Book review: Wordcrime by John Olsson

Wordcrime by John Olsson
Rating: ★★★☆☆
Links: Amazon • TBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: May 1, 2009
Source: Borrowed

Tell kids not to worry. sorting my life out. be in touch to get some things.

Instead of being a simple SMS message, this text turned out to be crucial and chilling evidence in convicting the deceptive killer of a mother of two. Sent from her phone, after her death, tell tale signs announce themselves to a forensic linguist. Rarely is a crime committed without there being some evidence in the form of language. Wordcrime features a series of chapters where gripping cases are described – involving murder, sexual assault, hate mail, suspicious death, code deciphering, arson and even genocide. Olsson describes the evidence he gave in each one. In approachable and clear prose, he details how forensic linguistics helps the law beat the criminals. This is fascinating reading for anyone interested in true crime, in modern, cutting-edge criminology and also where the study of language meets the law.

In case you didn’t know, I majored in Linguistics in college. I love words, and especially how we use words to get a point across. A book like this, that takes a look at the seemingly simple variations in the way a text, diary entry, or letter is constructed, and what that says about its author, is right up my alley.

In this book, Olsson describes a number of cases that he’s worked on throughout the years. I’m not going to get into all of the cases in this book. The book is far too long for that and I don’t have that kind of time on my hands. What I do want to talk about is a couple cases that I thought were particularly interesting and one that made me very, very angry.

I think my favorite case was the one about how The Da Vinci Code was possibly plagiarized from three books by Lew Perdue. I found it fascinating that I had not only never heard of this case before, but that the judge ruled that The Da Vinci Code was not plagiarized when there were so many uncanny similarities between the two books!

Another case that I found particularly interesting was the one about a man who had written diary entries confessing to a crime that then stated that the entries were fabricated after the details of the case came out. The way that Olsson was able to prove the time period during which the diary entries were written was fascinating!

However, there was one case that made me very angry. As someone with a background in Linguistics that now works in a medical office, I feel that I have enough of a background to adequately comment on the “case of medical disinformation.”

Basically, in this case, a man sued a hospital because they failed to provide the records that he wanted. It sounds terrible, right? As patients, we’re entitled to copies of our medical information and doctors and healthcare systems are not allowed to deny reasonable requests. Any hospital you visit will have a form that you need to complete and sign if you want your records. Most private offices will have one too. This protects the doctor by making it very clear what exactly you want, because HIPAA is not something that doctors want to mess around with. There are hefty fines involved if you violate a patient’s privacy, and, depending on the kind of violation, jail time isn’t out of the question. There’s not really room for interpretation on a records request form. The hospital or doctor will release exactly what you tell them to, because doing anything else puts them at risk for a lawsuit.

In this case, the man request a copy of his chart notes. He received a copy of his chart notes. He believed his request should have given him access to his entire medical record, but here I am, from both a linguistics and medical administration standpoint, to tell you what exactly is wrong with this mindset.

Let’s start with some definitions.

Your chart notes are usually narrative paragraphs describing what was done to you at your visit. For example, I work in dermatology and our chart notes will be something like “Patient presents with 0.6 cm lesion on the left upper back, present for many years with recent change in color. Plan: Biopsy today — skin prepped with rubbing alcohol, biopsy performed by shave method, hemostasis via aluminum chloride, ointment and nonstick dressing applied. Wound care instructions given. Follow up pending pathology results.” If you request your chart notes, that’s what you’ll receive. It’s all very boring and not usually what people are expecting when they request chart notes, but we have to provide it if you want it.

Your complete medical record is much more detailed. In addition to chart notes, this includes the actual lab results, information we’ve sent to (or received from) other doctors relating to your care, copies of letters we’ve sent you, your prescription history, summaries of all your conditions, clinical photos… basically anything and everything you could ever think a doctor might keep on file. Even for people who’ve only been seen once, a complete medical record can easily be twenty or more pages.

