19 | Yes Please by Amy Poehler

I would 1000% recommend listening to the audiobook as opposed to reading Yes Please; to hear Amy Poehler read her own words allowed was the perfect way to learn about her background, ambitions and trials. This isn’t a very polished or edited book– it reads more like a diary than anything, but she discusses everything from her college years, early career, working on Saturday Night Live, shooting Parks and Rec, her sons, her marriage, her divorce and her outlook on life. She’s a comic through and through, her positivity and relatability transcending every story she tells, making her extremely likable as a person, beyond the characters she plays in sketches, shows or movies.

I was a bit too young to watch SNL during Poehler’s heyday so I became aware of her through her acting on Parks and Rec, a The Office like one-shot style television comedy show on NBC. Poehler plays the main character, Leslie Knope, a extremely passionate and dedicated low-level civil servant working for the Department of Parks and Recreation in middle of nowhere Pawnee, Indiana. She’s relentless, taking every duty assigned to her seriously and without complaint, her sole goal to improve the people’s lives in town whom she serves. Poehler brings in Mike Schur on one of the later chapters (Part 3 Chapter 7) to discuss the development of the show from a producer’s point of view and specifically, how Leslie Knope evolved as Poehler played her. Because I’m such a fan of the show, the chapter was a neat look into how Leslie Knope was initially pitched to have a more professional and cautious relationship with the camera, as she had political ambitions and was aware that any unprofessional statement caught on camera could mar her plans. However, as the show went on, Leslie later evolved to have a much more authentic relationships with the camera as Schur recalls that instead, Leslie didn’t have anything to hide. She was she same character both on and off camera and there was no divide between her public and private life. There really is a whole creative team behind the scenes, debating on how each of the characters might present themselves. For example, Ben Wyatt, Leslie’s future husband played by Adam Scott has a different relationships to the camera, often giving it a look that says “see what I have to deal with” when something ridiculous goes on. Schur explains that Andy Dwyer, played by Chris Pratt view the camera as his best friend, sharing what he thinks are ingenious ideas, unfiltered excitement and genuine happiness. One of the most hilarious parts of the book was when Schur and Poehler read a list of names that Leslie Knope might have been. I’ll spoil one: Leslie Knuckle- Jensen. They are intoxicatingly funny and goes to show how clever and silly producers and writers are, which all contributes to the character building and arch.

I enjoyed learning about Poehler as a person, beyond her career. How she was a young ambitious comic straight out of college at one point and that everything that’s happened in her life is a result of being open-minded and not taking things too seriously. She’s honest and candid, talking about sex, childbirth, separation, lost friendships and more in her signature Poehler way. It’s the perfect audiobook for a road trip, a way to relax and decompress with a comedic friend.

18 | Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

One of the best ethnographies (in book form) I’ve ever read, Evicted is about a number of Milwaukee families, both African American and Caucasian, who struggle to secure and stay in housing despite serious trials. It’s 2008; some are single mothers, some are drug addicts, some are both. Some are paralyzed and live on disability, others are unemployed, some by choice, some by circumstance. Each of the stories Desmond paints are infuriating in some way or another. There’s Arlene, a single mother with her two boys who has moved a number of times in just a few months. She’s just been evicted by the landlord from her apartment because her teenage son Jori had been throwing snowballs at passing cars and the man who’s car they hit got mad and broke down their apartment door. The landlord couldn’t deal with it, kicking the family to the curb. There’s Scott, who had worked hard to become nurse but eventually loosing his nursing license after being caught stealing patients’ opioids which he both sold and used himself. Unemployed and with a new drug addiction, he wanders between shelters, rehab centers and a trailer park. Desmond includes profiles of people who are black, white, young mothers, sixty year olds and people who came from middle class backgrounds. Evicted tells the painful story of what it’s like to find, secure, and loose housing and how the cycle repeats itself squandering any semblance of hope.

On one hand, there are the systemic issues. Racism, classism, poor infrastructure and unequal investment in low-income neighborhoods, the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs, you name it and the issue is discussed in the book. These, and the profound legacies are undeniable. But I also feel that there is behavior that puts people in bad situations where they loose their job and become homeless. Conservatives have long blamed the “welfare queen” for the position she put herself in. Why does she have five children, each fathered by a different man who is absent? To be honest, I wonder that too. Arlene, for example has multiple children, with at least three men, one of whom is incarcerated because of aggravated assault. She can’t even afford to take care of herself, let alone one child… or five. I think of what most people’s thought process might be. If you can’t afford to have a child, then don’t. Either use protection, take birth control or perhaps if the situation is dire, one could have an abortion or put the child up for adoption. There’s absolutely the possibility that Arlene never had thorough sexual education in school, that she never finished high school, or had access to birth control options. But in the back of my mind I think: don’t condoms cost a few bucks and aren’t they easily available at corner stores? Most people make life decisions in accordance with their finances, bolstered by moral codes and familial or societal expectations. If I can’t afford a pair of new shoes or a fifty dollar meal, then I won’t fork over the money. If I can’t afford to have a baby, I will make sure I use protection and take other precautionary measures. But Arlene makes poor decisions on a number of occasions, buying a “fancy” meal one night of different meat cuts from the corner store and her kids new clothes and shoes when she was behind on the previous month’s rent. There are multiple occasions where people make objectively unwise financial decisions. I want to be compassionate towards people who are in need, especially when there are innocent children involved but there’s something wrong when you’re in the hole a couple hundred for rent and you put money towards a turkey dinner instead.

