The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down–Anne Fadiman


This is possibly the saddest story I’ve ever read.

It’s a true story, about a girl with epilepsy.

Her family were refugees from Laos and spoke no English, and their specific language is relatively obscurely so at the beginning of their ordeal, there were no translators for them in the area, which meant they could not communicate with the doctors who treated little Lia.

Result: her epilepsy went undiagnosed for quite some time.

From there, it went to hell. They put her on a bunch of medication, changing them frequently to try to control the seizures. It took them a LONG time to realize that the parents were unable or unwilling to give her the medication at home.

To be clear, they didn’t want to give her all those medications, feeling (correctly) that the side effects were severe and feeling (incorrectly) that probably she didn’t need that much medicine anyway.

However, even if they were willing to be perfectly compliant with the medications, they had a massive issue: they didn’t speak or read English. She was just a baby, so the medications were liquid in some cases, but pills in other cases, which had to be divided into segments to get the right dose, then ground up and put into food which the baby objected to. It was virtually impossible. They couldn’t tell the bottles apart, they couldn’t figure out when each med was supposed to be given, it was a disaster.

Finally, they sent a home health nurse to the house. The nurse and the social worker tried everything they could to get it to work, including taping up samples of each med on the wall with a drawing of when it was supposed to be given to the baby. But it didn’t work.

Eventually, in a desperate bid to get the baby the medication that she needed, the doctor asked for the child to be removed from their care and put into foster care, which the state did.

This trauma was, obviously, severe for the family, who didn’t understand what was happening. By the end of the ten months the baby spent in foster care, they had reduced her medications to a single one and convinced the parents of the urgency to give her that med as directed every single day. And so, the baby was returned to their care.

But then she had the worst seizure of her life. It wouldn’t stop. Even after the ambulance got her to the ER, they couldn’t stop it. It just went on and on as they tried to get an IV in and shoved medication into her little body, and tried to get a breathing tube in because she wasn’t getting any oxygen. It was a disaster. The poor little baby.

When they got her stabilized, they moved her to the children’s hospital, but the lack of oxygen had left her brain dead. She was a vegetable.

It got worse from there, of course.

The author also talks in depth about the Hmong people and their history, which is a segment of history that I knew nothing about, and I would assume most people probably know nothing about. It makes you angry, when you think of it. We used them as proxy soldiers in Laos during the Vietnam war, because we were banned by treaty from putting our own men on the ground in Laos. We paid them practically nothing, we force recruited them, and we let them die in huge numbers (five TIMES the fatality rate of American soldiers in Vietnam) and promised them they could come to America if Laos became inhospitable for them afterwards.

Laos DID become dangerous for the Hmong. We took out the officers and their families, and left the rest of the Hmong to be hunted. They crossed through to Thailand, many starving to death or being killed by their enemies. Once in Thailand, they were held in refugee camps for long periods and only gradually allowed to come here. And once here, they had no resources set up to ease the transition. No English language classes, no cultural classes. The resources provided by private companies and organizations were woefully inadequate.

It’s all incredibly sad. The author says at the end that since the events of the book (mid 1980s) the next generation is adapting well and assimilating to America well enough to get good educations and good jobs, which helps ease the blow a bit.


In Cold Blood–Truman Capote


This is a classic. It’s true crime. It was considered the first “nonfiction novel” in that it’s non-fiction but it reads like a novel.

It is the story of the Clutter family murders. If you don’t know this story, you can learn as much as you want–the crime scene photos are online (they’re slightly disturbing but not horrifyingly gory like the Black Dahlia photos, or the Jack the Ripper photos) the book is elegant and thorough, there’s a movie and a miniseries. It’s probably one of the most thoroughly covered cases around, at least of those that do not involve a serial killer.

Basically, one night in December, the Clutter family in Kansas was murdered. They were discovered the next morning by a girl who normally carpooled into town for church with them. (Let’s take a moment and feel for her, because in 1959 therapy wasn’t so much a thing and she probably could have used a LOT of therapy.)

There were four members of the family in the house: the father, a respected and prosperous farmer, his wife, a great invalid, and his two youngest children. The older was a girl well known for her great range of skills and her willingness to share those skills with those around her, and her brother, fifteen.

They were found all tied up. The mother and the daughter were in their own rooms, the father and the son were in the basement. The basement was divided into two areas: a playroom, which was where the boy was found, on the sofa, and a furnace room, which was where the father was found. They had all been shot in the head, and the father additionally had his throat cut.

Robbery was discarded as a motive almost immediately, despite the fact that the women’s purses were open and the contents scattered about, because the father had a firm policy not to carry any cash, a policy which was well known throughout the area.

