Duck Duck Book

53 – bone woman
04.14.2008, 8:03 am
Filed under: science

The bone woman : a forensic anthropologist’s search for truth in the mass graves of Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo / Clea Koff.
New York : Random House, c2004.
[MCL call number: 599.9 K78b 2004; four copies, no holds;
also in Spanish under the title El lenguaje de los huesos: S- 599.9 K78L 2004; three copies, no holds]

I have never had a serious desire to be a doctor, but I must admit that since childhood I’ve been fascinated by forensic medicine. It seems so amazing that someone with the right training and experience can cut apart a deceased person’s body, look at their insides, test their tissues and fluids, and come away several hours later with a clear idea of what exactly caused the person to die. But how much more fascinating is it that forensic anthropologists can do the same when the person’s body has been reduced, more or less, to nothing but a skeleton?

Clea Koff was a student forensic anthropologist working on her master’s degree at the University of Arizona and doing field work at the Pima County, Arizona Medical Examiner’s Office when she had the opportunity to travel to Rwanda to work for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal examining the evidence in mass graves left after the Rwandan genocide. Koff jumped at the chance, and after two missions for the Tribunal in Rwanda, she joined four more in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. In each place, Koff and her colleagues worked sixty-hour or longer weeks in awkward, sometimes dangerous conditions with poor supplies and patchy institutional support, coaxing little bits of people’s stories from their bones, bodies, clothing, personal possessions, and surroundings.

The dead, their relatives, their killers, and the horrible circumstances that allow people to draw lines and rise up wholesale against their neighbors are always present in Koff’s narrative; as is Koff’s own struggle with the tension between her broad responsibility as special kind of human rights worker and her role as a scientist, a servant of truth and discovery. But in many ways it is a beautiful story, too. The search for answers is an important part of what makes us human, and Koff takes that quest seriously. She considers scientific, social, historical, philosophical, and political questions as she hones her vocation so that it will add value, satisfaction, and meaning not just to her own life, but also, at least a tiny bit, to the lives of others as well.

The Bone Woman has an appendix listing completed and commenced trials that used evidence from the missions described in the book, which is interesting but on the whole rather dry and unsatisfying. Unfortunately, there is no index, and no bibliography.


53 – bird’s eye views
04.14.2008, 8:02 am
Filed under: art & entertainment

Bird’s eye views : historic lithographs of North American cities / John W. Reps.
New York : Princeton Architectural Press, c1998.
[MCL call number: 769 R425b 1998; one copy, no holds;
one copy reference only at Central Library]

In the nineteenth century, there was an enduring fashion for prints showing cities and towns. From the early 1800s to the early 1900s, as many as 2,400 American towns were immortalized in prints showing industry, progress, order, and civilization, with nice bits of park scattered through the middle and prosperous farm- or rangeland outside. Many of these views show towns and cities from an imaginary point high in the air, presenting the city from its most attractive angle. John W. Reps’s Bird’s Eye Views reproduces 100 or so panoramic views of cities and towns from across the United States and Canada, all of them beautiful, and each one thoroughly annotated with information about the contents of each print and the context in which it was made. After two introductory essays (one on the history of viewmaking, one on the development of urban communities), the prints are presented in four chapters organized by geography.

Many of the bird’s eye view prints of western cities emphasize their geometrical street layouts: Salt Lake City, Prescott, San Jose, and San Diego are all shown with orderly square city blocks of identical size dominating the visual field. Port cities’ waterways are often in the foreground of their portraits: two different prints show Seattle from an imaginary point high above Elliott Bay, with wharves in the foreground, humming with activity from countless ships and trains; while an 1876 view of New York City places Manhattan Island in the center of the picture, stretching from Battery Park right at the viewer’s fingertips all the way along the island to the newly minted Central Park, with the Hudson and East Rivers full to bursting with busy ships. If the city is really famous for just one thing, that might be the focus of an artist’s design: Washington, DC is shown in two views in which the United States Capitol dominates so much that the rest of the city might as well not even be there, and a third in which it is clearly the largest and most important component of the urban landscape (especially since the Washington Monument is shown only half-built).

If a city has railroad yards, port facilities, or smoke-belching factories, they are highlighted to show industry and progress. If it boasts a beautiful sea coast, a graceful arching river, or white-capped mountain views, they will be shown to their full magnificence. If there are many lovely buildings, the bird’s eye view may be surrounded with little portraits of the most noted structures to indicate the heights of culture and seriousness the city has attained. Although these views of towns and cities were not typically produced as advertisements for city governments or real estate developers, they certainly do shout loud and clearly, “Look at this beautiful place! It’s clean! It’s prosperous! It has everything you could want and more — and see, we can prove it!”

Although Bird’s Eye Views is really very large for a commercially published book (33 x 38 cm when closed), the lithographs are reproduced at much smaller than their original size. No doubt this was unavoidable, but it is incredibly frustrating, since part of the charm of the prints is their incredible detail. If you would like to see a selection of city and town bird’s eye views in a format that allows you to examine them more closely (albeit without Reps’s helpful annotations), you might want to visit Panoramic Maps : 1847-1929 at the Library of Congress’s American Memory Project (Washington, DC : Geography & Map Division, Library of Congress, 2007). Many of the lithographs in Bird’s Eye Views are also part of the Library of Congress’s digital collection, and I’ve provided links to digital copies of the lithographs mentioned above, when the views were available there.