There’s also Vanetta, a single mother who can’t seem to find an apartment for her and her two young kids. Well, turns out she not only has prior eviction records which already makes it nearly impossible to find a landlord willing to overlook that fact, but she also has a criminal eviction, from the time when, along with her cousins and friends, she went to rob some random person on the street with a firearm to try and steal the woman’s purse. With a criminal conviction, it’s nearly impossible to rent, let alone find a job. Many homeless shelters turn her away because of her run-in with the law. I truly feel that it is Vanetta’s fault in many ways. You break the law, you deal with the consequences. It’s the same for me. I struggle to reconcile the fact that she has deepened the hole which she is in due to her own actions, but that her kids are involved and are exposed to violence, drugs, and other adverse childhood experiences because they do not have a stable home. That’s why this book is infuriating. People make their lives worse when they make bad decisions.

Moving beyond individual behaviors, the big alarm Desmond is trying to sound is the lived experience of being at the cusp of homelessness and squalid living conditions. The rental market in most American cities is already tight, with management companies buying up property, inflating property values, gentrification, continued white flight, the arrival of people from other areas and more. The minimum wage cannot support a stable life, let alone children, rent, food, a phone bill or utilities. Even if the poorest of the poor are working at a fast food joint with all the overtime hours they can possibly manage to work, they still, cannot support themselves. This is the “ideal” bind, that everyone’s working their hardest. But poverty begets poverty. Spirits are crushed, dreams eliminated. Hope lost. Desmond’s portraits show how tragic people’s lives become when they see no way out, when even serious drive or work ethic doesn’t help. If they are lucky to scrape enough cash together for a month’s rent, manipulative and extractive landlords will rent out places with serious code violations such as apartments where lead paint has been used, broken sewer lines, no running water, to name a few. Don’t even get started on how different the white and black experiences of poverty are and how big of a role racism plays in white people’s systems of rationalization. This book made me mad. Mad that so many children caught in the web will probably turn out like their parents, mad that urban governance has had very little success in designing systems and services to support vulnerable people and mad that people make poor decisions that contribute to their situation. The stories are conflicting and wrought with emotion, making me think long and hard about how most of these peoples are just political statistics, devoid of conscious and ambition.

13 | Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy seemed to have garnered a lot of attention after it’s 2016 release as many people sought to find some explanation of how Trump had so much political support stemming from the Appalachian region. However, I think it is important to recognize that this isn’t some great sociological investigation or commentary; Vance is writing a memoir of his childhood and young adult years. He’s writing about his life and the people who both contributed and inhibited his growth, the opportunities and setbacks he encountered and what he believes to the reasons he has been able to make a life for himself.

Vance was essentially raised by his Mamaw (he writes it’s pronounced ma’am-maw) and Papaw in Middletown, Ohio in the 1980s, a place where troves of Kentucky Appalachian transplants relocated in the wake of massive recruitment by manufacturing companies seeking blue-collar workers. Mamaw and Papaw Vance, in Vance’s words were true Jackson County, Kentucky “hillbillies”– they abide by a set of societal norms of which defending the family’s honor is the singular most important rule. Vance’s memoir is filled with stories, some more legend than truth, of his Mamaw’s no bullshit attitude: when she caught some theives stealing her family’s cow, she took a shotgun and managed to hit one guy in the leg. She would’ve shot the downed thief again to kill him if not for her brother holding her back. Mamaw cussed, called people out on their mistakes and encouraged J.D. to beat up a school bully who would repeatedly beat up a scrawny classmate. J.D. clearly worshipped his grandmother. Vance’s mother, Mamaw’s second child, was largely absent in his life, moving from boyfriend to boyfriend, eventually falling into drug addiction. Vance’s father broke up with his mother a few months after he was born and started a new family of his own, living a conservative religious lifestyle after joining the Pentecostal Church. Vance’s grandparents and family from Kentucky believed in God but didn’t attend church (Vance comments that people from Appalachia think they go to church more than they do; apparently, the actual rate of church going is very close to the rate of church attendance in liberal San Fransisco). Vance’s older sister Lindsay was one of the only constants in his life, protecting him from their abusive mother and taking care of him when no one else did. He writes about ACEs or Adverse Childhood Experiences, a metric used by psychologists and social services to understand childhood trauma and the likely problems adults who experienced ACEs as children, will have. For example, if a child experiences parental separation or divorce, has a family member who abuses drugs or alcohol, has depression or is suicidal, all these different ACEs affect the child in profound ways, even altering brain chemistry for life. Adults who experienced ACEs, especially multiple ones, have higher rates of obesity, heart disease, psychological problems, substance abuse and even have problems maintaining normal relationships and holding down a job.

