The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South – by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington

Some books cause a lot of head shaking, and this is one of them. How screwed up a legal system can be is really depressing. It leaves me with the proverbial despair over the fate of mankind. I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked. Power, greed, hubris, inequality – they have existed since the beginning of our time as humans, so what else is new? Only, I guess, that you expect the law in the United States of America to be a paradigm of fairness. It ain’t.

This book concentrates on the legal system in the state of Mississippi, and particularly on one doctor and one dentist who did autopsies and forensic-style work that was in too many cases faulty and just plain wrong. The work and testimony of these two men sent innocent men to prison, some even to death row. They did not do this alone. The prosecutors in the state did not so much care about the accuracy of the information provided by these two men as the support they were able to give to their cases.

While the book specifically addresses the situation as it was (and is) in Mississippi, you just know that this same attitude is common among other states and other prosecutors. They have a person that they believe is guilty of a crime and are willing to do whatever it takes to convict that person, even if it means using faux science to support their claims.

In addition to the specifics of this doctor, dentist, and Mississippi’s legal system, the book addresses several areas of forensic “science” which are not as exact a science as most people have been led to believe through exposure to television shows using those same techniques. We conflate the fiction of CSI and NCIS with the real world of forensics, and they are not the same thing. It was a bit eye-opening to me, even considering my usual skepticism of such things. I’ve learned that, at best, forensics can guide investigations but not solve them, given the absence of something definitive like DNA evidence.

One of the co-authors of this book, Tucker Carrington, is the director of the George C. Cochran Innocence Project at the University of Mississippi School of Law. Innocence Project lawyers play a prominent role in this book, and for good reason. They were able to prove the innocence of two of the victims of faulty forensics in Mississippi as told in the book. While prosecutors have no love of anyone who questions the results of their work, the various Innocence Projects around the country provide a valid and important service to those who have been wrongfully convicted.

That being said, I can understand the desire, indeed, the need, of convicting those who have committed violent crimes and must be removed from society. It’s a tough job being a prosecutor (though perhaps not as tough as being a defense attorney) so I can understand using whatever means may be available to them to help their cases. Their concern is not for the person who commits the crime, but for the victim and society as a whole. I’m sure it’s hard to turn down anything that can support one’s case, even if its validity might be questionable. There’s two sides to every story.

However, introduce politics into the equation and you have great opportunity for notoriety over accuracy. If you are serving in the legal system as an elected official, you want to be able to tout your successes when it comes to election time. With this incentive, shortcuts to success can be more than tempting. Throughout this country, this is a bad system. Do I have an idea of how to fix it? No. Even changing from an elective system to an appointive system does not guarantee good results. The only answer is holding people accountable for their work, and it seems that the adversarial legal system, when functioning fairly, is the best way to do that.

I have long been an opponent of the death penalty. I have always been of the opinion that the execution of one innocent person is one too many, and we have unfortunately executed mare than one innocent person. It’s not that I think that people who commit certain crimes don’t deserve to die – I do, but only in the commission of that crime. Instant justice of a criminal being killed while committing a violent crime against an innocent person is, in my opinion, the only acceptable form of “capital punishment.” If a criminal does not suffer that immediate consequence of his crime, he has passed the point of forfeiting his life for his crime.

Yes, I know this may not seem to make sense to most people. Why is it okay to kill a criminal in one circumstance but not the other? Why is it moral to kill someone at the time he/she is committing the crime, but not after having been found guilty and convicted of the crime? For me, it comes down to self-defense being justifiable, but killing someone “in cold blood” – an execution – is another thing entirely. If killing, other than self-defense, is immoral, it’s hard to justify killing another person even if they are guilty of a crime.

And that then leads to part of the moral of this book. If someone has committed a crime punishable by death, there has to be irrefutable evidence that the person has actually committed that crime, and there are too many ways that such evidence can be faulty and send an innocent person to their death, with absolutely no chance to correct the situation if their innocence is established in the future. To me, it is not worth the risk of killing an innocent person.

