Book Review: The Valedictorian of Being Dead

The Valedictorian of Being Dead: The True Story of Dying Ten Times to LiveThe Valedictorian of Being Dead: The True Story of Dying Ten Times to Live by Heather B. Armstrong

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Holy cow. This book.

The Valedictorian of Being Dead is Heather Armstrong’s story of recovery and it’s powerful. She’s long been known as a “mommy blogger” over at Dooce and has shared her life with readers for years. However, following her divorce and bitter custody, Armstrong actively worked to keep her crippling depression secret from everyone but her mother. With nothing working and no other options, she decides to try an experimental treatment meant to reset her brain by nearly killing it.

The book is well written though conversational — think of it as an extended blog post. Armstrong is both poignant and hilarious and I found myself laughing out loud and openly sobbing over the course of the book. It’s a quick read and I finished it in just a few hours. The writing is very detailed and some readers might not understand why Armstrong writes about the sound of shoes on the floor or the overpowering feeling of exhaustion. It’s almost something one has to have lived to understand.

The Valedictorian of Being Dead hit closer to home than I anticipated. While I don’t suffer from clinical depression, I do suffer from chronic illness and I’ve been having more flare-ups since December 2018. I know what it’s like to look down the tunnel and there’s no light. I know what it’s like to wonder “Is this all there is?” I know what it feels like to want to be dead. I know all these things and my heart goes out to everyone who fights this battle Every. Damn. Day.

This is a fantastic book for family members who don’t understand but want to learn more about the struggle faced by those with mental or chronic illness. Bottom line — this is a good book. It’s an important book. It’s a must read from me.


Book Review: Sole Survivor

Sole Survivor: The Inspiring True Story of Coming Face to Face with the Infamous Railroad KillerSole Survivor: The Inspiring True Story of Coming Face to Face with the Infamous Railroad Killer by Holly Dunn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We continue our true crime streak today.

I first came across Holly Dunn’s story a few years ago on an episode of 48 Hours. I was floored by her resilience then and when I saw she was writing a book to commemorate the 20th anniversary of her survival, I knew I had to read it.

Dunn is the sole survivor of a terrible serial killer known as the Railroad Killer. Angel Maturino Resendiz is suspected of killed 23 people across the United States and Mexico over a 20 year period. Through luck and quick thinking Dunn was able to live through her terrible encounter with the Railroad Killer and she’s gone on to help countless survivors of rape and violence.

While Dunn’s story is incredible and moving, the book was a bit long and more conversational in tone than well written. Some have complained the book glosses over the aftermath of the attack, which is true. If you wanted a book solely focused on the crime, this is not for you. This book is about Dunn’s recovery, her faith in God, and her life now. There is a heavy religious element to this book and readers need to be aware that there is some witnessing happening.

Overall it was not a bad book. Holly Dunn is an inspiration and a powerful survivor and that is worth more than anything.

Book Review: Sleep, My Child, Forever

Sleep, My Child, Forever: The Riveting True Story of a Mother Who Murdered Her Own ChildrenSleep, My Child, Forever: The Riveting True Story of a Mother Who Murdered Her Own Children by John Coston

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

True crime at its most chilling.

I was intrigued by John Coston’s tale of Ellen Boehm since I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri where the sordid tale is located. I was very young during the series of events so I only vaguely recalled the story of a mother who slaughtered her children in cold blood. Being a true crime fanatic, I grabbed a copy of this book during an Amazon sale.

Ellen Boehm and her husband Paul came from a long line of abuse. When they met and eventually married, they had dreams of the perfect life together — the house, the children. What happened what much, much different. After meeting a new woman, Paul abandoned his wife and three children, leaving them to fend for themselves with little money and no support. Ellen quickly lost her home and took on extra work when she could in an effort to make ends meet. It still wasn’t enough and soon the woman was overwhelmed with her own fantasy world and three children standing in the way of her wonderful life.

What unfolds next is something of horror stories. Ellen kills her two youngest children within a year and attempts to murder her eldest daughter. By a stroke of luck, her daughter survives unscathed but life will never be the same. Ellen tries to reap the death benefits following the murder of her sons but underestimates the tenacity of the St. Louis Police Department.

Sleep, My Child, Forever is a tale of true monsters. Not the ones that live in closets and under the beds of children, but the ones that we see everyday and never suspect.

Book Review: Silent Witness

Silent Witnesses: The Often Gruesome But Always Fascinating History of Forensic ScienceSilent Witnesses: The Often Gruesome But Always Fascinating History of Forensic Science by Nigel McCrery

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a thing for true crime and a passion for history and Nigel McCrery delivered on both fronts with his book Silent Witnesses. McCrery’s book takes an interesting look at the history of forensic science in crime scene investigation. It’s a nasty business but the book outlines just how far the science has come throughout the past century.

Each chapter covers a different part of forensic science and traces the path of discovery throughout the ages. Starting with identity and ending with the study of DNA, McCrery discusses what detectives relied on before the advances and the major cases leading to the discover and use of certain techniques. The paperback version also includes some fantastic color photos to accompany each of the chapters explaining the techniques and cases highlighted.

This one is not for the faint of heart. It’s gory and intense. McCrery discusses some very nasty and cold-hearted murder cases that might upset some readers. For those interested in true crime and scientific history, this one is for you!

Book Review: The Ghosts of Johns Hopkins

The Ghosts of Johns Hopkins: The Life and Legacy That Shaped an American CityThe Ghosts of Johns Hopkins: The Life and Legacy That Shaped an American City by Antero Pietila

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I really wanted to love this book. As a current Johns Hopkins graduate student, I spent two weeks in 2018 traveling around Baltimore getting to know its history and its people. I learned so much as a student and I was thrilled to grab an advanced copy of this book in hopes of learning a bit more about the city and the history of the university that calls Baltimore home. Alas, it was not to be.

It’s difficult to write a book about a man who destroyed all of his papers and correspondence. I get that. However, Antero Pietila tries to cover a Johns Hopkins the man, Johns Hopkins the University, and Johns Hopkins as the city of Baltimore. It’s just too great a swath of time and place to discuss well. Rather than a succinct history of a person, place, or time, Pietila has left us with a rambling narrative that only briefly touches on Johns Hopkins the man but also highlights struggles in funding a university, Civil War strife, grave robbing, building various railroads, race riots, mobs, and more. It’s incredibly difficult to follow as time jumps from the 1700s to the 1920s to the 1850s and back again. I often wasn’t sure who was being profiled or what century I was even in anymore.

While there are some really interesting bits of information (the part on Arabbers and the history of rent-to-own homes were fascinating) the book is just so difficult to follow and tedious to read that I quickly lost interest. For those who have an intimate knowledge of Baltimore, very little in the book will be a revelation. Most importantly, this book isn’t really about Johns Hopkins at all but an overarching view of the history of the university with a greater focus on the city of Baltimore.

It’s not often that I don’t finish a book, particularly an advanced copy, but this one is going to sit on the “to finish” shelf for a bit longer.