53 – portland red guide
04.14.2008, 8:01 am
Filed under: history & geography

The Portland red guide : sites & stories of our radical past / by Michael Munk.
Portland, Or. : Ooligan Press, 2007.
[MCL call number: 979.549 M966p 2007; 22 copies, no holds;
one copy reference only at Central Library]

I have a great love for my hometown, Portland, Oregon. It is a pedestrian sort of city in many ways, and its glamour is a little faint when compared to really fabled places — cities that have starred in films and been the inspiration for renowned works of literature. But, part of why I love Portland is that I am connected to it. I live here, and I am a part of its history. I remember businesses that are long gone, houses and neighborhoods that have been replaced with parking lots or road infrastructure, streets that once had different names, and parks that used to be sketchy but are now squeaky clean. However, my own memories go back only thirty years or so, and though Portland is a young city by most measures, thirty years is not so much of its history.

So I need a little help if I want to be truly well-versed in the details of what the buildings used to hold, why the parks and streets have the names they do, and what the neighborhoods were once like before everything changed. The Portland Red Guide is one place to go for help in this quest. Michael Munk spent dozens of years researching Portland’s history for tiny jewels — terse little stories of personalities, organizations, and institutions; of strikes and parties, criminal trials and cultural events; of parks, storefronts and streetcorners — all located simultaneously in the physical, historical, and cultural landscape of the city.

One quite startling thing The Portland Red Guide illustrates is the number of intact, surviving buildings and streetscapes that once hosted a slice of radical history. Pictures really bring this home: Lownsdale Square (between SW 3rd and 4th Aves. and across from the Multnomah County Courthouse) is shown in several historic photographs as the location of public meetings of Portland’s branch of the Communist Party; a beautiful 1950’s-era street scene shows the gay bar The Harbor Club (at 736 SW 1st Ave., in a building that is still with us); and houses once lived in by Portland’s most noted radical daughters, Dr. Marie Equi and Louise Bryant (at 1423 SW Hall and 2226 NE 53rd Ave., respectively) still stand and look downright normal in their photographs.

Munk divides Portland’s history into six chronological periods (from the late 19th century through Halloween, 2006), and for each he provides a brief introduction; a list of people, places, institutions and events; a map situating them in the city; and a selection of photographs. The book closes with an excellent bibliography of books on Portland’s history and an index.

* * *

I have discussed many other books, websites, and films that consider elements of Portland’s history. Gordon DeMarco’s A Short History of Portland (Lexikos, 1990, reviewed in Duck Duck Book number 22) and the Oregon Historical Society’s Oregon History Project (reviewed in number 4) provide general views of the city’s past, but most of the others focus on specific topics:

Portland’s neighborhoods and communities are the focus of Cornerstones of Community: Buildings of Portland’s African American History (Bosco-Milligan Foundation, 1995, reviewed in number 47), A Walking Tour of Jewish Portland With the People That Lived There (by Polina Olsen, Smart Talk Publications, c2004, reviewed in number 28), Burnside, a Community (by Kathleen Ryan and Mark Beach, Coast to Coast Books, c1979, reviewed in number 29), Portland’s Little Red Book of Stairs (by Stefana Young, Coobus Press, c1996, reviewed in number 18), and the film Imagining Home: Stories of Columbia Villa (Sue Arbuthnot and Richard Wilhelm, 2005, announced in number 7).

Local architectural history can be found in the regional study Space, Style, and Structure: Building in Northwest America (edited by Thomas Vaughan and Virginia Guest Ferriday, Oregon Historical Society, 1974) and in Last of the Homemade Buildings (by Virginia Guest Ferriday, Mark Pub. Co., 1984, both reviewed in number 43), which focuses on a very small but glamorous group of buildings in downtown Portland.

The history of the Kalapuya people, indigenous inhabitants of the Willamette Valley area, is detailed in The World of the Kalapuya (by Judy Rycraft Juntunen et al., Benton County History Society and Museum, c2005, reviewed in number 31) and in Harold Mackey’s The Kalapuyans (The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, c2004, reviewed in number 33).

Elements of Portland’s hip hop and punk scenes are explored in the films Small City Big Hip Hop (Opio Media LLC, [2005], announced in number 23) and Northwest Passage (ID/ODD Productions, 2007, announced in number 42).

The Rose City’s notable trees are described and celebrated in the guide Trees of Greater Portland (by Phyllis C. Reynolds and Elizabeth F. Dimon, Timber Press, c1993, reviewed in number 16), while details of our gray winters, volcanic fallout, and famously warm and lovely Augusts are recorded in Raymond R. Hatton’s Portland, Oregon Weather and Climate: A Historical Perspective (Geographical Books, c2005, reviewed in number 37).

Ed Goldberg’s Dead Air (Berkeley Prime Crime, 1998, reviewed in number 22) is a mystery novel, not a factual history, but its setting among the staff of a local community-supported radio station makes it interesting for aficionados of local radical history even though it is fictional. And, the nearly-forgotten B-movie Portland Exposé (DVD published by Kit Parker double features / VCI Entertainment, 2006, reviewed in number 41), also fiction, explores another major chunk of our cultural past — corruption and organized crime.