Books I've read, not necessarily in science, but that cannot pass without mention.

Last updated 10/28/01

The Cases That Haunt Us: From Jack the Ripper to JonBenet Ramsey, the FBI's Legendary Mindhunter Sheds Light on the Mysteries That Won't Go Away -- by John E. Douglas, Mark Olshaker

I've read most of John Douglas' books, and most of the other books inspired by the work done in the FBI's Behavioral Sciences unit. I have a deep respect for Douglas and his many colleagues around the country who continue to work in law enforcement and are students of the criminal mind.

"The Cases that Haunt Us" is, for the most part, a work that deserves as much accolade as Douglas and Olshaker's previous books. The historical perspective and fresh evaluative light shed on such classic cases as Jack the Ripper and the Lindbergh kidnapping is fascinating and invaluable. However, upon reading the final chapter, I was left with the nagging feeling that every chapter in the book was a carefully calculated setup to prepare the reader for the final chapter, where Douglas presents his findings and opinions on the JonBenet Ramsey murder case.

I don't fault him for being unobjective. He admits that he was hired by the Ramseys' lawyers to provide his opinions on their possible guilt or innocence. He was not, as is often assumed by the public, hired to provide a profile of the killer (he was never given access to the autopsy reports, crime scene photos, physical evidence, etc., that would be necessary for a true profile). As with his style in the previous chapters, he presents the facts of the case. But his chapter on JonBenet is hopelessly contaminated by his own involvement with the family (none of the other high profile cases in the book involved him personally). The result is a missive that reads like a cross between a rationalization and an apology. Don't get me wrong, Douglas presents his findings in a clear and very logical manner, and I don't disagree with his findings. I just wish for the sake of this book, that he had left the Ramsey case alone and had added some additional historical cases (JFK or MLK Jr assassinations, for instance, or the OJ case) in which he was not personally involved.

Much has been written about the JonBenet Ramsey murder, and I was curious to see Douglas' own conclusions on this case. But by including it in this book, he busted what was easily a 5-star work down to 3 stars.

Chariots for Apollo: The Untold Story Behind the Race to the Moon by Charles R. Pellegrino and Joshua Stoff -- There are countless books chronicling the race to the moon and the triumphs of the Apollo program. Most of them are well worth reading too. Chariots sets itself apart though. Rather than celebrating the astronauts, or even the flight controllers and ground crews, Chariots goes behind the scenes at Grumman Aerospace Corporation, the company that won the contract to build the Lunar Module (LM). The reader sees firsthand the technical and engineering mountains that had to be scaled in order to make the moon landing possible. It's an incredible story full of pitfalls, heartbreaks (and a few heart attacks), breakthroughs, divorces and happy endings. Building the first (and so far only) spacecraft designed to land human beings on another world presented engineering challenges that had never been considered before, and Grumman rose to the challenge. An indispensable book for any amateur historian of the space age.

Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson -- surely one of the most amazing books I've read in awhile. Larson tells the story of the hurricane of 1900, which completely destroyed the city of Galveston, Texas. Intensely personal, the story is told from the point of view of the townspeople, but especially from that of Isaac Cline, a young forecaster working for the Weather Bureau in Galveston. This book paints a vivid picture of life at the turn of the 20th century, and of the state of weather forecasting 100 years ago. No satellites, no computers or high technology of any kind. Larson's storytelling technique is absorbing and his story is gut-wrenching.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down : A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman

As a professional educator who works with Hmong students and their families, I relished the opportunity to read this book, hoping to gain some understanding into the culture and values of the Hmong community. What I got was a fist-in- the-gut experience that left me practically breathless. I finished the book in less than a day -- a day in which I accomplished little else. Fadiman knows her topic well and writes with refreshing clarity and brutal honesty. The Hmong are resistant to adaptation of western values -- a fact that had long frustrated me and left me somewhat skeptical of their willingness to adapt to life in this country. I now realize that the clash of cultures goes well beyond geographic and language issues. Deeply spiritual and devoted to their families and clans, every facet of Hmong life revolves around the spiritual.

Fadiman's book is a cross between a case study and ethnic history. The case is that of a young girl stricken with epilepsy, and her family's struggle against western medicine and medical doctors. The history is a broad ranging but concise history of the Hmong people.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in culture clashes, and especially for anyone who knows a Hmong, or works with them. It will open your eyes.

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