While Vance experienced multiple ACEs, he writes that he was able to “make it” because of people in his life: his Mamaw, who instilled in him importance of doing well in school and took him under her wing after Vance’s mother proved time and time again she was unable to provide for her son, his sister Lindsay who protected him during his childhood, his mentor (Amy Chua) in graduate school, various friends and his future wife, Usha. He also had the opportunity to enlist in the Marine Corps after high school and later enroll in college at Ohio State University with minimal debt thanks to need-based financial aid, Pell Grants and the GI Bill. Yale, where he attended Law School, also gave him essentially a free-ride; the irony being that it was cheaper to attend a private, out of state school than a public, in-state university. It is clear that Vance is grateful for the people in his life and the opportunities he had, but he feels that in addition to things happening to align for him, he also worked incredibly hard and sacrificed his fair share. He worked two jobs to support himself through college, sleeping less than four hours a night in order to graduate with minimal debt and a double major in just under two years. He worked for a remodeling company after college, lifting tiles in order to save up money for law school. His work ethic was what contributed to his success: while his peers from Middletown and Jackson County got caught up in adolescent parenthood, drugs and unemployment, Vance did the opposite, focusing in energies to excel in school and provide for himself. A obvious conservative, Vance believes that what set him apart from his peers and others in his community was not only having a few saving graces along the way like supportive relatives, but the fact he also worked to get where he wanted to go, instead of wallowing in excuses and self-pity.

This is where things get dicey. Many readers thought this attitude of “I worked hard, so should they” was pompous and completely neglected the systemic pressures Appalachians and other poor working whites face, including disappearing manufacturing jobs due to processes like globalization, trade wars and unchecked capitalism, the incredibly extractive coal and mining industries (which have also wreaked substantial environmental havoc), the overprescription of of opioids, contributing to the ensuing epidemic, the increasing political isolation, brain-drain, and a whole host of other issues Vance largely fails to address. Vance writes off these experiences as it’s just what happens when people make poor life decisions. Until young women stop having children with multiple men, people decide to work hard at their job, stop taking drugs, start working hard in school, things will continue to deteriorate, all at the expense of the next generation of children. Vance writes of many neighbors who were those stereotypical “welfare queens”: each of her children have a different father, she’s addicted to drugs, has a new boyfriend every month, she uses her food stamps to get food, then sells it for cash to fund her drug habits. He writes of his co-worker with a pregnant girlfriend coming in perpetually late to work, taking extensive bathroom breaks, who slacks. After multiple warnings, his boss fires the guy who later complains that it isn’t his fault he got fired and that it was unfair as he has a child on the way. Vance writes that there are so many people who completely neglect the opportunities right in front of them. You can’t help people until they help themselves. It’s not a policy problem, Vance argues, but a mindset problem. Poor working whites have created a construct in which they are the victims.

I can see why this rubs people the wrong way, but I think it’s important to understand this is a memoir of Vance’s life. Take his work for what it is, rather than critique his take on social policy. Vance is not a sociologist trying to understand why people are they why they are. I think he is very brave in writing about his family history and putting it out there for strangers to read. There are too few narratives of what upward mobility and the accompanying challenges are like for everyday Americans and his story should be read with empathy and compassion though admittedly he veers into dangerous territory when he writes about Appalachians as a whole, rather than his own experience. Vance was in his early 30s when the book was released; it would be interesting to see if he writes another part to his memoir some decades later and if his attitudes and beliefs change at all in the future.

12 | Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee

Published in 2007, this book is Min Jin Lee’s first of her Korean diaspora trilogy, the second of which is Pachinko. A 560 page long read, I found the style to be exactly like Pachinko (the first book featured on this blog), essentially long-winding narratives about different characters. Some readers find many of the characters to be irrelevant, boring or unnecessary, but I found each sucked me into the novel further.

The story’s central character is Casey Han, a 20-something Korean-American girl who just graduated from Princeton. Casey grew up in a humble apartment in Queens with parents who own a few dry cleaning businesses in Manhattan and a younger sister who is, by her parents standards, the perfect Korean daughter: pre-med student, easy to parent, disciplined and filial. Casey on the other hand is brash, often fighting with her parents and dating a Caucasian guy she met in college that her parents don’t yet know about. Over the course of the book set in the mid-90s, Casey experiences heartache after heartache as her father kicks her out for disrespecting him, the Caucasian boyfriend cheats on her and while she figures out what to pursue career wise. She’s gained expensive habits from being surrounded by wealthy-trust fund kids in college and managed to buy herself into debt on top of all this. Other story lines include Casey’s friend Ella, a young Korean woman who is docile and even-tempered, who finds out Ted, her pompous investment banker fiancé later turned husband turned baby-daddy turned ex-husband has cheated on her while pregnant with a red-haired busty secretary from work, Delia. Ella finds herself locked in a custody battle over their daughter, Irene, while realizing the man she now loves is her co-worker, David. There’s also Casey’s mom, Leah, who is the top choir singer at church. The new choir director Charles finds forty year old Leah exceptionally attractive and sets out to seduce her. Leah, an extremely conservative Christian woman has a crush on the director, has no idea how sexually charged his advances are, later finding herself in the back of her own car as he is raping her. There is a lot of sex in the book, yes, but I disagree with some reviewers calling this novel chick-lit disguised as literary fiction. Because all the characters come from various cross-sections of society in term of age, socio-economic status, education level, I found the book to really been a commentary on how various people experience and rationalize life: how they respond to interracial relationships, mysogyny, sex, marriage, capitalism, religion, luxury, privilege. The characters have wildly different coping mechanisms and ideas of what life is worth living.

