Tag Archive | book review

Book Review: Stiff

Imagine for a moment that you have died and donated your body to science.  Do you know what happens to your body? Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach, explores the multitude of ways in which cadavers are used in medical research.  It is a fascinating book, but not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Everyone knows that cadavers are used in medical schools, because med students need to learn human anatomy.  And that’s easiest to do with an actual human.  Interestingly, the use of cadavers for this purpose is decreasing, due to emerging digital tools.  However, did you know that cadavers are also used to help surgeons practice their craft and learn new techniques?

Other uses of cadavers tend to be less likely to be discussed outwardly, because people tend to get more squeamish, when the cadavers are subjected to violent acts.  These include research of auto safety devices; real life crash test dummies, if you will.  Over the years, safety improvements have significant lowered the death rate in car crashes, so now cadavers are used to study the impact of non-fatal injuries.  As Roach put it in the book, if you died in an accident it didn’t matter if you also shattered your ankle.  But if you live, suddenly you have an interest in how your ankle fares.

They are used for research on safety devices like bullet proof vests and footwear that is better able to protect your feet and legs from mines and other explosives.  Forensic science is another area where cadavers are really helpful.  If we are better able to understand how and under what conditions bodies decay, then forensic analysts can better estimate how, when and where someone died.  This can be the key to solving a crime.

Stiff explores organ transplants and what happens when you agree to donate.  It also documents some pretty far-out research in the last couple hundred years.  This is probably the most squeam-inducing part of the book.  Head transplants, and what happens after someone is decapitated are explained in detail.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you…  You could always skip that chapter, but you won’t.

Roach does have a morbid sense of humor, which of course is necessary for a book of this subject.  Yet she speaks of the cadavers she “meets” with a respectful dignity, aware of the gift that they have given to society in death.  It is well researched and well-read (I listened to the audio book) by Shelly Frasier, and Stiff enlightened me on several areas of research that I knew nothing about.  Well done.  Perhaps just don’t read it at meal time.

4 stars. 

Book Review: The Hiding Place

The Hiding Place, by Corrie ten Boom

Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch Christian woman.  She was middle-aged and unmarried, living with her father and sister Betsie and running a clock and watch shop when the Nazis occupied the Netherlands during World War II.

The Hiding Place: The Triumphant True Story of Corrie Ten Boom

Of course, the Nazis soon began arresting and deporting the Jews to the concentration camps.  Ten Boom and her family couldn’t stand by and watch their neighbors be rounded up and taken away family by family, so they began sheltering Jews in the home.  Gradually, as things became more desperate and more dangerous, the ten Boom family connected with the Dutch Resistance, participating in acquiring counterfeit food ration cards and having a false wall built in their home to hide the Jews staying there.

Eventually, they were ratted out and ten Boom, her father and her older sister were arrested, detained and sent first to a prison, where her father died.  Corrie and her sister were eventually sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp.  You already know how conditions were in a concentration camp, and it was no different for Corrie and her sister. They leaned heavily on their faith, setting up evening prayer services and Bible readings in order to make it through.  As Corrie allowed herself to hate the Nazi guards, her sister taught her forgiveness, even of the monsters who imprisoned them.

I was surprised that I had never heard of this book, even though it was published in 1971, before I was born.  It tells an important story of the regular people throughout Europe who did what they could to fight the Nazis.  The story is timeless now, but still needs to be heard.  People need to understand what happened, or history will repeat.

4 stars.

Book Review: Man with Wings

I read the audio-book version of Man with Wings, by Joseph Cottler recently on my commute.  It was written in 1942, although the audio-book is more recent; published in 2008.

I have long been interested in Leonardo DaVinci, but I have never really known that much about him.  He was truly a Renaissance man, with his talent as an artist, and engineer, a designer, and an inventor.  He had so many talents at his fingertips.  The Mona Lisa is the masterpiece he is most known for, but that was such a tiny fragment of his artistic talent and the work that he completed during his life.

