Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Boneyards: Detroit Under Ground: Book Review

Boneyards: Detroit Under Ground, by Richard Bak, was a fortuitous grab off the new book shelf at the Ann Arbor District Library.

From a recent MetroParent article on libraries I learned the shocking news that the public library in Troy, Michigan will be closing at the end of the April. Troy is not a poor suburb, nor a particularly small one. But its voters turned down a couple of millage increases that would have kept the city library running, and then the city government didn't allocate the necessary funds. I hope that the Troy library doesn't end up like the Mark Twain branch of the Detroit Public Library.

Anyway, I never would have found this book without the AADL, which has such a fabulous library that I couldn't give it up when I moved out of the city to an exurb. I now pay for the privilege of being able to check books out of it. It's not that my local library isn't good - I'm often surprised by just how good the Saline District Library is (sometimes they even have books the AADL doesn't have!), and they're open to suggestions - but Ann Arbor is a much bigger city, and it has a library to match.*  Then again, Troy isn't all that small, and look what happened there. I like the comment on dETROITfUNK under the pictures of the Twain branch noting that this abandoned library is a "mind cemetery".

Which brings us back to graveyards, the subject of Richard Bak's new book. I never would have found this browsing on my new nook, as much as I've found love the immediacy and portability of e-books. Boneyards is the kind of book that really doesn't work well on an e-reader, anyway - the beautiful black & white photographs are a huge part of this book, and the main reason I grabbed it off the new book shelf and stuck it in my bag with the romance, fantasy, mysteries, and memoirs that came up on my request list.

I was thrilled to find that the text - the historic snapshots of a major midwestern city that it provides, both in the introduction ("Here and Gone") and on the pages facing over one hundred of these amazing photographs - was as well-done as the photographs.  Many of these photos are historic, and others are striking or evocative artistic works. Taken together, they provide one of the most unique perspectives Michigan history that I've seen. 

In Boneyards, I learned about Hazen Pingree, the Detroit mayor during the depression at the end of the 19th century who created plans for unemployed workers to grow vegetables on vacant lots. "Potato Patch" Pingee became governor, died suddenly of peritonitis in England in 1901, and the Detroit City Hall was draped in elaborate mourning buntings with an enormous black-rimmed portrait. (Many of the historic photographs of funerals and cemeteries show mourning decorations that appear bizarre and extravagant to 21st century sensibilities).

Then there was Benedetto Evangelista, the creator of his own religion, who provided celestial services in his basement, found beheaded in the same basement in 1929. His family - a wife and four young children - were slain upstairs, and no one was ever convicted of the murders.

Native peoples and burial mounds, the deaths and graves of French and British soldiers, Greek, Polish, Italian, and Romanian immigrants, convicts buried in prison cemeteries, the Purple Gang, drug dealers in the 1980's, racial segregation in cemeteries, Henry Ford, Walter Reuther, the Dodge Brothers (Bak notes that the workers on the main Dodge line were permitted to drink beer while working), union protesters killed by the police and Ford security personnel in 1932, and unclaimed cremations are all the subjects of short but eloquent essays. The photographs alone would have made Boneyards a beautiful coffee table book, but Bak's research and insightful narrative make this something more.

*Too bad you can't check books out of the University of Michigan libraries without paying a small fortune. You think they'd have some kind of special deal for alumni or local residents or both, like many other state universities, but nooo. Instead, I get some of the books I need for writing jobs from inter-library loan from EMU or MSU - or in one strange instance, a city library in Bezonia, Michigan - even though the same material is sitting unused on a shelf in the Hatcher library just six miles away.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention: Book Review

I read Katherine Ellison's article - Doing Battle with the ADHD-Industrial Complex - when it was published a few months ago. I thought it was an interesting and insightful piece, and promptly put her new book on my to-read list. I wasn't really looking forward to reading Buzz, though.