I will say though, I felt like the story was missing end. Nothing was resolved, except on the last two pages, Casey seemed to somewhat make amends with her Korean boyfriend Unu, an unemployed finance guy with a dangerous penchant for gambling. I was surprised that the book ended there, as Unu was not one of the central characters. I wished there there was a little bit more in the ending, not necessarily a happy one, but more closure between Casey and her parents. I’m excited to see what Lee writes next, as she’s slated to publish the third book in the trilogy soon.

11 | To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

There are so many “modern classics” I haven’t read; it’s almost overwhelming. The ones that I did read in grade school, I don’t remember enjoying at all. I found them dry, characters not relatable and tedious to read when you were given reading quizzes on the content the following day. Questions like: “why did character X frown when character Y did Z” did not pique my interest, nor did they help me appreciate literature or cultivate any passion for reading. To Kill a Mockingbird wasn’t in my school English curricula so I picked it up at the library and decided to give it a go. I don’t regret reading the novel as it is considered one of the most highly regarded works of literature of all time and always included on those lists of “books you should read before you die,” but quite honestly, it was a bit of a drag to get through.

The story is narrated from Scout Finch’s perspective. She’s a fairly normal eight year old girl attached at the hip with her older brother Jem. Their father, Atticus, is the town lawyer, who both revere and respect. Unsurprisingly, where the story is set in the 1930’s Deep South, Maycomb County, Alabama to be specific, there is extensive racial prejudice and injustice ripe in people’s attitudes and the local justice system. A young black man named Tom Robinson is accused of raping a white girl– there are no witnesses except a white man’s word over a black man’s. We know how that turns out. Atticus is appointed to defend Tom and the townspeople ridicule and ostracize the family, including young Scout and Jem.

I can understand why this book is considered a timeless classic– themes of racism, classism and injustice will never grow old unfortunately. We will live in a time where the justice system is stacked against blacks, in favor of whites, and where rampant and brazen injustices run wild. However, the savior complex Atticus is given by Harper Lee rubbed me the wrong way. It felt like it could be a trope of sorts: an educated, privileged white man realizes all people are equal and cuts the black man’s chains to set him free. Additionally, Lee is a white woman, writing about a white family, but includes experiences of Tom and other black characters without having any lived experience as a black person. The fact that this novel is the story about racism in America to me is strange. There are so many works by African American authors who live with the legacies of prejudice, injustice and oppression, who are so much better equip to write about this topic. Ultimately, I’m glad I didn’t have to read this book in grade school. It would probably eat away at my soul if I had to remember why X happened Y after Z did– you get the gist.

10 | A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey

James Comey is a figure familiar to those who have followed any American political news since 2017, the former FBI Director famously and abruptly fired by Trump. Turns out, Comey was speaking at a diversity event, aimed to recruit Black and Latino Special Agents to serve in the FBI when he saw headlines on the news: “Comey Fired.” He learned his fate from television. How disrespectful and humiliating.

I didn’t know much about Comey prior to reading his political memoir, but Comey has been active, off and on, in public service since the 80s, serving as, among other positions, as part of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York, as Assistant U.S. Attorney during the Clinton Administration and as both U.S. Attorney and Deputy Attorney General during the Bush Administration. During his early years, he helped prosecute members of Italian crime families, discussing how he came to realize how being a leader of a mob family is critically different from being an leader of a public institution. While in crime families personal and familial loyalty are the ultimate vow, one which violence, coercion, and even murder are used to test said loyalty in, the type of loyalty which Comey claims to espouse is loyalty not to a person or entity, but to the justice system and institutional values of the United States. I would agree with him, yet his seemingly wavering devotion to this ethical leadership irked me, as throughout the book, he painted himself as a paragon of righteousness. Every decision he made, regardless of how controversial, was right, was ethical and was just. Comey never admits of making a mistake or even admits to the possibility that he may have made one. He writes that no one wants a leader who isn’t sure about something. People want a strong leader who, at the least, has unquestioned confidence in his own ability to make tough decisions during stressful moments. Yes, I agree, I don’t want someone is a position of power to regret making a decision that affected people’s real lives in a negative way, yet I find the chasm between me and Comey to have widened as he never suggests a shortcoming. The paradox was obvious to me; Comey writes we’re all humans and make mistakes. What’s more is that we should be allowed to. Yet in his memoir, he assures readers he’s always done the right thing. Okay, so is Comey human like me?