In this case, the man wanted his complete medical record and believed the hospital should have understood that. However, if you have any understanding of HIPAA or privacy practices, you can see why the hospital would err on the side of caution and not provide more than what was explicitly requested. It’s really very sad, but hospitals and doctors get sued so frequently that they can’t take any chances. If they had given him his entire medical record when all he wanted was chart notes, it’s possible that he could have sued them for releasing his information without his consent.

So when the author of this book claims that the hospital should have been able to infer what the patient wanted when he requested the information, I just have to say… no. There’s a difference between having a degree in Linguistics and understanding the inner workings of the medical field. As my boss likes to say, “from a medical-legal standpoint…” what a patient intends to put on a records request is irrelevant. The only relevant information is what the patient actually signed for.

There’s also a very odd section in this case about how the man requested copies of videos from staff meetings because he thought his case might have been discussed. First of all, I can tell you that no sane doctor keeps videos of their staff meetings. It’s too much of a liability. But even if they did, sharing those videos with a patient would be a huge violation of HIPAA, subject to crazy fines, because I can almost guarantee that his was not the only case discussed. You’re not entitled to view discussions of other peoples’ medical information just because you think the doctor might have also talked about you. It’s absolutely outrageous that this man not only thought he was entitled to this, but also that the author of this book defended this as a reasonable request.

One of my biggest pet peeves is people who have no idea how the medical field works trying to make assertions about the way things should be done. It’s possible that there’s more to this case than the author let on, but based on just the language of the request alone, I can’t say that there was some huge conspiracy here. The hospital did what the hospital had to do, and I’m sorry that this man was confused about how records requests work, but that doesn’t mean that the hospital should break the law for him.

Anyway. That rant is over, and all in all, this book was fine. Olsson had some interesting things to say, but he could have used a good editor and, as illustrated in the records request case, sometimes just didn’t know what he was talking about. I think forensic linguistics is a very interesting field, but I’m sure there are better books about it than this one.

#mmd19: a book about a topic that fascinates you


Have you read Wordcrime? Are you interested in linguistics?
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Book Review: How Fascism Works by Jason Stanley

How Fascism Works by Jason Stanley
Rating: ★★★☆☆
Links: Amazon • TBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: September 4, 2018
Source: Borrowed

Fascist politics are running rampant in America today–and spreading around the world. A Yale philosopher identifies the ten pillars of fascist politics, and charts their horrifying rise and deep history.

As the child of refugees of World War II Europe and a renowned philosopher and scholar of propaganda, Jason Stanley has a deep understanding of how democratic societies can be vulnerable to fascism: Nations don’t have to be fascist to suffer from fascist politics. In fact, fascism’s roots have been present in the United States for more than a century. Alarmed by the pervasive rise of fascist tactics both at home and around the globe, Stanley focuses here on the structures that unite them, laying out and analyzing the ten pillars of fascist politics–the language and beliefs that separate people into an “us” and a “them.” He knits together reflections on history, philosophy, sociology, and critical race theory with stories from contemporary Hungary, Poland, India, Myanmar, and the United States, among other nations. He makes clear the immense danger of underestimating the cumulative power of these tactics, which include exploiting a mythic version of a nation’s past; propaganda that twists the language of democratic ideals against themselves; anti-intellectualism directed against universities and experts; law and order politics predicated on the assumption that members of minority groups are criminals; and fierce attacks on labor groups and welfare. These mechanisms all build on one another, creating and reinforcing divisions and shaping a society vulnerable to the appeals of authoritarian leadership.

By uncovering disturbing patterns that are as prevalent today as ever, Stanley reveals that the stuff of politics–charged by rhetoric and myth–can quickly become policy and reality. Only by recognizing fascists politics, he argues, may we resist its most harmful effects and return to democratic ideals.

If I’m being completely honest, I have absolutely no idea how to review this book. I added it to my library wish list — where I track books I want to read, just not immediately — shortly after it came out. I happened to be scrolling through Overdrive one day when I saw it was available as an audiobook, so I figured I might as well listen.