I've read a lot of books on ADHD, OCD, and Tourette's Syndrome and related disorders (including autism spectrum disorders) over the past ten years. You can see some of these books on the disability shelf in my goodreads account here, and some information on Tourette's and Tourette's Syndrome Plus (TS+) here and here

The books I've read include memoirs, parenting and teacher advice, therapeutic manuals, and fiction aimed at all ages. Some of these books were enlightening, some were depressing, and some should be required reading for anyone dealing with these issues. I wish I had enough money to buy copies of Ross W. Greene's The Explosive Child for every parent who would benefit from it, and enough copies of Lost at School and Challenging Kids, Challenged Teachers for every administrator, teacher, and paraprofessional (i.e., teacher's aide) who needs to read these books.

Anyway, I thought Katherine Ellison would be preaching to the choir in Buzz, and that it was unlikely she would tell me anything new, or describe any personal experiences I hadn't already lived myself. Then the book became available on my library request list. Even though the cover gave me a headache with its vibrating-look title (and the library's fluorescent ID sticker went right through the middle of the legs in the center, making them look like some weird butterfly wearing Converse high tops), I gave it a try. 

I was hooked by the first chapter. Ellison describes her "bad mom moments" in unflinching detail, along with graphic descriptions of her son's defiance, anger, and confusion. After one particularly memorable incident, Ellison resolves to turn her attention and considerable skills at investigative journalism to ADHD in general, and to her son (who goes by the nickname "Buzz") in particular, for the next year.

Her account of her year of research, experimentation, expense, family life, and community is fascinating. She examines medication, therapy, support groups, neurofeedback, meditation, and several other approaches to dealing with ADHD. There's a bit about the history of most of these ideas, interviews with mental health professionals and other practitioners, and interesting accounts of her experiences and her son's.  I'd heard of many of these approaches - but reading about the details of the practices was cool in a whole different way. It reminded me of Mary Roach's popular science books (like Stiff), actually. And I really appreciated the detailed end notes (complete with references), and a useful index.  

When I read about the meditation technique of mindfulness that Nirbhay Singh recommends for defusing anger, for instance, I was able to turn to the research in the endnotes, and then look Singh's articles up online. My son and I both read Singh et al.'s Meditation on the Soles of the Feet Training, and though he didn't particularly like thinking about his feet, he was able to focus his concentration on something else in a similar manner to help calm himself the other day. This is an approach I hadn't ever seriously considered.

Ellison's descriptions of her family's ordeals and triumphs during this year is equally engaging, and adds a certain (sometimes dark) humor to the narrative that kept me reading. I did wish that there was more about schools and educational advocacy in Buzz, and Ellison mentions that she became aware of this lack when it was too late for her to use the information effectively (in the epilogue). 

One work that complements Buzz particularly well is Judith Warner's recent book on children and mental health: We've Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication

In short - it's definitely worth turning your attention to Buzz, whether you have to deal with attention deficits and/or hyperactivity or not.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Every Bone Tells a Story: Book Review

Every Bone Tells a Story: Hominin Discoveries, Deductions, and Debates, by Jill Rubalcaba and Peter Robertshaw

In general, archaeologists and paleoanthropologists don't do a great job of telling the public about their work. Their studies are so technologically and theoretically specialized today that it's difficult to convey all the relevant information to even a fairly well-read person, unless these people are willing to sit through several introductory lectures or classes in anthropology. And even then it can still be hard to describe the subtleties of current anthropological debates and translate the latest jargon (like hominin!*) to, the general reader. It doesn't help that anthropologists aren't generally rewarded for making their passions clear to the public. It doesn't get them tenure, advance their research, or bring in grants, and writing for non-specialists is very, very different from the type of writing that anthropologists are trained to do in graduate school. Sadly, grad students and most anthropologists aren't awarded any points for creative writing, compelling dialogue, or evocative descriptions - or any of the other things that keep readers (especially children) turning the pages of a book.

Explaining anthropological research to the public is crucial if the field is going to continue to exist in times of economic hardship, however. Which partially explains why I was so excited to learn about Rubalcaba and Robertshaw's latest book when it was mentioned in the comments at Heavy Medal, the School Library Journal's blog on the current contenders for the Newbery.