The book cuts over to follow the killers, two young men. One is handsome and charming, the other is short and has a limp, the result of an unfortunate motorcycle accident that did severe damage to his legs.

One of them had spent time in a cell with a man who had worked as a temporary farmhand for the Clutter family. This man believed there to be a safe hidden in the home office, containing thousands of dollars. On the strength of this belief, he had drawn a map of the home and grounds and this map and this information prompted the two ex-cons to go to the home late at night and burgle it.

The goal was to rob the home, but they came prepared to commit murder if they were caught, with a shotgun, a knife and a large quantity of rope.

When they could not find the safe, they woke Mr. Clutter. He told them that there was no safe, but they did not believe him. They took him up to his wife’s room, and they tied them both up and then the children, and then they searched the home.

It soon became clear that there was no safe.

They took what cash there was, less than 50 dollars, and some small valuables. Then they killed the family. They slit Mr. Clutter’s throat, and he, while definitely bleeding to death, struggled so hard to get to them that he almost slipped his bonds. At that point, they shot him in the head.

From there, they shot the boy. Then they went upstairs and shot the daughter, and finally the wife.

They left the house. They went home, established an “alibi” and then wrote a bunch of bad checks to get items that they pawned, using that money to go to Mexico. They ran through that money, so they went back to the states, repeating the process and going to Florida. When they ran out of money there, they hitchhiked their way to Las Vegas, with their basic strategy being to kill the driver when they were able to do so. They were finally busted in Vegas–the cellmate who told them about the Clutter family having busted them–and were set for trial.

They were found guilty and condemned to death, although they lodged significant appeals that delayed that verdict being carried out for several years. Eventually, however, their time ran out and they were indeed hanged.

It was a stupid, pointless, miserable crime. It was completely unnecessary. It was, indeed, a tragedy.



The Irreducible Needs of Children–T Berry Brazelton


This is a great book, and I think the world would be a better place if all their recommendations were implemented, but let’s be real: this book made me feel super inadequate and like the worst mom of all time.

Also I think there’s a possibility that my middle child is doomed forever, because one of their suggestions is that children under the age of 3 never be separated from their primary caregiver overnight because it impairs the bonding experience and ideally also not be in a baby farm style daycare and I got divorced when she was less than a year old. Despite my protestations, the court did indeed order split custody so she spent alternate weekends with her dad. And I had to go back to work, obviously, so she was in a baby farm for a while until we could find a nice in-home daycare for her.

Basically, this book goes through the needs of children in different areas and discusses what is ideal and how we could adjust the current system to reach those recommendations. The recommendations are excellent and I have no doubt children would be better off, but it’s a bit daunting, the list.

For example, for the baby I currently have, the suggestion is no more than 10 or 15 minutes of independent play at a time. But he LOVES his jumper, so what does that mean? Do I pull him out of it while he’s playing because it’s been 15 minutes, even if he’s still playing happily? Doesn’t this directly contradict the Montessori concept of letting children do serious work to the limit of their interest, however long that is? Is Montessori wrong?

The recommendations for school aged children are less daunting and more common sense, although some of their recommendations are vast deviations from the standard. For example, they recommend tracking by subject, or even more ideally, by skill. This is mostly true in my children’s school–I get reports on their grade levels in reading and in math–but I do think it would be better if it was applied more widely than math and reading. And I would also like a skill breakdown. If she’s on grade level for math but she struggled in the multiplication unit, that should be something we should all be aware of, and that is not the case in my child’s school. Perhaps it’s a terrible school.

The daunting recommendation for the school aged kids is to give them an hour at the end of the school day where they can just hang out with their parents and talk and decompress, before any one is doing any chores, but there’s no way to do that feasibly in my life many days. Do we eliminate her gymnastics class or pull the older one out of band so we have that time? How important is that? It’s all tricky.

Regardless, I think this is a great book for all parents to read, and probably teachers too. There’s not enough emphasis on what is best for children and on the kind of care young children especially need to have the best chance at a successful future, and this book is one way to approach giving more focus to the needs of children.


Too Late to Say Goodbye–Ann Rule


True crime!

This is the story of Bart and Jenn Corbin.

Bart Corbin was a dentist who married his girlfriend Jenn when she became pregnant with their first son. That marriage did not stand in the way of his long-standing affair with the married dental hygienist at his office, though. Because he is a TERRIBLE PERSON.

They eventually had another son and he was incredibly possessive and controlling, and very demanding of Jenn and her time and attention.

She eventually decided to leave him, in part because of an online romance with someone who turned out to be catfishing her, although that term was not in use at the time of her death. But even after she found out that her online paramour was not who she thought he was, she was still ready to leave Bart because by then she realized he was not a good person or a good husband and that she would be better off without him, no matter how hard it was for them to survive.