And the book is fine. Really, it is.

But is it good?

I’m not sure.

As I was listening, I was reminded of both Madeleine Albright’s Fascism: A Warning and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die, both of which I read last year. I even thought of Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen, which touches on the same topics (sort of), but in a much more engaging way. What I’m getting at, I guess, is that this book wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard before.

As a primer for fascist politics, it’s fine, if a little… dramatic. I understand what Stanley is getting at, but it seems that any political ideology that he doesn’t agree with could be considered “fascist,” and although I am in agreement with his politics, it still didn’t sit right with me. I don’t think that conservative politics are inherently fascist. They’re just conservative.

In the end, if you want a pretty basic introduction to fascism, check out this book. If you’re looking for something deeper, you can probably give it a pass.

Have you read How Fascism Works? Do you like political nonfiction?
Let’s talk in the comments!

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Book review: 7 Miles a Second by David Wojnarowicz

7 Miles a Second by David Wojnarowicz
Rating: ★★★★☆
Links: Amazon • TBD • Goodreads
Original Publication Date: May 1, 1996
Source: Borrowed

7 Miles a Second is the story of legendary artist David Wojnarowicz, written during the last years before his AIDS-related death in 1992, and drawn by James Romberger with colors by Marguerite Van Cook. The graphic novel depicts Wojnarowicz’s childhood of prostitution and drugs on the streets of Manhattan, through his adulthood living with AIDS, and his anger at the indifference of government and health agencies.

Originally published as a comic book in 1996 by DC’s Vertigo Comics, an imprint best-known for horror and fantasy material such as The Sandman7 Miles a Second was an instant critical success, but struggled to find an audience amongst the typical Vertigo readership. It has become a cult classic amongst fans of literary and art comics, just as Wojnarowicz’s influence and reputation have widened in the larger art world. Romberger and Van Cook’s visuals give stunning life to Wojnarowicz’s words, blending the gritty naturalism of Lower East Side street life with a hallucinatory, psychedelic imagination that takes perfect advantage of the comics medium.

This new edition will finally present the artwork as it was intended: oversized, and with Van Cook’s elegant watercolors restored. It also includes several new pages created for this edition.

I think I first heard about 7 Miles a Second when I was scrolling through a Goodreads list of highly-rated graphic novels. It’s definitely not a book that I would have picked up on my own — neither the plot or the art style really grabbed me — but it was surprisingly good.

This book might be short (it’s only 68 pages!) but it packs a big punch. It’s a whirlwind of emotions as the author describes his childhood (be prepared for graphic scenes of prostitution and abuse) and eventual diagnosis of AIDS. It’s an uncomfortable read, but an important one.

I think it would be wrong to say that I enjoyed this since mostly it just made me want to cry. Even so, I have to recognize the sheer amount of emotion the author made me feel in so few pages. This book won’t be for everyone, but if you’re interested in the subject matter and you’re okay with being pushed out of your comfort zone, it’s definitely a worthy read.

#ps19: a book published posthumously


Have you read 7 Miles a Second? Is it on your TBR?
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Book review: Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel
Rating: ★★★☆☆
Links: Amazon • TBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: May 1, 2012
Source: Borrowed

A graphic memoir of Alison Bechdel becoming the artist her mother wanted to be.

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home was a pop culture and literary phenomenon. Now, a second thrilling tale of filial sleuthery, this time about her mother: voracious reader, music lover, passionate amateur actor. Also a woman, unhappily married to a closeted gay man, whose artistic aspirations simmered under the surface of Bechdel’s childhood . . . and who stopped touching or kissing her daughter good night, forever, when she was seven. Poignantly, hilariously, Bechdel embarks on a quest for answers concerning the mother-daughter gulf. It’s a richly layered search that leads readers from the fascinating life and work of the iconic twentieth-century psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, to one explosively illuminating Dr. Seuss illustration, to Bechdel’s own (serially monogamous) adult love life. And, finally, back to Mother—to a truce, fragile and real-time, that will move and astonish all adult children of gifted mothers.

