Saturday, February 21, 2009

Beyond the Body Farm by Bill Bass & Jon Jefferson

Beyond the Body Farm

Beyond the Body Farm
by Bill Bass & Jon Jefferson

Hardback: 282 pages
Publisher: William Morrow
First Released: 2007

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Source: Library

Description from Back Cover:
There is no scientist in the world like Dr. Bill Bass. A pioneer in forensic anthropology, Bass created the world's first laboratory dedicated to the study of human decomposition—three acres of land on a hillside in Tennessee where human bodies are left to the elements. His research at "the Body Farm" has revolutionized forensic science, helping police crack cold cases and pinpoint time of death. But during a forensics career that spans half a century, Bass and his work have ranged far beyond the gates of the Body Farm. In this riveting book, the bone sleuth explores the rise of modern forensic science, using fascinating cases from his career to take readers into the real world of C.S.I.

Some of Bill Bass's cases rely on the simplest of tools and techniques, such as reassembling—from battered torsos and a stack of severed limbs—eleven people hurled skyward by an explosion at an illegal fireworks factory. Other cases hinge on sophisticated techniques Bass could not have imagined when he began his career: harnessing scanning electron microscopy to detect trace elements in knife wounds; and extracting DNA from a long-buried corpse, only to find that the female murder victim may have been mistakenly identified a quarter-century before.

In Beyond the Body Farm, readers will follow Bass as he explores the depths of an East Tennessee lake with a twenty-first-century sonar system, in a quest for an airplane that disappeared with two people on board thirty-five years ago; see Bass exhume fifties pop star "the Big Bopper" to determine what injuries he suffered in the plane crash that killed three rock and roll legends on "the day the music died"; and join Bass as he works to decipher an ancient Persian death scene nearly three thousand years old. Witty and engaging, Bass dissects the methods used by homicide investigators every day, leading readers on an extraordinary journey into the high-tech science that it takes to crack a case.

This book is more a memoir than a straight fact-book on forensic anthropology. Bill Bass describes the cases primarily from the viewpoint of the part he played rather than the case as a whole, though he does tell us how the cases end. He gives information on the places the cases occurred, the things that happened to him, and how he felt during the case as well as information about the case and the methods he and his students used to identify the bodies and the murderers.

He is usually working with bare bones, so much of the book isn't very gruesome. However, if reading about maggots eating human flesh or detailed descriptions of bodies mangled from an explosion turns your stomach, you might want to re-think reading this book.

Overall, the book is well-written, interesting, and moves along at a good pace.

Excerpt: Chapter One
The Golden Bowl, The Burning Palace: Applying Modern Science to Ancient Bones

As fans of the television series CSI know, death scenes can capture a wealth of detail about what happens in the instant when human life is snuffed out--even, I can say with certainty, when that instant occurred nearly three thousand years ago.

More than four decades ago and six thousand miles away, I had one of my most memorable experiences in applying the tools of archaeology and anthropology to the question of forensic science. The death scene lay in the ancient hilltop citadel of Hasanlu, in northwestern Iran, where a fierce army attacked the massive fortress, breached its mighty walls, and brought down its palace and temple in a rain of blood and fire. Hundreds had died in the battle and the blaze, but I was focusing on three of the dead, who were unearthed in a particularly dramatic discovery in the ruins.

Midway through the project, though, I began to fear that a fourth death might soon be involved: my own. As I lay doubled over, delirious for days on end, my circumstances may have been less heroic than those of the ancient warriors whose bones had drawn me here, but the setting--the way of life, the nearness of death, even the practice of medicine--had changed little in the twenty-eight centuries since the fortress fell.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Broken Earth: The Rural Chinese by Steven W. Mosher

No Cover Available

Broken Earth: The Rural Chinese
by Steven W. Mosher

Hardback: 309 pages
Publisher: Free Press
First Released: 1983

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Source: Bought from

Back Cover Description:
After the 1979 thaw in relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China, Steven W Mosher was one of a handful of Americans in 30 years permitted to take up residence in a Chinese village. Swept into China by a sudden ground swell of diplomatic good will and friendship and aided by his fluency in the Cantonese dialect, he was able to live and work in southern China largely unaccompanied and unsupervised by state and local officials.