But he’s not really the kind of person to let things go.

He preemptively filed for divorce, then went around talking about how much he wanted to make his marriage work.

And then she was found dead in her bed one morning, by their son. She had been shot in the head. The initial reports suggested suicide but the forensic evidence suggested murder.

He was, obviously, the first suspect. He didn’t come to the house when he was told, never asked to see or speak to his children, and made an appointment that weekend for a haircut, saying he needed a new look because he was a widower.

None of that is what you expect from a man who just lost his wife to suicide.

And then the family discovered that his dental school girlfriend was also found dead, of a gunshot to the head. The same kind of gun that was used to kill Jenn was used in her death. It was ruled a suicide but her family and friends never believed that.

Investigators reopened the case of Dolly Hearn (the dental school girlfriend) and found that after she broke up with him, Bart had been stalking her like a crazy person, kidnapping her cat, replacing her contact solution with hairspray, putting sugar in her gas tank and so on, but that she had tried to keep him more or less happy because he was about to graduate and she just wanted him to go away.

The weekend of his graduation, she was found dead. She had been defrosting food for dinner and was working on a project, neither of which is consistent with someone about to kill themselves.

Modern forensics confirmed what investigators at the time could not, which was that she was also murdered.

He was charged with both murders, and prosecutors got ready to try him in two different counties.

All the while, they were hunting down the source of the gun used to kill Jenn. When they found it, they had enough to ensure a conviction and he took the plea deal they offered.

It’s amazing to me how many women are killed by their husbands and partners. My first marriage was dangerous, and I’m fortunate his sense of self-preservation was greater than his self-confidence or I might have died when I left him, too. There’s not enough attention or legislation protecting women from their partners, especially when you consider how frequently women are hurt and killed by their partners.



Bitter Blood–Jerry Bledsoe


Another true crime book!

This book is excellent and the story is CRAZY.

This woman marries a dentist, they have two kids. He moves to New Mexico with them, which she HATES, because she wants to be home in North Carolina where her family is well known and people treat her like she’s special. She’s abusing the kids, too, but the husband apparently doesn’t notice that.

Eventually she leaves him and goes back to North Carolina with the kids. She files for divorce and he’s ok with letting her have primary custody but she starts saying she doesn’t want the kids to go to New Mexico at ALL, that he should have to come to them for visits, and just generally being terrible about everything.

The fights are bitter and expensive and eventually he gets a month in the summer, but he has to pay for transport and also her transport to an airport where the kids can fly direct to his house from, since there was no direct flight from her city to his and the kids are too young to make a transfer by themselves.

Meanwhile, she’s getting way more paranoid and jumpy and starts hanging out with her cousin who is also full of problems, being as he’s the son of a white supremacist who thinks vitamin C shots can cure everything. Her cousin is also faking being a doctor, after having faked his admission to and enrollment in medical school.

And then her ex-husband’s mom and sister are shot to death at their home in Tennessee.

He decides to use the money he inherits to fight to have custody switched to him. To this end, he starts visiting North Carolina and talking to her family and the kids’ schools. Eventually her dad agrees to testify that more contact with their dad would be a good thing.

By now, she and her cousin are living together and lamenting the fact that it’s illegal for cousins to get married in their state. Ew.

And then her parents and grandmother are shot to death.

At this point, the police start to find her complete lack of reaction to the deaths of her parents and grandparent suspicious and when they find out her mother and sister in law were also murdered within the year, they start to be really suspicious. They start moving on the cousin, whom they believe to be responsible for the shooting of her parents.

It does not end well.


Green River, Running Red–Ann Rule


Another true crime book. If you’re not into true crime, avert your gaze now.

The Green River Killer was a hardcore serial killer–he has been confirmed to have had more kills than Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy, but do you know his name or anything about him? I doubt it. I pay attention to true crime and even I mostly only knew that the Green River Killer was a thing that existed. And honestly I didn’t even know where the Green River was, I thought it was in the midwest somewhere, but nope, it’s in Seattle.

Basically, this guy would pick up women, mostly sex workers but not exclusively so, and rape them and then strangle them and then dump their bodies somewhere in the nearby open natural areas around the city.

He got his name because the first five victims were found in the Green River, in late 1982.

He was caught in 2001.

Let that just sink in for a minute.

He was convicted of 48 murders, almost all of which occurred between late 1982 and 1986, with a couple more as late as 1998.

Here’s my theory: there are WAY MORE MURDERS on his hands than that. What are the odds that he killed 40 odd people in 4 years and then just stopped? I’m going to go with, not freaking likely. He did get remarried in 1987 and his wife thinks that she saved lives by making him happy, which…maybe? But I’m thinking not.