I didn’t go to the library intending to check out Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother, but it’s what I ended up leaving with. You see, I like to just peruse the graphic novel section and see what jumps out at me since graphic novels are what I read when I’m too distracted to read anything else. I was intrigued when I saw Bechdel’s name for two reasons. First, I plan to eventually read Fun Home, and second, I wanted to know more about the woman who created the Bechdel test.

This book was interesting, I’ll give it that. It’s not entirely what I expected it to be — it focuses much more on psychoanalysis, dreams, and Virginia Woolf than I’d anticipated — but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was bad. I don’t know if I would have picked it up if I’d realized that was what it’s primarily about, but it still wasn’t bad. I was just expecting more on the mother-daughter relationship (something that definitely interests me) and less on Freud and penis envy and the Electra complex (interesting, but not was I was looking for when I read this).

I have seen some reviewers on Goodreads mention that this book is more enjoyable if you’ve already read Fun Home, so my rating seems to be at least partially my fault. I’m still planning to pick that up at some point, but it’s definitely not as high of a priority as it was.

#ps19: a book with a question in the title


Have you read Are You My Mother? Can you recommend any good graphic memoirs?
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Book review: The V-Word by Amber J. Keyser

The V-Word by Amber J. Keyser
Rating: ★★★★☆
Links: Amazon • TBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: January 1, 2016
Source: Borrowed

An honest and poignant collection of essays by women about losing their virginity in their teens. The V-Word captures the complexity of this important life-decision and reflects diverse real-world experiences. Includes helpful resources for parents and teens.

Losing it. Popping your cherry. Handing in your V-card.

First time sex is a big unknown. Will it be candlelight and rose petals or quick and uncomfortable? Is it about love or about lust? Deciding to have sex for the first time is a choice that’s often fraught with anxiety and joy. But do you have anyone telling you what sex is really like?

In The V-Word seventeen writers (including Christa Desir, Justina Ireland, Sara Ryan, Carrie Mesrobian, Erica Lorraine Scheidt, and Jamia Wilson) pull back the sheets and tell all, covering everything from straight sex to queer sex, diving-in versus waiting, and even the exhilaration and disappointment that blankets it all. Some of their experiences happened too soon, some at just the right time, but all paint a broad picture of what first-time sex is really like.

Funny, hot, meaningful, cringe-worthy, gross, forgettable, magnificent, empowering, and transformative, the stories in The V-Word are never preachy, but provide a map for teens to chart their own course through the steamy waters of sex. With The V-Word girls can finally take control, learn what’s on the horizon, and eliminate the fear and mystery surrounding this important milestone.

Honestly, I have no idea what made me check this book out from the library, but I’m glad I did. I’m going to get to my review eventually, but first I want to share some thoughts on the whole concept of virginity. This is a conversation that’s come up a few times within the last few months and it’s something that I wish I could have talked about when I was a teenager.

The thing is, virginity is an arbitrary concept. It’s just something that someone decided should be a thing. It doesn’t actually mean anything. Your virginity is not an object that you give another person. It’s not something that you can lose. It’s not a physical part of your existence. Holding onto it or losing it doesn’t make you any better or worse than anyone else. It’s just a concept. That’s it.

All of that said, I was really excited to read this book, which features seventeen stories about first-time sex. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about it, but I ended up really liking it. Of the seventeen stories, I think my top three were

  • “Wanting Everything” by Amber J. Keyser,
  • “What Counts” by Carrie Mesrobian, and
  • “It’s All in the Choosing” by Kelly Jensen.

One of the really great things about this collection is the diversity: in addition to heterosexual experiences, it also includes a range of stories from lesbian, bisexual, and transgender writers. Some of the first experiences are pretty hot. Some of them are incredibly awkward and cringy. The book is very sex-positive, with the commentary never judging any of the writers for their experiences, whether they were good or bad, but always encouraging consent and safety.

