I still remember the day Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris walked into Columbine High School in Colorado, killed twelve students, a teacher and wounded twenty-four others before committing suicide. It wasn’t the first such shooting, but it was the biggest at the time, ushering in a new era of fear for school aged children. Many of us wondered how such a tragedy could occur. Where were Dylan and Eric’s parents? In this book, Dylan’s mother, Sue, shares her grief and shame, and with unflinching honesty, describes the signs she might have missed. What’s truly alarming about her story, though, is that the Klebolds were a normal middle class family. There may have been subtle signs Dylan was in trouble, but no large red flags. The Klebolds could be any of us. And, until we remove all impediments to treating people for mental health, the scenario is bound to happen again and again. A frightening, yet fascinating, glimpse inside the life of a mass murderer in the making.
Okay, so maybe this isn’t one of the best books of all time, but it’s an enjoyable non-fiction read, an interesting glimpse into the life of an EMT/Paramedic. After 9/11, Kevin Hazzard feels something’s missing so he decides to train as an EMT, working his way into an ambulance position with Grady, a hospital serving the worst sections of Atlanta. Frightened at first, he quickly gains mastery and thrives on the adrenaline rush. He describes the calls: a car crash so devastating he finds his hand resting in someone’s brain; a heart attack victim who insists on walking to the ambulance and dies as a result; drug deaths and situations where he and his partner are in grave danger from dealers and unruly crowds; and domestic calls where responders are attacked by the women they are trying to help by arresting their abusers. Hazzard lasted a decade in an industry where months or a year or two is the norm. A very well written, fascinating look into an arena where any of us may suddenly be thrown.
In 1936, boys from the University of Washington vied for gold in the eight-man crew in the Berlin Olympics. They had to beat the heavily favored Ivy League to represent the United States. Their efforts were impressive given German and Italian teams were government-sponsored. The boys, including the coxswain, came from lower middle class families, and struggled to earn their way through school during the Depression. This magnificently written non-fiction saga, chronicles their quest for glory, illustrates the importance of teamwork in rowing, and showcases the grueling sport of crew which is equal parts exhaustion and pain. Rowing was big news in the 1930s. Millions followed the sport on the radio. This team put Seattle on the international map. Also covered, are Hitler’s efforts to gloss over the inhumane treatment of Jews and other “undesirables,” and win public support for the Third Reich. Although lengthy descriptions sometimes slow the narrative, it’s worth the read as the book builds toward a breathtaking showdown in Nazi Germany.
Bill Bryson is a king of non-fiction. He has a way of writing about historical events both extraordinary and mundane that makes them interesting and accessible. In this book, he tackles the summer of 1927 in America, a busy period in the nation’s history. The stock market was booming, President Calvin Coolidge worked just four hours a day, a sculptor came up with a crazy idea to carve four giant heads into Mt. Rushmore, and a young aviator named Charles Lindbergh flew a flimsy airplane across the Atlantic for the first time-among other things. It was the summer that ushered in the talking picture, television was invented, Al Capone was terrorizing Chicago, and an over-the-hill baseball player named Babe Ruth returned to greatness. The book is an entertaining read, a brawling tale of adventure and reckless optimism. Bryson is best known for his book, A Walk in the Woods. However, this one with its cast of eccentric characters, when America began flexing its muscles for the first time, remains my favorite.
This is a non-fiction book about the treatment of a woman for multiple personality disorder. “Sybil” suffers extreme childhood abuse which causes her to separate into sixteen different “alters.” She has huge memory gaps given the differing personalities in charge. With help from her psychiatrist, these selves gradually become co-conscious, ending with Sybil’s integration as a whole person with full knowledge of past and present. The book was wildly successful when published, spawning two movies, and an upsurge in cases of reported dissociative identity disorder. However, it remains highly controversial as critics suggest Sybil was a simple hysteric, manipulated for profit by her psychiatrist. They cite tapes in which the psychiatrist is heard describing to Sybil her personalities. They also suggest the fabrication of material to protect her identity does not constitute a proper case history as would appear in a peer-reviewed journal. Supporters claim critics left out important facts, distorted evidence and didn’t reveal certain information until all the principles were dead. Whatever your opinion, the book remains a truly fascinating read!
Henrietta Lacks was a poor black tobacco farmer who died of cancer. No one would have remembered her name if her cells hadn’t proven so unusual. Known as HeLa to scientists, her cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951 and, because of their unique properties, used to help develop the polio vaccine as well as in cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and more. Her cell’s have generated millions, but her family can’t afford health insurance. This well-written non-fiction book takes readers from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where Henrietta was treated for cancer, to laboratories with freezers full of her cells, to her small hometown of Clover, Virginia, to East Baltimore where her children and grandchildren struggle to survive today. This is a riveting story about ethics in medicine. Do we control the very stuff of which we are made? (On a personal note, this review is dedicated to Freddie Gray who died in Baltimore in the spring of 2015 at the hands of the Baltimore police. Let’s hope his sacrifice sparks change.)
I do love my pets and this book, although not literary fiction, was a joy to read and quite the emotional journey. In it, John and Jenny are just beginning their life together when they bring home an adorable, active puppy named Marley. He quickly grows into a ninety-seven pound Labrador retriever who crashes through screen doors, drools on guests, steals women’s underwear, and eats everything including dry-wall, couches and fine jewelry. Although he fails at obedience school, Marley’s joyful approach to life, his love and his loyalty are as boundless as his bad behavior. Marley shares with John and Jenny all the highs and lows of their young adult life, including the birth of their children. Yet, a dog’s life is not as long as that of a human, so we must also bear witness to Marley’s decline in the last stages of a well-lived life. This book is a true testament to unconditional love and the bond that can form between animal and human.
This is a deeply felt memoir about relationships, reconnecting and the meaning of life. Morrie is Mitch’s favorite college professor. They establish a great rapport. Morrie actually cries when Mitch graduates. Mitch promises to stay in touch but he doesn’t. He becomes a newspaper reporter, working constantly. Work consumes his life. Sixteen years after graduation, Mitch learns Morrie has ALS. He begins to visit him every Tuesday. They discuss a range of topics: regrets, death, love, money. Mitch is intrigued by Morrie’s views. He takes notes and makes recordings. Some of Morrie’s ideas include following self-created values, loving others and learning to accept the inevitability of death. They hit home with Mitch who is struggling to balance work and family. With each visit, Morrie gets sicker. At their last visit, Morrie is bed-ridden and near death. They hug, but now it is Mitch who is crying.
Set in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen in the 1960s, the details in this book are so vivid you feel as if you are with the four boys at the heart of the story. The boys are lifelong friends, kings of their domain, engaging in petty pranks until one disastrous afternoon when something goes horribly wrong, and they find themselves sentenced to a year in prison at the Wilkinson Home for Boys. At Wilkinson, they are subjected to brutal beatings, unimaginable humiliation, and worse. Years later, one is a lawyer, one a reporter, and two professional hit men. They all dream of revenge. To exact it, they twist the legal system with the help of a sympathetic priest, and commandeer the courtroom, in a sensational murder trial that stirs up all the ghosts of the past. The author published this book as a work of non-fiction. Although the names were changed, he claimed everything in the book was true. Carcaterra’s account of events has never been verified, but it doesn’t matter because this is a sensational read either way.