But here’s the thing. He made a deal that he would confess to everything and help them find the bodies, and in exchange he would plead to the murders but not get the death penalty. The caveat was, if he was later found not to have told them about a murder or if he was discovered to have killed outside that county’s borders, he was on the hook for those murders separately and the death penalty was a likely option.

This means that he had every incentive to tell the truth about how many people he killed. Unless he was killing them in neighboring counties, where some bodies were discovered.

Also during his last interview with the sheriff, he casually said, we’re up to 71 bodies now, and actually, no, they were up to 48. Why would he say that suicidal thing, except possibly as an ego booster? More likely, this man (with an IQ of 82 which I think is relevant to this) slipped up and gave his real total of kills and not the amount that they’d found.

Anyway, he was under suspicion in the 80s when the murders were happening and was arrested twice in connection with picking up sex workers, and that’s how they caught him in the end. They were so sure it was him that they got a judge to sign a warrant for hair and saliva samples, which were held and stored and in 2001 when DNA testing became available, they tested the samples against samples from the victims and nailed him.

Let this be a lesson to potential murderers: even if you can figure out how to avoid detection at the time you commit the murder, there’s no way to ensure that you can avoid future technological advances. And there’s no statute of limitations on murder, so you can go down at any time.

I’m not going to write his name here. He wanted to be famous like Bundy and I have no interest in gratifying that. You can google it if you want.

The Devil in the White City–Erik Larson


More true crime! Sort of! I’m on a bit of ¬†true crime kick.

This book–which is being made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio as we speak–is about America’s first serial killer (or at least, the guy that is often cited as the first, I have doubts about his status as such) and also about the Chicago’s World Fair.

It’s not that weird of a combo. They happened at the same time and the same place and the World’s Fair played a part in the killer’s crime spree. The book alternates chapters, one about the World’s Fair and one about the killer.

In fact, in true crime reading groups a lot of people don’t like this book because of the history aspect. You have to like both general history and true crime to really get into this book. But I do like both those things and so I loved this book.

Here’s the story. The World’s Fair in Paris had happened and people in America were like, WE CAN DO THAT. There was an impassioned fight over which city would host it and Chicago won by the skin of their teeth. And they built this gorgeous park with a man made lagoon and wooded island, silent electric boats (an achievement in the late 1890s) and magnificent beautiful neoclassical buildings, all painted white, which gave the exhibition the nickname “the White City.”

The story of them trying to build it is so interesting. They had something like 2 years from when the architects got the blueprints in for the main buildings to when it had to be ready and that’s not long enough, at all. The landscape guy was freaking out because he couldn’t start planting until the buildings were done and painted and obviously, plants take time. And Chicago’s weather was not super conducive to year round building.

Meanwhile, H. H. Holmes was doing his messed up thing. His real name was Herman Mudgett, so…we know why he chose Henry Holmes. Anyway. He’s a terrible human being. He married a woman and then abandoned her, went to medical school, and was involved in several shady disappearances before he took up residence in Chicago, a few years ahead of the World’s Fair. He befriended an old lady whose ill husband owned a pharmacy. The husband dies, and the woman sells him the pharmacy and then disappears.

He leverages the success of the pharmacy into the ability to buy an entire block across from his pharmacy and built a massive building, which had a pharmacy on the ground floor, as well as other businesses, and hotel rooms on the second and the third floors, which was convenient since he was close to the site of the World’s Fair.

He did this super creepy thing where he would hire people to build the hotel and then fire them without paying them which served the dual purpose of being cost-efficient and also no one group of people had any idea what weird crap he was building into that place.

I can hear you asking yourself, what weird crap? ALL THE WEIRD CRAP. He had a crematorium built to his own specifications in the basement, a corpse shute, a “hanging room” where there were no windows, at least one room that was airtight and had a gas fitting that was not attached to a lamp or anything, weird passageways, hidden rooms, alarms set so he knew whenever anyone left their room….all the weird crap.

How many people did he murder in that creepy hotel? No one knows, because 1) crematorium 2) he would sell the bodies to medical schools because PROFIT and 3) a LOT of people were vanishing without a trace in that area at that time and it’s a bit of a push to hold him accountable for all of them, although who knows, right?

He was eventually convicted of 3 murders, and they managed to prove 9 murders. He gave interviews to newspapers and admitted to 27 but some of the people who he admitted killing were still alive, so…? Some people estimate 200 which a lot of people think is high.

Regardless, there’s not a lot of gory details although there are some, so if you are super squeamish this is probably not for you, but if you have a reasonable tolerance for descriptions of dead bodies and an interest in history, this is a good choice for you.