Sadly, I had to request Every Bone Tells a Story from inter-library loan to read it. Only ten or so libraries in Michigan currently have it in their catalogs (and Ann Arbor isn't one of them! I suggested that they buy it). Maybe if it wins some more awards it will find its way to more libraries and into the hands of more kids and adults.

It's written for older kids through young adults, but like some of the other nonfiction contenders for this year's Newbery prize (such as Sugar Changed the World, by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos, and They Called Themselves the KKK, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti), Every Bone is suitable for adults as well as kids. The writing style is simple and usually clear without being simplistic (with the exception of the section on the genetics of speech, and let's face it, mitochrondial DNA is difficult to explain clearly), and much of the information presented will be new and interesting to anyone interested in human evolution. Four sets of skeletal remains from different time periods are presented, with wonderful descriptions of their discovery, some good summaries of the deductions scientists have made that are based on these remains, and lively looks at the current debates swirling around them.

Because Every Bone Tells a Story is very well-written, I found myself wondering which author wrote which parts, but it was all very seamless, without any discernible differences in style. Perhaps Peter Robertshaw is one of those rare archaeologists with a gift for popular as well as academic prose, or maybe Jill Rubalcaba has the (also fairly rare) ability to imbue scientific discourse with human interest. At any rate, it was an enjoyable read, reminding me a lot of Mary Roach's nonfiction books (Stiff, Bonk, Spook, and Packing for Mars), which are funny, informative, compelling and memorable. It's a hard balance to find.

My only criticisms of this book are minor ones (i.e., not enough to warrant taking a star away from the 5 out of 5 I gave it on I wish that one of the skeletons that they had featured was distinctively female, so prehistoric gender roles could have been addressed. Lapedo child could have been a girl, but we really can't tell. I think the Time Line at the back of the book should have been put in the front - it would help readers put the Turkana Boy, Lapedo Child, Kennewick Man, and the Iceman in an temporal/evolutionary context as the reader encountered each of them, instead of trying to fit them all together at the end.

Unfortunately, Every Bone was written and published right before Svanto Pååbo completed the latest  reconstruction and analysis of the Neandertal genome, which reversed earlier conclusions about ancient humans and Neandertals gene-mixing. The latest genetic analysis suggests that Euro-Asian populations may have interbred with Neandertals between 60,000 and 100,000 years ago, probably in the Middle East (see Nicholas Wade's article in the NYT from May 2010). It must have been frustrating for the authors to see this research appear so soon after their book came out, with its debate section on Lapedo Child that cited Pååbo's earlier suggestion that "Neandertals went extinct without contributing to our gene pool" (p. 79), yet their conclusion notes that research continues, and the bones' stories have just begun.

* Hominin is the new, rather unwieldy term used to classify humans, their ancestors, and closely related species, including the genus Homo and the genus Australopithecus. The Tribe Hominini does not include chimpanzees or gorillas. Hominid, which anthropologists previously used to describe humans and their ancestors, now includes chimpanzees and gorillas as part of the family Hominidae. Got it?

Friday, January 07, 2011

New Start

Well, it's time to pull this old blog out of the basement, take it out of its box (luckily a waterproof one, or it would be moldy from all the puddles spreading out from the wall-floor joint every time it rains more than a half inch or it gets above freezing in the winter here), and use it again.

It's been an eventful year and half since I've posted. I don't want to post anything personal about my family, though. I do have the urge to post some book reviews that are a little more detailed than the ones I've been doing on my goodreads account, so you can expect some of those soon.

I don't have a real writing job at the moment. I've enjoyed the last few opportunities, writing about cannibalism and mad cow disease and orthorexia and global warming and prehistoric tobacco, but since that's done I can think about blogging again. Even though it doesn't pay as well.

PS If you're a friend or family member, don't feel bad because you didn't get a holiday card. No one did this year, though I may send out Groundhog Day or Candlemas cards in early February.