I am sure that there are many people who would not agree with me. I understand that. The desire to seek comparative punishment for a crime is part of the human psyche – and eye for an eye, and all that. I would like to think that as humans we have progressed beyond that gut level reaction, but I know that we have not. Thus, I am grateful for those who seek fairness and truth, even if it means going against the public desire for vengeance. This book presents a strong case for a more balanced and scientific approach to criminal prosecution, free from the politics and greed that sway people to bend their own morality.

Finished 2/26/19

Getting Started in Leather Crafting – by Tony Laier and Kay Laier

This is a very basic book on leather crafting. There are better books, but for the price this will give you the bare minimum knowledge you need to get started. Personally, I would suggest saving your money to spend on a more complete book.

Finished 2/23/19

Big Nate: A Good Old-Fashioned Wedgie – by Lincoln Peirce

Not much to say. I like the Sunday funnies, always have since I was a kid. Big Nate appears in the funny papers I read and is reasonably funny to this old man. This book is a collection of some of those comics and was similarly reasonably funny to me.

Finished 2/21/19

Travels with Charley in Search of America – by John Steinbeck

This is kind of a “before and after” look at this book. First, the “before” –

Travels with Charley is about John Steinbeck’s tour of America in a camper on the back of a pick-up truck. Charley is not a person; “he” is a standard poodle who kept Steinbeck company for most of the trip. Apparently Steinbeck was attempting to “reconnect” with the people in the U.S. He appears to have felt that he had become out of touch with the common man and wanted to experience real people as he traveled around the country.

It was an interesting story, and his conversations with some of the people he met and his observations of the state of the country gave a good historic perspective. I was only ten when he made this trip so I am lacking a real sense of what the era was like for adults, though I do have my own memories as a child.

This book had a certain appeal to me because I would like to make a similar trip. The likelihood of my doing so is so small that I rely more on living vicariously through those who have done so. However, my world view is different from Steinbeck’s, so while it was enjoyable to see the country through his eyes, I think I would like to form my own impressions. However, at this point in time it’s a little hard for me to do so in the 1960’s.

I enjoyed the book and definitely learned some things. His depiction of some of the events in the south at the time of desegregation was revelatory for me. Having grown up in the north, I had no concept of what was happening in those places of great conflict. It is a bit of a shock to me how people were behaving at the time. As a child, I was vaguely aware of what was happening, but living in the north there was no immediate impact on my life. It depresses me to think – to know – that there are still people who think the way the segregationists of the time thought.

I did feel like he rushed things at the end of the book. He admits as much, claiming that any long trip becomes tedious, and that home calls to us the closer we get to the end of our trip, making us speed up our travel. Fair enough, but hardly the complete trip he promised at the beginning of the book.

So on to the “after” review –

Before I wrote this review, I went to the internet to look for images of John Steinbeck, to get a sense of what he looked like at the time of the trip. I found them, and was also pleasantly surprised to find images of Rocinante, his camper/truck that he used for the trip. Very cool. And then I followed links commenting on Travels with Charley. Hmmm, not what I expected.

The gist of it is that is very questionable whether Steinbeck even talked to any of the people he quoted in the book. Even the trip itself appears not to have been as described, with Steinbeck actually staying in his camper much, much less than reported. His apologists point out that he was, after all, a fiction writer, and it should not be a surprise that he may have made people up out of whole cloth. Still, to me it’s a bit less than honest and takes away from my respect for the book.

So, if you want to read this book, read it as a work of fiction, written primarily to espouse the author’s point of view, rather than those he “talked” to. It’s still illustrative of the times and not a bad book, so it is worth reading. Just don’t take it as gospel.

Finished 2/8/19

bookmark: a prayer for owen meany

A Prayer for Owen Meany: A Novel – by John Irving

Some novels tell a story straight through, from beginning to end, in a linear fashion with a clear plot and familiar characters. This is not one of them. Instead, we are required to jump back and forth between expatriate John Wheelwright’s current life in Canada and his memories of his earlier life and his friendship with Owen Meany. There is a mythic quality to the story of a boy who prophesies his own end that elevates it beyond mere storytelling.

The primary focus of the book is ostensibly Owen Meany’s life, but in reality is an exploration of belief. Taking place in the 1960s and 70s, the Vietnam War plays a major role in the story and in particular drives the novel’s narrative and provides the denouement.