This biography goes through the life of DaVinci, from his childhood and time as an apprentice, to his adulthood performing works of art and engineering.  It discussed his tendency to get lost in the discovery process, and frustrate his patrons by working too slowly.  Often, instead of painting or sculpting, he spent his time watching birds fly, dissecting human and animal bodies, studying gravity and the flow of water, and studying other aspects of the natural world.

I would have preferred this book to be more like a traditional biography, rather than what it is – essentially a historical novel with a cast of characters.  It was even more challenging because the audio-book version that I listened to was narrated like a play, with overly dramatic voices and accents.  It got annoying… I still learned more about DaVinci than I knew before, but the way it was presented was distracting…  I guess I will have to find another DaVinci  book I can relate to more, and that presents more information about the body of work he completed in his lifetime.

The verdict – at least if you are planning on the audiobook version, I would find something else on DaVinci…

Book Review: The Book Thief

I read a lot of good books. But rarely does a book come along that moves me; that unsettles me; that makes me ponder the vast chasm that exists between the good in this world and the evil. A book that will stay with me long after I finish the last page and close the back cover. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak is such a book.

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief is the story of Liesel Meminger, a young German girl given up into the foster care system for unsaid reasons just before the start of World War II. She travels with her mother and young brother to the foster care agency – and her ill brother dies enroute. At the burial she picks up a book the gravedigger has dropped, and it becomes one of her few treasured possessions. When her mother drops her off – her last tie to family is severed forever.

Liesel finds herself in the home of Hans and Rosa Hubermann, a largely uneducated and coarse couple who could teach us all a thing or two about love. Even when faced with indescribable danger, they do the moral thing – they harbor a Jew. The story of Liesel’s upbringing in the face of such adversity shows the reader that even in such situations, it is possible to respect, to forge deep friendships, and to love.

But most importantly, she learns the power of words. That they can be used for good or for evil – that they can change the world and your reality.  These words left me turning page after page, long after I should have turned out the light each night.  “I am haunted by humans,” – I was changed by these words.

Book Review: Unbroken

I’ve read quite a bit about World War II, but had not heard the story of Louis Zamperini until Laura Hillenbrand’s book Unbroken hit the shelves in 2010. Louie, as he was known to his family and friends, was a record breaking runner, an Olympic athlete turned B-24 Liberator bombardier.

The book follows Louie through his turbulent childhood, as he gets in all sorts of trouble because he’s not a rule follower. It details his brother’s successful attempt to get him to settle down with running, giving Louie something to focus his energy and frustration. He ends up being such a good runner that he qualifies for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, at an age where runners have not yet reached their peak.

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

And then along comes the War. Louie enlists and is sent to train as a bombardier as a part of a B-24 crew. He achieves glory as a part of a bombing raid over mainland Japan, the first since Doolittle’s Raiders bombed Japan in 1942. Despite the severe damage their plane suffered, they managed to make it back to base. However, one of the crew died, several were seriously injured, and their plane was too damaged to fly again.

After heading back to Hawaii, the remaining crew were assigned a new plane – a known lemon, and several unseasoned crewmates. On their very first flight in the new plane Green Hornet, a rescue mission, they crashed in the Pacific Ocean. Three men survived and were able to get into two rafts with very few provisions. There they drifted for 47 days, before Louie and his pilot were picked up by the Japanese and spent the rest of the war in a series of brutal Japanese labor camps.

Any one of the hardships that Louie endured likely would have killed other men, or driven them insane. 47 days floating on a raft in the middle of the ocean, trying to cobble together enough sustenance by fishing and collecting rainwater. Years in Japanese POW camps, forced to perform hard labor while facing starvation and disease. Frequent beatings and psychological torture…

The book showed the reader in vivid detail what it was like to live as a Japanese Prisoner of War. It makes it clear why so many veterans did not want to talk about their experience in the war. After Louie returned home, he struggled with PTSD and alcoholism – he credited a commitment to God for his climb back up from rock bottom. Although he had not been religious before the war, he made a promise to commit his life to God, if only He would deliver him safety from the raft.