Comey’s memoir is an important read during this chaotic political time. I appreciate that he did write his book after his firing because it’s important for people to understand who he is and what he stands for, in his own words. The writing is compelling for the most part, especially towards the end of the book when he share intimate details about his meetings with Trump. Throughout his prior dealings with Obama, he reiterates several times how important it is for the President and the FBI Director to never have a buddy-buddy relationship, for there to always be professional distance to ensure there is no influence and that if the President or his associates are to be investigated, the FBI remains a apolitical institution where justice always prevails. For Comey, this meant he would never have lunch with Obama or even play pick-up basketball with him. This was just plain inappropriate. However, just days within Trump’s swearing in, Trump asked Comey to have dinner with him, during which Trump says: “I need your loyalty.” Comey immediately draws parallels to what an Italian crime mob boss would say. Spoiler, pretty much the same thing. Comey describes a numbing horror that dawns upon him. Not only was this dinner unconventional, the President was asking for something completely immoral and unjust. Loyalty? You mean, to lie on his behalf or stymie investigations to render them ineffective or inconclusive? It’s very believable Trump did indeed say those words, probably not just to Comey. And when Comey didn’t do what Trump asked, which was to essentially bury the investigation of Michael Flynn, Comey was fired.

Comey ends his book with saying he chooses to be optimistic, saying that this forest fire will do significant damage in the short term, but will inevitably spurt growth down in the line. Now, I don’t this this metaphor is necessarily helpful- calling Trump a forest fire is to suggest this forest fire was a spontaneous event of sorts. Trump becoming president was spontaneous. People voted for him. There’s nothing about spontaneous about that. Furthermore, forest fires are natural occurrences, part of an ecological cycle that will ensure balance in the land. Trump is not balancing anything. He’s constantly pointing fingers, at the press, at Democrats, at other people. Every week there’s a terrible headline about something Trump or his associates have done clandestinely before or during his presidency. Look at how many Trump associates have been sentenced to prison or are currently under federal investigation. Look how much turnover there is his administration. There’s been no conclusion with his good buddy Shel’s paper buying and suppressing of damning stories about his encounters with adult stars. That story broke years ago yet there’s no resolution. So for me, his positivity doesn’t ring true yet. It’s just gets worse as people become apathetic and think “oh, that’s no big deal” because there’s so much that’s happened it has given the public amnesia.

While I admire and think Comey’s commitment to justice and serving the nation is honorable, I certainly think there are just too few people like him in elected office. At least, that’s how he made me feel. He writes about he was often alone in standing up and making the right decisions as awry political biases and allegiance marred politicians on both sides ability to make other “right” decisions. I understand “right” is relative but I’m sure most of us can agree that when something is wrong, like lying under oath, using a non-secure web domain to communicate classified information, asking to stop an investigation because you know someone is a “good guy.” Wrongdoings should be investigated and punishment should be deftly delivered. Sometimes it feels like a young child knows the difference between right and wrong better than grown-ass adults do.

9 | Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell Tales by Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson

“Anthropologists and insects can reveal the truth about a crime, but they can’t force the wheels of bureaucracy to turn, and they can’t guarantee that justice will be done. All they can do is serve as a voice for victims, and hope that voice is heard.”

This book is a fascinating read– a much more informative read than Mary H. Manheim’s The Bone Lady and one that reads more seriously and with more gravity than Mary Roach’s Stiff. Mostly because Manheim writes about her career in before the 1990s, before the advent of DNA technologies while Bass is writing about his career which spanned the 1940s until the 2000s. Intertwined with case reviews of some of the biggest cases he has ever worked on and accomplishments as the department head of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee (UT) at Knoxville, Bass writes about his personal life, the deaths of his first and second wives to cancers and how he threw himself into his work to seek solace.

I’ve always wondered why people pursue such professions– homicide investigators, coroners, forensic entomologists/anthropologists/etc. It’s because they believe in a greater mission and are able to look past the literal-ness of their work. By solving crimes, they are keeping their communities safer, pioneering the use of new scientific methods and testing and cataloguing information to help solve other cases. There’s no shortage of colorful description about how Bass’ colleague, a leading fingerprint expert, asks Bass to cut off a hand of a murdered prostitute’s corpse, or how Bass himself reviews hundreds of crime scene photos of three dead and bloated bodies of a man, his wife, and their four year old daughter, left to rot in a mountain cabin for a month, as he looks for maggot pupae in order to determine the time of death. The reality of the job is sickening yet incredible- it is because of the diligence and dedication that people like Bass have to their jobs that crimes are solved, criminals are successfully prosecuted and victims receive some justice.

