wait for the Marconi chapters to be over. I knew that mild-mannered Dr. Crippen was going to turn out to be a murderer yet I enjoyed the descriptions of him so much more. Seemingly patient in putting up with his demanding wife, Dr. Crippen turned out to be driven to the wall, poisoning and dismembering his wife. His turned out to be one of the most famous murder cases in British history. I knew nothing of it.

Oddly, it turns out that Marconi’s chief rival, Tesla, who does not figure in this book, was severely lacking in social skills as well. He ended up befriending pigeons. Marconi did marry, twice.

I will read another Erik Larson book. The man is a sincerely talented writer.



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