For a year, while carrying on research in cultural anthropology, Mosher ate and drank with his peasant neighbors, celebrated and mourned with them, played basketball and took tea with them, and discussed sex and politics with them. Broken Earth is his account--told often in the Chinese' own words--of what it is really like to live in the People's Republic today. It is an unexpectedly intimate look behind the Bamboo Curtain of authorized facts.

We see the rural Chinese at home, in school, and at work, expressing their bitterness at the past, their frustrations with the present, and their hopes for the future. Here is the life and rhythm of the village: marriages, births, festivities, and funerals--an ancient life of rituals often at odds with Party directive and reforms.

And behind the glib optimism of socialist rhetoric, the author uncovers the darker side of Chinese society: a disaffected peasantry trapped between the bureaucracy and the black market, harried by endless political exhortations, bitter at the special privileges and petty corruptions of Party officials, and, perhaps worst of all, bullied by a rigid campaign of birth control. While Mosher entered China intending only to conduct ethnographic studies, he left carrying a heavy burden of truth about the Chinese communist system and the physical and moral anguish it has wrought.

Because Chinese of all walks of life--officials, workers, and peasants--revealed their innermost thoughts and feelings to Mosher, Broken Earth tells us more about the true texture of life in the People's Republic than we have ever been able to learn. Unlike the inevitably impressionistic reports of "tourist journalists" and city-bound academics, Mosher's book offers a rich, complex panorama of daily life in rural China, alive with its unique personalities, pleasures, tensions, and sorrows. Brimming with anecdotes and eye-opening observations, it is a strikingly frank, realistic appraisal of what is happening to the people behind the statistics in the "New China."

While the author lived in China in 1979 through 1980, the book covers life in China from late in Mao's era until 1982. He primarily talks about life in rural southern China, but he also was able to interact with some city Chinese and learn a bit about the conditions in other parts of China. This book is a well-written behind-the-propaganda look into the culture.

The book covers village life and work, the bureaucracy, corruption and crime, unemployment, restrictions on daily life, the education system, the Youth who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, marriage, the role of men and women, forced birth control, the political campaigns, and more. While we do get to see slices of rural life, this book is more a historical view of the political policies and how they affected the Chinese alive at the time the author lived there.

The book was very informative without being dry. In fact, I probably would have read the book through in one sitting if I hadn't had to take a break after every chapter or two so I could process everything I'd just learned. Anyone who thinks the textbook version of communism or socialism looks appealing should read this book to learn the pitfalls of how socialism works out in reality.

I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in socialism in general or in communist China.

Excerpt: Chapter One
Late in March 1979 I first arrived, elated yet diffident, in the South China commune that I hoped to study. As an anthropologist whose goal it was to penetrate the private world of the villager, I saw getting through to the Chinese as people as the main challenge of the coming year. I was an outsider, neither Chinese nor Communist, and I wondered how long it would take to make contacts with local peasants and cadres, and worried that it might not be possible at all.

Friends who had been to the People's Republic had not been optimistic about my chances. One acquaintance, just back from a year of intensive study of Chinese at the Beijing Language Institute, told me how he had been put up by the PRC government in a dormitory restricted to foreign students where he had met and made friends with Australians, Germans, Africans--students of various nationalities--but no Chinese. His instructors at the institute had been the only Chinese he had come into regular contact with. While they had been cordial enough in class, they had discouraged socializing after hours. His trips about the city of Beijing, to such places as Tiananmen Square, Beihai Park, and the Forbidden City, had engulfed him in vast, swirling crowds of people but had not helped him to break through the social barriers that separated him from these Chinese millions.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