One of the most remarkable parts of Bass’ legacy is the creation of the Body Farm, an anthropological research facility at UT literally borne out of genuine curiosity with how to answer questions like: how long does a body take to decay outside, in the dead of winter? In the heat of the summer? What about in water? What kinds of residue is left in the soil? How can you tell if a body has been moved after the death? However macabre these questions are, there’s no doubt how critically forensic evidence needs to be investigated in order to shed light on the scene, without the murderer or the victim saying what happened. The level of scientific expertise developed due to the research efforts at the Body Farm is amazing, so much so that federal, state and local law enforcement agencies have consulted with Bass and his proteges on hundreds of cases. Bass really exemplifies what it means to bridge his academic work as a professor of anthropology to the “real world,” frequently going to crime scenes to collect and examine evidence. He doesn’t skimp on the explaining the science (in layman terms) of what happens when bodies are burned– as the body looses water, muscles and tendons clamp up and the body begins to curl. By examining the structure, color and density of the bone, one can tell how hot the fire was, the position of the body as it burned, but it can also reveal, though burned, if there were peri or post mortem wounds to the bone– perhaps a gunshot entry/exit wound or blade mark.

To me, crime fiction in books and television seems perverse in a way– many times what happens in fiction is inspired by something happening in real life. “Good” crime show producers and writers consult real world experts- forensics scientists, FBI agents, police, in order to make something as “real” and “believable” as possible. I personally don’t read or watch anything to do with crime fiction for the reason I don’t think someone’s lived and post-mortem experience should be fictionalized to create a sensational story, with fake blood and the like. But reading Bass’ book and learning about the very “down to earth” research conducted at the Body Farm seems less and almost not at all disturbing as the research is only necessitated because of real crime.

8 | Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

Oddly enough, I didn’t want the book to end yet I was glad it did. The plot didn’t hook me until halfway through when the three separate plots began to have some semblance of a fleeting relationship. Let me explain.

Kingsolver has three different stories going on at once. The first, titled “Predators,” is about a reclusive 47 year old biologist named Deanna Wolfe living in a remote cabin in the Appalachian forest where she spends her time wandering trials and tracking animals, particularly a pack of coyotes. One day, a hunter named Eddie Bondo catches her off guard, and soon, an off-putting romance (?) develops where the two have sex– a sort of animalistic sex and nothing more. There’s obviously tension as she lives to preserve nature and it’s apex predator as she knows that the removal, or hunting, of the apex coyote will leave the land in shambles. Eddie on the otherhand is actually visiting the area for a festive hunt… a hunt to find and kill all the coyotes, which are viewed by the farmers around the country as threats to livestock and nothing more. The second story is called “Moth Love” and is about Lusa Landowski, a young woman from Lexington who, after a whirlwind romance and marriage to a country boy named Cole Widener, suddenly becomes a widow due to a tragic accident. She is a trained entomologist and through affiliated with nature, was not prepared to inherit the family farm and work the land as Cole had. She’s entangled in a firestorm of Widener family drama as her bully sister-in-laws encroach on her space, their husbands begin making decisions about the farm against her wishes and the only sister-in-law who reaches out to her is dying of cancer. Lusa feels trapped by the overbearing Wideners and unsure of herself, yet she knows one thing is for sure, she will resume working the land somehow or another. The third story is titled “Old Chestnuts” about a grouchy old man named Garnett Walker who despises his happy-go-lucky neighbor Nannie Rawley. Nannie, an old timer in her 70s has experienced her fair share of tragedy during her lifetime and has channeled her energy into her farmland growing apples pesticide free. Garnett on the other hand has been heavily spraying pesticides for decades at the first sight of any insect.

All three stories eventually intertwine: when Deanna falls pregnant, she reaches out to Nannie Rawley and asks to stay with her on her farm. Deanna is Nannie’s surrogate daughter as years ago, Deanna’s widowed father had fallen in love with Nannie. Lusa eventually adopts her sister-in- law’s children; Jewel, the Widener suffering from cancer and the chemotherapy, had two young children, Crystal and Lowell, with a man named Shel who left some years ago with another woman. Turns out, Shel, the kid’s father, is Garnett Walker’s estranged son. While the story line is beautifully crafted, I felt it difficult to latch onto any one character as there were so many “main” characters, who’s stories wandered for a long time, without mention of one another.

Above all, Prodigal Summer is known for being an “ecological novel.” It’s clear Kingsolver is a trained wildlife biologist and grew up in Appalachia herself as details about the landscape, the culture and wildlife are so intricately detailed. The book is rich with poetic descriptions of birds, trees and flowers– especially given two of the characters were scientists themselves, Deanna and Lusa. Each character has a subtly different relationship with “nature”- Deanna views nature as an ecological whole. Removal of one specie, especially the keystone, would decimate the system. Eddie Bondo is a hunter and grew up on a Wyoming sheep farm. He sees predators as nothing but a nuisance. Lusa appreciates ecological systems but has a deep love and appreciation for insects– she knows that if they die, the system would be out of balance and collapse. Nannie embraces the good, the bad and the ugly parts of nature– for the hornworms, she sprays BT, and for the Japanese beetles, she just hopes they don’t come. Garnett just spray, with whatever industrial pesticide he can get his hands on. That’s just the way farming is done nowadays, he believes. What’s interesting is that each person’s relationship with nature is the summation of all their life experiences with it– Nannie had a daughter with a chronic terminal illness who died at age 15. She suspected the defects had to do with all the chemicals she was ingesting and her breathing in as it was sprayed by her neighbors and drifted over the hills each season. Garnett heard somewhere that pesticides cause cancer; his wife Ellen died of metastatic brain cancer eight years prior. But he didn’t believe there was a link. Deanna’s safe haven was the woods, where her late father taught her how to track animals and learn about her surroundings. I guess an “ecological novel” broadly catches ecological concepts and weaves them into a piece of fiction. Quite a fascinating way to learn and reflect on how and why people come to view nature a certain way. Something to be conquered, something to be balanced, something to be restored?