This book is a difficult read – it is graphic, violent and raw. It will make you angry and rip your heart out. I cried more than once and at times audibly gasped. But it is necessary – to understand that war is not a decision to be taken lightly. To understand that when we ask people to give their lives for a cause, they have often done so even if they come home alive. To hopefully one day break the cycle of conflict.  To one day get to “never again.”

 

Book Review: A Walk in the Woods

Bill Bryson is a humor author. More precisely, he is a baby boomer who first came into my consciousness when my book club read The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a memoir about Bryson’s Midwest upbringing in the 1950s and 60s. It is laugh out loud funny, poking fun at the times, and reliving for his contemporaries the novelty of such innovations as the frozen dinner, and playing in the clouds of pesticide left behind by mosquito spray trucks.

A Walk in the Woods, while not as whimsical, still incorporates a healthy dose of humor as he tells the story of his decision to embark on a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. Never mind that he has no experience thru-hiking, or backpacking, or even doing much day hiking or camping. I consider it the pre-cursor to Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, only without the drug addiction and extremely self-destructive behavior. But Bryson has one thing that Strayed does not – a healthy (and amusing) fear of bears.

A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson

The book alternates between telling the history of the Appalachian Trail; it conception, its development, its increase in popularity over the years, and Bryson and his childhood friend Katz’s long hike. He revels in details that include savoring a soda after a week in the woods, to Katz’s emotional outbursts that result in large portions of their rations being hurtled off the sides of mountains. He also goes into great detail on various bear calamities throughout the United States, providing a who’s who of bear casualties over the last several dozen years.

While reading, you can feel the weight of the pack on your back as you trudge along with Bryson and Katz, up and down hills, over stony trails, and finally collapsing in camp at the end of the night. At which point you sleep soundly… unless you can hear what you think is a bear. He also expresses the joy of a beautiful sunrise or sunset, and the absolute peace in the woods. Any hiker can likely relate to these feelings.

A Walk in the Woods is a quick read – and I enjoyed the serious historical facts that complemented the tale of their excursion. The only part I disliked was when he retold the generalizations about the residents who were removed from Shenandoah National Park, describing them as uneducated and barely functional poor people who were far better off once the government swooped in to relocate them and save the day. But given that this book was written 20 years ago, before the true story was likely known, I’m willing to forgive him for the error.

The book is a worthwhile read, especially if you want to get a sense of what thru-hiking would really be like if you are not a serious distance hiker and camper. Just don’t feed the bears.

Book Review: The Heretic’s Daughter

Everyone has heard of the Salem Witch Trials. The unfortunate blight on our history that resulted in the executions of 20 people, proclaimed to be witches by the “evidence” of the day.

Kathleen Kent’s historical novel explores the family of one of the accused and executed women, Martha Carrier, from the perspective of her daughter, Sarah Carrier. Sarah was arrested and interrogated, and imprisoned for several months, but was ultimately set free.

The novel explores the themes of religious intolerance and persecution that existed in 17th century colonial Massachusetts, as well as the deep divides between families and neighbors that undoubtedly contributed to the naming of several hundred innocent townspeople.

The Heretic's Daughter, by Kathleen Kent

The Heretic’s Daughter, by Kathleen Kent

The book also deals head on with the conflict that exists between a mother and a daughter coming of age, in what must be a timeless struggle. Sarah Carrier resents her mother, always assuming that family disagreements must be her mother’s fault. She only learns to appreciate her mother’s fierce loyalty and wisdom once it is too late to rebuild those bonds. Through reflection, she realizes too late that perhaps her mother might have been right.

Kent doesn’t deeply explore the complex reasons for the Witch Trials, but keeps her novel within the historical context with accurate representations of what is known about the players involved. She is skillful at describing Sarah’s surroundings, what it must have been like growing up in the farming community of Andover, Massachusetts, and the horrific experience of confinement in the Salem Town jail, crowded with so many people, and unable to escape the filth, disease or chill.

Kathleen Kent is a 10th generation descendent of Martha Carrier, so she provides a unique perspective, and has clearly pulled from the historical documents that have survived from the trial. The novel is well written and well researched, and pulls the reader into the story from the beginning to the very end.