In the Land of Invisible Women by Qanta A. Ahmed, MD

In the Land of Invisible Women

In the Land of Invisible Women
by Qanta A. Ahmed, MD

Trade Paperback: 454 pages
Publisher: Sourcebooks, Inc.
First Released: 2008

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Source: Netgalley, print review copy from publisher

Back Cover Blurb:
"In this stunningly written book, a Western trained Muslim doctor brings alive what it means for a woman to live in the Saudi Kingdom. I've rarely experienced so vividly the shunning and shaming, racism and anti-Semitism, but the surprise is how Dr. Ahmed also finds tenderness at the tattered edges of extremism, and a life-changing pilgrimage back to her Muslim faith." - Gail Sheehy

The decisions that change your life are often the most impulsive ones.

Unexpectedly denied a visa to remain in the United States, Qanta Ahmed, a young British Muslim doctor, becomes an outcast in motion. On a whim, she accepts an exciting position in Saudi Arabia. This is not just a new job; this is a chance at adventure in an exotic land she thinks she understands, a place she hopes she will belong.

What she discovers is vastly different. The Kingdom is a world apart, a land of unparalleled contrast. She finds rejection and scorn in the places she believed would most embrace her, but also humor, honesty, loyalty and love.

And for Qanta, more than anything, it is a land of opportunity. A place where she discovers what it takes for one woman to recreate herself in the land of invisible women.

This memoir is a detail look at Saudi Arabian society from the point of view of a British, female Muslim. It allows readers to see a culture most will never come in direct contact with. She not only describes her own experiences, but also describes how men, other foreigners, and native women react to this society. While she was mainly in contact with the richer, more privileged Saudis, she had occasional glimpses into what life is like for the poorer Saudis. She also explains the history of the country so we can understand why things are the way they are, and she shows how things are changing.

She gives meticulous detail so I was easily able to "see" what was going on, but the level of detail also slowed the pace down. I doubt any two readers would agree on what parts should have been cut, though. For example, I've always been curious about Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) since I don't know much about it. But I do know no non-Muslim is allowed to see the Ka'aba. I would have been interested in even more detail about her pilgrimage, but I read a review the other day where the reader would have preferred less detail in that section.

The grammar and spelling could have been better, and Qanta Ahmed tried to be too poetic in her writing. This often slowed my reading down as I tried to figure out what she meant, but it wasn't confusing so much as distracting. I also found the book a bit emotionally tiring as she swung between anger and judgment at how she was treated to glowing elation the moment she felt any acceptance by those same people or by others.

Basically, I found this to be a slow but very, very interesting read. I'd recommend it for anyone wanting a look inside the Saudi Arabian culture without travelling there.

Excerpt: Chapter One
Seeking respite from the intensity of medicine, I trained my eye on the world without. Already, the midmorning heat rippled with fury, as sprinklers scattered wet jewels onto sunburned grass. Fluttering petals waved in the Shamaal wind, strongest this time of day.

In a pool of shade cast by a hedge, a laborer sought shelter from the sun. An awkward bundle of desiccated limbs, the Bengali lunched from a tiffin. His shemagh cloth was piled into a sodden turban, meager relief from the high heat. Beyond, a hundred-thousand-dollar Benz growled, tearing up a dust storm in its steely wake. Behind my mask, I smiled at my reflection. Suspended between plate glass, a woman in a white coat gazed back. Externally, I was unchanged from the doctor I had been in New York City, yet now everything was different.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Crying Wind by Crying Wind

No Cover Available

Crying Wind
by Crying Wind

Hardback: 188 pages
Publisher: Moody Press
First Released: 1977

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Source: Library

Back Cover Blurb:
"I'm the accidental offspring of two people who hated each other. I never saw my father's face because he abandoned my mother before I was born, and she hated him for it. My mother was young and didn't want to be tied down with a baby she hadn't wanted in the first place, so she left me with my grandmother on the reservation. I'm a worthless halfbreed; two people trying to live in one body. That's who Crying Wind is--nobody."