6 | Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

What if justice is never served? What do victims and their families have to cling on to? The story is not only gut-wrenching, but also infuriating and alarming. I have cursory knowledge of the plight of many Native Americans in the United States gleaned from history classes in school, including some semblance of understanding about wars fought with European colonists, widespread disease they had no immunity towards, the Trail of Tears, forced relocation, decimation of their food sources and hunting grounds, forced reeducation by Catholic and Christian missionaries (including sexual abuse by priests)… but what happened to the Osage people in the 1920s was a whole new level of exploitation and utter transgression of human rights. This book reads like crime fiction, but it is not.

After the Osage were forced from their lands and confined to a small Indian Territory in Oklahoma during the 1870s, which Wah-Ti-An-Kah, an Osage chief chose because he believed it to be barren enough no white man would ever wish to claim it, they attempted to establish their way of life once again. However, just over a decade later, there were no more American buffalo left to hunt due to encouraged eradication by U.S. authorities. As Osage went hungry, there were systematic policies to force further assimilation. Allotment policies were created to destroy the Osage’s traditional communal land structures, and white people began to arrive in the area, buying (but mostly taking) land parcels not already distributed. The Osage discovered they were sitting on some of the largest oil deposits on the continental U.S., and were able to create a tribe mineral trust, resulting in every Osage family receiving a headright. The tribe began to lease land to whites for exploration and drilling, and the Osage eventually became the richest people per capita in the world. While the Osage had mansions, automobiles, clothes from Europe and even white people working for them, they were not allowed to spend their own money: every transaction had to be approved by a white guardian.

The scope of the book is really only one case, that of Mollie Burkhart and her family, wealthy Osage who lived in a small Oklahoma trading post called Gray Horse who possessed a significant headright. One by one, her sisters, father, brother-in-law, mother and former husband die– some clearly murdered by a gunshot to the back of the head, a house explosion, or poision, but others not so certain. It is very clear from the beginning that something is seriously wrong: no lawman, private eye, guardian, investigator, doctor or coroner get any leads to attempt to figure out what really happened. Other Osage die too, also under “mysterious” circumstances. After years of murders, paranoia and mistrust, the Bureau of Investigation, created only a few years earlier in 1908 by Theodore Roosevelt, sends Agent Tom White and others to investigate. This investigation was the controversial figure J. Edgar Hoover’s pet project and the Bureau’s first major investigation. White was eventually able to reveal a mass entanglement of lies and manipulation, but not without the aid of informants, undercover work and extensive investigation. The head of the criminal enterprise was none other than the guardian of Mollie and her family: William K. Hale, a respected and extremely wealthy businessman, who had actually wandered into Gray Horse as a poor nobody looking for opportunity. He systematically murdered various family members in order for Mollie to inherit each family member’s fortune. His nephew Ernest was married to Mollie, and the hope was when Mollie would die (or really, when she was mysteriously murdered), all the accumulated wealth would have nicely trickled down into Ernest’s hands. In order to secure this, witnesses, spouses, random street walkers, and really anyone who saw or heard any crimes committed were killed. The total number of people murdered by Hale was never known. Obviously, Hale and his nephews could not have executed this scheme alone. Agent White concluded that doctors, coroners, local and state government officials and other guardians were all in on this dirty “secret.”

The official Reign of Terror against the Osage took place during 1921 to 1926. But further investigation done by Grann as he spoke to surviving Osage relatives was that the killings began before 1921 and did not end in 1926. There weren’t just 20 Osage who were murdered for their headrights, and it wasn’t just Hale and his associates doing the murdering. There were hundreds of suspicious deaths, as in the case of a 21 year old Osage woman with a six month old baby who “committed suicide” in her front yard. The granddaughter of this woman suspected it was her grandmother’s stepfather, a white man, who had masterminded the murder in order to inherit her and her mother’s headrights. Grann writes “so many of the murders of the Osage were so well concealed” that no justice was ever given to the victims. White women married Osage men to murder them and inherit their wealth. Guardians killed the Osage they were supposed to watch over. Doctors injected morphine to kill Osage. Coroners issued false cause of the death documents. In the case of Mollie and Ernest Burkhart, Ernest had planned to kill Mollie and their three young children to inherit their birthrights.