The character of Owen Meany is outrageous, in the sense of being beyond the usual. This is a person very different from a normal child, and those around him appear to sense this. As the reader, you are required to suspend your critical thinking just as we need to do when reading many fantastical stories.

If you are interested in a book that will challenge you, not in the sense of hard to read, but requiring thought, than this is a good one to read.

Finished 1/25/19

thoughts inspired by bees

The ad says, “20% off beekeeping supplies. One day only!” I cannot help but be intrigued. I’ve always thought that keeping bees would be one of the necessary, and enjoyable, skills that homesteading would require. Alas, I’ve no need for bees now, and I doubt that my neighbors in the city would be pleased with a hive or three sitting in my backyard. Maybe when I retire . . .

Again, alas, that prospect is currently so far on the horizon that at best it appears to be a mirage. A shimmering, beautiful dream of a life directed by my own passion of the moment, rather than the needs and demands of an employer. But, to round out a trinity of “alases,” life without income would be more unpleasant than life without choice (and yes, I know everything is a choice).

A couple of months ago I wrote a “bookmark” on Eric Idle’s book, Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography.” I mentioned something I got from the book – doing what you enjoy for a living rather than merely working for a living. Right now, toleration of my work is the best I can come up with, and each year brings less tolerance. Despite advice I’ve heard too many times, I have not managed to “love my work.”

So, what would I suggest to my eighteen-year-old self, regarding a livelihood? It doesn’t matter. Any such advice would be wasted on that boy. As intelligent and capable as he was, he was immature and ignorant of the real world, almost afraid of it. To have done anything other than the safe and sure plodding in which he engaged would have subjected him to more anxiety than he could handle.

Perhaps I would have to go back further and advise that child’s parents to let him go out and make his own choices, and his own mistakes. Perhaps I should kidnap him and bring him to live with a more adventurous family that would encourage his individuality and appreciate his differences, rather than trying to force him into some image they imagined proper for their son.

Any change to my life would have to be made at a very early point, as I have certain childhood memories of events that I am sure warped my life in ways that were never expected, warped in ways that can never be unwarped. Or perhaps that’s just me making excuses for my own failing to direct my life in a more meaningful, satisfying way. Perhaps no amount of change in my early life would make up for my inherent psychological failings. Nature versus nurture.

I guess these ramblings illustrate why I have had little inclination to write anything other than “bookmarks” here. I’m kind of a one trick pony and while a pony’s tricks might be entertaining once or twice, the hundredth time around it gets pretty old. Even I get tired of what I write here. I would wish that I had something interesting to write about here, but the fulfillment of that wish would more likely be something devastating, rather than rewarding. And who wants to read about that? Hell, who wants to experience that?

bookmark: hell’s princess

Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men – by Harold Schechter

Spoiler Alert – right up front – if you read this book expecting “the mystery of Belle Gunness” to be revealed, you will be disappointed. But I have to admit, the author did say in the title that it was a mystery.

Some people walk into a public place and become a mass murderer by shooting several people. Others become a mass murderer by killing several people one at a time over an extended period. This book is the story of Belle Gunness, a mass murderer of the latter type.

While this book did leave me wanting a resolution to the mystery of Belle Gunness’s actual fate, it was still a very interesting retelling of her story. It covers the known details of her murders and covers the trial of the man convicted of the arson theoretically responsible for her death. That’s the mystery, by the way – whether she actually died in the fire or set the fire herself and then disappeared forever.

The publicity and public spectacle of the whole story at the time is illustrative of humankind’s fascination with the macabre and the lengths to which people will go to involve themselves, however peripherally. I guess I can’t hold myself too far apart from those people, as I read the book with the same interest as the average citizen back then probably followed it in the newspapers.

In addition to the direct story of Belle Gunness, the author offers a good amount of background history. For example, being of Norwegian descent, I found it fascinating that Chicago was, at one time, such a center of Norwegian immigration. Too bad it couldn’t have had one less particular female immigrant.

If you are a history buff, or a true crime devotee, you may find this book interesting. If you live in La Porte, Indiana, you’ll find a good bit of local history here. While I would still like to have had some resolution to the mystery, as I am sure most of the people involved in the case would have liked, it was a good book.