At fifteen, Crying Wind is forced to move into a large city after her grandmother died as the result of a household accident and her favorite horse cut himself during a storm and died. Living alone and feeling confused and unloved, Crying Wind loses her desire to live. Friendless, jobless, and penniless, she tries to commit suicide. Paging through the yellow pages, she recognizes a church's address. Hesitantly she approaches the pastor, and the encouragement and love of the pastor and his wife help Crying Wind to accept herself and appreciate her own worth. For months she remains torn between her new friends and their faith and loyalty to the old Indian ways; but the acceptance, affection, and freedom she experiences with her Christian friends gradually win out.

Simply and sensitively written, Crying Wind's story gives insights into American Indian culture and the cultural barriers an Indian must hurdle when he becomes a Christian.

This memoir details how the Kickapoo Indians lived at the time (about the 1950's, I think) and describes their religion. It also describes the difficulties they face, both on their reservations and in the cities.

The book only skims the surface of the topic (Native American culture and religion), but it's a good place to start. The story is interesting, fast-paced, and easy-to-read. I'd recommend this book to those interested in the topic.

Excerpt: Chapter One
Moccasined feet moved quietly down the dry arroyo. The only sound was that of leather fringe flapping against bronze skin.

Thunder growled in the distance, and few flashes of lightening outlined the ragged, purple clouds as I began slowly to work my way up the sharp rocks of the cliff. My hands were already scratched and skinned from clutching at rocks in the darkness. I tried not to think about what would happen if I grabbed a loose rock or lost my balance. I knew only too well it would be a long and painful slide down the steep, granite hill with yucca spikes slashing at my legs.

Straining my eyes, I tried to see the narrow, almost invisible path that led to the secret circle on top of this sacred hill. I wondered if there had ever been such a dark night. A flash of lightning lit the hillside long enough for me to see the large rocks ahead. I was nearly at the top.

I felt dizzy, and my hands began to shake from hunger. I hadn't had anything to eat or drink all day. I had fasted to prove myself worthy to speak to my god.

In a few more minutes I would be talking to my god, Niyol, the great and mighty wind god of the Indians.

At last I reached the crest of the hill,and I hurried over to a flat stone buried in the earth. I knew that hundreds of other Indians had stood on this same stone in the distant past to call to their gods for help.

I carefully removed the feathers and stick from my leather pouch and tied them together with strips of rawhide. Then I drew our clan sign in the dust and stood to face the wind.

"Oh, strong and fearful wind, most powerful of all the gods, hear my words--"

I finished my prayer and threw my prayer stick into the wind and quickly turned my back, because to see your prayer stick fall to earth meant your prayer would not be answered. I hoped the wind would catch my prayer stick and blow it up into the sky.

The thunder warned me one last time to come down off the mountain before he let loose his storm horses. I quickly ran my hands through the dust to wipe out all traces of the drawing. Even as I did so the sky began to cry, and large, heavy drops of rain hit the tops of my hands and turned the dust on my fingers to mud.

I hurried across the open space to the large boulders that marked the path leading back down the hill. The drops of rain were bigger, and they stung when they hit my face. A loud clap of thunder crashed all around me and made me jump with fright. My buckskin dress was already becoming wet and heavy, and it clung to me, making it even harder to inch my way down the narrow path. I wondered if lightning would strike me as I hung on the side of the cliff and if I would be found dead tomorrow.

My heart raced faster. I couldn't tell if I shivered from the cold rain or from fear or if I just trembled from hunger. I was nearly at the bottom when the gravel, loosened by the downpour, gave way under my feet. I slid the rest of the way down the hill. When I was sure I hadn't been hurt, I picked myself up and brushed off the mud and thanked Niyol for sparing my life. After all, he could have told the lightning to strike me, or he could have killed me from the fall. Wasn't the fact he spared me a good sign? Didn't it prove I was in his favor? Perhaps it even meant he had heard my prayer.