What’s even more sickening is that Hale was only convinced for a few of the murders, and was actually later paroled and died a free man. Ernest was also paroled. Most murderers were never sentenced; in fact most murders were never declared murders and therefore there is no chance for true resolution or justice. This book does not offer resolution whatsoever. The last line is what a descendant of the Osage says, quoting what God tells Cain after he kills Abel: “The blood cries out from the ground.”


5 | Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

A strange and somewhat inappropriate follow up to the book I finished prior to this one (Being Mortal by Atul Gawande), Stiff was almost a welcome read as it discussed more of the post-suffering, post-death, post-ritual, aspect of the body. Roach writes at the very beginning of the book that “[the book] is not about death as in dying” which is “sad and profound.” Instead, “it is about the already dead, the anonymous, behind-the-scenes dead.” I found myself actually laughing at certain parts, as Roach deliberately injects overt sarcasm and puns, but I also found myself unable to eat while reading, a debacle I routinely found myself in as I tend to eat and read at the same time. No joke, while reading a chapter titled “Eat Me: Medical cannibalism and the case of the human dumplings,” I realized I was actually eating… Chinese dumplings. I was repulsed and put the book down.

Clearly, as evidenced by my failure to be able to eat and read at the same time, I am still disturbed and highly uncomfortable by discussion of the dead body. What’s interesting is that Roach is fully aware of the fact many readers would feel this way. She writes: “The problem with cadavers is that they look so much like people. It’s the reason most of us prefer a pork chop to a slice of whole suckling pig. Dissection and surgical instruction, like meat-eating, require a carefully maintained set of illusions and denial.” This is a known fact; that’s why radical animal rights organizations broadcast footage from inside slaughterhouses, showing the animals being maimed and electrocuted, all while screaming in fear and pain. If people associated their hot dog or chicken nugget with a live animal, we’d probably eat less meat. But the companies that profit off of meat are doing a fabulous job at disassociating these two things and manicuring the illusion that we are simply consuming a delectable 23 grams of protein. As it turns out, people who deal with cadavers including those who prepare the parts for laboratories, medical students, ballistics experts, surgeons and morticians, pretty much everyone really, relies on the disassociation between life and body.

Each chapter is about different uses or histories behind cadavers. From 18th and 19th century anatomists trying to authenticate the Shroud of Turin by determining how Jesus’ bodily fluid would flow from the wounds of his crucifixion, to the modern day automobile industry uses cadavers to conduct crash-tests and engineer better safety technology, I was really surprised at just how many fields benefit from the use of cadavers. There really is no replacement; Australia has banned the use of human cadavers for a number of research uses, and instead pioneered an “artificial” body using plastics and gelatins to simulate bone and muscle (of course, it’s much more complicated). Only problem is the models aren’t reusable, and are $5000, whereas all the costs associated with a cadaver including shipping, preservation, cremation, etc., are under $500. Human cadavers are used to help scientists understand how bodies decompose under certain conditions which lead to better forensic data and ultimately help solve crimes. They were used by the military to develop different weapons and bullets to both maximize and minimize damage to vital organs. They also help train cadaver dogs to find human remains of missing people. Nothing can truly simulate a human.

“… no matter what you choose to do with your body when you die, it won’t, ultimately, be very appealing. If you are inclined to donate yourself to science, you should not let images of dissection or dismemberment put you off. They are no more or less gruesome… than ordinary decay or the sewing shut of your jaws via your nostrils for a funeral viewing.”

Roach’s book affirmed what I already knew about donating one’s body. When I was 15 and filling out paperwork to apply for my driver’s license, I first encountered the question if I’d be willing to be a organ donor, God forbid I get into a fatal car accident. Within seconds I unequivocally said to myself, absolutely. Why would I waste my perfectly functional organs and let them just decompose in the ground? As it turns out, in my state, one must actually opt-in to become an organ donor. Years later when my Singaporean friend received a pamphlet in the mail about renewing her driver’s license, I discovered that organ donation was an opt-out process, one that you had to file paperwork and jump through other low-hanging but nonetheless inconvenient bureaucratic hoops to change your status. This idea seemed radical to me. According to the American Transplant Foundation, on average 22 people die everyday from the lack of available transplants they need to live. A quick Google search of “how many people die everyday” revealed over 150,000+ die each day. I’m no mathematician but I have to say this is “achingly sad” as Roach puts it (though she uses these words to describe the same statistic in 2003).

It seems to be that a significant number of people are confused by organ donation or believe it to be sacrilege. I understand many people have deep religious or cultural beliefs about the body, but in an era of increasing secularism, it seems that our beliefs about death and what to do about it should evolve too. Dignity is paramount, yet wriggling little beetle larvae in your orifices as you decompose, or sitting in an urn on your children’s fireplace mantle doesn’t sound very sexy to me. Actually, what seems worse to me is polluting the environment, either by being incinerated (including dental fillings, knee replacements, titanium hips, whatever it might be) and contributing to the airborne mercury pollution, or having my ashes spread all over a body a water to literally clog it up. I’d like an ecological funeral, please, as mentioned last post. First, donate my viable organs to people in need, then if you don’t mind, grow a tree from what’s left.