Finished 1/5/19

new year 2019

Here I sit, once again, at the beginning of a new year. While it is always good to be able to reach this milestone, in the back of my head this old fart wonders how many more he will see. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, I hope that this will be a good year. I’ve even managed to encourage myself to make a few changes next year. Note, I said “encourage myself.“ I did not make any resolutions. Those are as useless as a condom that’s been dropped in the gravel and run over by a car (not that I worry about that at this point in my life).

Some of my encouragement comes from necessity. I have to ask myself how comfortable life is going to be in twenty years if even now I have to struggle to either get down on or up off of the floor. Cleaning house for our New Year’s Eve party had me painfully writhing around on the bathrom floor to wash it. Good grief, I was like a beached whale! So I am encouraging myself to lose some weight and get some exercise. I’ve even gone so far as to order an exercise program that I think will work for me. Rather than tell you about that now and have to admit to my failure later, I’ll let you know in the future if I have succeeded, even in any small way.

Fighting my natural tendencies, I need to do something other than just plop my ass down in my chair after I get home from work. There is so much that needs doing around the house, not to mention the hobbies I keep buying tools and supplies for, treating coming home from work as the end of my day just does not make sense. I am encouraging myself to do something with my evenings other than devote them to television (and nodding off in front of the television).

Lastly, with encouragement from my bank account, I need to get the finances whipped into shape. They aren’t bad, but I could be doing better, and doing more instead of buying more would be a step in the right direction. You would think that at this point in my life I would have everything that I could possibly want, but it’s so easy to yield to Amazon’s siren call. Also, combining encouragements, spending less on fast food will be good for both my budget and my belly.

So, Happy New Year to you all. I hope it is a good year for you, and for all. That it will most likely suck is just another part of getting old, but hell, if you can’t roll with the punches, you might as well lie down and give up. I’m not there yet.

bookmark: all the little live hings

All the Little Live Things – by Wallace Stegner

Perhaps it is a sign of my time that I can relate to main characters who are older men. What a surprise. Still, it is interesting that I can slip into the mind of Joe, the main character, and watch life side-by-side with him and understand that perspective. This book provided that opportunity.

Fortunately, I do not have to share the loss of an only son with the main character, but I can fully appreciate his feelings about the disconnect between he and his son, more through experience with my own father than with my own son.

Written in the 1960s, the book has a character, Jim, who exemplifies the free love, hippy drop-out. At that time, I was the same age as Jim, though not anywhere close to being any kind of hippy. While I could recognize that character as someone I might have known in that time, I could more easily understand Joe’s feelings towards to Jim; a relationship that was part envy and part irritation.

But the focus of the book was Joe’s relationship with Marian, a recently arrived neighbor. Joe plays the curmudgeon while Marian is his foil, loving and tolerating pretty much everything, willing to live and let live. While this could lead to conflict, Joe’s attraction to Marian creates opportunity for dialogue rather than conflict. Another thing I can understand now, too, is that his appreciation of Marian is not a sexual thing, but more familial and protective, with Marian being almost a daughter figure.

I accepted what happened in the book as a natural unfolding of events, of what had to be. I understood it. I would rather have had it end in a different manner, but I have found that in real life, we don’t get to choose our endings. They choose us. So it was with this book.

Finished 12/15/18

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography – by Eric Idle

I always enjoyed Monty Python on PBS here in the U.S. and have parts of each of their movies memorized, so it should be no surprise that I thought Eric Idle’s “sortabiography” would be interesting, and it was, particularly if you are interested in all of his famous friends and the places you can go and things you can do when you become rich and famous yourself.

I certainly don’t begrudge anyone any good fortune, particularly when it is earned, but there is a certain difficulty in relating to such people when you have not attained the same type of good fortune. I think the one thing that I took away from this book, if it was truthfully told, was the actual pleasure that Eric Idle attained from his chosen life’s work. I envy that.

It was also interesting as a look into the inner workings of Monty Python. Having a few years under my belt, I have no illusions that a group of people working together is always a thing of joy, but it was nice to see that they appear to have a mutual respect for one another.

If you are into biographies, or “sortabiographies,” you’ll find this a pretty easy, light book to read. It won’t change your life, unless you take to heart the lesson that you will probably enjoy your life a lot more if you make a living doing something you love to do. I wish.

Finished 11/11/18