The book ends with a discussion on safe sex that emphasizes having open and honest conversations with your partner, something that I feel can’t be stressed enough. It provides resources in the form of other books and online articles, giving an opportunity to learn even more about the topics that the book brings up. I think this is a great resource for teenagers, whether they’re considering having sex or not. I would have loved to read a book like this when I was younger.


#ps19: a book with a plant in the title or on the cover


Have you read The V-Word? Do you know of any similar books?
Let’s talk in the comments!

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Book review: Gmorning, Gnight! by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Gmorning, Gnight! by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Rating: ★★★☆☆
Links: Amazon • TBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: October 16, 2018
Source: Borrowed

Good morning. Do NOT get stuck in the comments section of life today. Make, do, create the things. Let others tussle it out. Vamos!

Before he inspired the world with Hamilton and was catapulted to international fame, Lin-Manuel Miranda was inspiring his Twitter followers with words of encouragement at the beginning and end of each day. He wrote these original sayings, aphorisms, and poetry for himself as much as for others. But as Miranda’s audience grew, these messages took on a life on their own. Now Miranda has gathered the best of his daily greetings into a beautiful collection illustrated by acclaimed artist (and fellow Twitter favorite) Jonny Sun. Full of comfort and motivation, Gmorning, Gnight! is a touchstone for anyone who needs a quick lift.

First things first, I would not consider myself a huge Lin-Manuel Miranda fan, nor have I ever read anything written or illustrated by Jonny Sun. This book sounded cute and cheerful and like a nice thing to read to put myself in a good mood, so I did. And, I mean, it was all of those things. I just thought it would be a little more than it was.

I don’t have a ton of things to say about this book. I think it would be better to pick it up and read a random page while you’re getting ready for work than it is to just sit down and read all the way through. It took me no more than a half hour to read this entire book, but that means that I really noticed how repetitive the sentiment was. Is it nice to be told that you’re fine the way you are and to have a good day? Yes. Do you need to read the same thought a hundred times? Probably not.

This wasn’t the most amazing thing I’ve ever read, but some of these Tweets are really cute and the book just made me happy.

#ps19: a book written by a musician
#mm19: new to you author
#mmd19: a book by an author who is new to you
#romanceopoly: library


Have you read Gmorning, Gnight? Have you read any good books written by celebrities so far this year? Let’s talk in the comments!


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Book review: Neurocomic by Hana Ros

Neurocomic by Hana Ros

Rating: ★★★☆☆
Links: Amazon • GoodreadsTBD
Publication Date: April 15, 2014
Source: Borrowed

Do you know what your brain is made of? How does memory function? What is a neuron and how does it work? For that matter what’s a comic? And in the words of Lewis Carroll’s famous caterpillar: “Who are you?”

Neurocomic is a journey through the human brain: a place of neuron forests, memory caves, and castles of deception. Along the way, you’ll encounter Boschean beasts, giant squid, guitar-playing sea slugs, and the great pioneers of neuroscience. Hana Roš and Matteo Farinella provide an insight into the most complex thing in the universe.

When I was reading this one, I thought it was going to be 4 stars. But after I finished and walked around a bit thinking about it, I decided it was really more of a 3.

You see, this is a really good introductory book on neuroscience and psychology. It goes into basic detail without really being overwhelming or overly simplistic. It reminded me a lot of the very basic things I had to learn about each field of medicine before I could become certified as a medical coder. I think it would be really useful for a visual learner and it would also be very interesting to see similar books for each field of medicine.

That said, I’m not really sure what the book wanted to accomplish. Is it just that, a quick primer on the field of neurology? Or did it actually want to say something? The ending made it seem a bit like the author wanted to make a point about memory, but whether she succeeded or not, I’m not sure.

All in all, it was an educational book, a quick read that I finished over one lunch, but nothing groundbreaking.

#mm19: cover love
#mmd19: a book you chose for the cover


Have you read Neurocomic? Have you ever read a nonfiction graphic novel like this? Let’s talk in the comments!


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