Top critical review
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I'll be the bad guy
on December 4, 2011
Since this book has already gotten three five-star reviews, I'll put on my nasty hat and provide an alternative view. I agree that the book is a page-turner, and that's why I give it three stars. But its coverage of food poisoning through history is spotty and the author seems unwilling to really dig into the facts. What really bothers me about the book are its numerous petty errors. Spelling and grammar errors keep popping up. I'm not a snob; I can figure out what he meant to say. But all those mistakes leave me wondering about things that I didn't catch. Has the book misled me with some badly-phrased sentence?
On page 68 the author tells us that Sparta attacked Athens in 431 BCE, starting the Peloponnesian War, which lasted 27 years. On page 69 he further informs us that Thucydides wrote a history of the war -- in 431 BCE! Sure, it's just a dumb mistake, but when an author gets sloppy like that, I wonder, where else has he been sloppy?
We normally consider food poisoning to be something that arises when food in some way is tainted by bacteria or fungi. Mr. Satin expands the definition somewhat in addressing cases such as Typhoid Mary, or the adulteration of food or the inclusion of poisonous chemicals. That's OK with me -- but why didn't he bring in some of the other interesting cases of people dying from food that was deliberately poisoned? The history of Rome and Renaissance Italy bristles with cases of poisoning, but he doesn't give these incidents much attention. The reasons for including some incidents and excluding other similar events seems too arbitrary to suggest anything other than an opportunistic approach to the research. Instead of poring over the historical record, he seems to have grabbed at whatever was readily available. And why is there no mention of food poisoning in Asia other than in modern times? I refuse to believe that China never suffered mass poisonings, or poisoning assassinations, during its long history, and I refuse to believe that none of these occurrences ever made it into the history books.
He devotes a goodly amount of space to modern times, regaling us with 'true crime' stories of people who ended up poisoning lots of people by cutting some corners in safety or hygiene. Again, I get the feeling that these stories are included mostly because they were easy to find. They don't tell us anything about the impact of food poisoning on history.
I was especially disappointed by the thin coverage of developments to counter food poisoning. I know that the Romans had food inspectors monitoring the grain coming in from Egypt -- why no discussion of these measures, or any of the other measures taken through history? I don't recall seeing any mention of the German regulations about 500 years ago regarding the proper brewing of beer. Societies have been aware of the dangers of food poisoning for millennia -- why so little discussion of these countermeasures?
Hence my three-star rating. The book is good in some ways, but it's like a piece of meat with a few odd-colored spots on it: probably fine, but those spots are enough to undermine my confidence in its reliability.