Spook: Science Investigates the Afterlife, by Mary Roach.

The delightfully-named Roach also wrote a book called Stiff, about cadavers, which became a surprise success because she's so damn funny. The subtitle of Spook is misleading, as it's not a general overview or history of scientific attempts to prove, disprove, or quantify the afterlife, but Roach's unstructured exploration of a selection of such attempts, the ones that happen to strike her fancy. If you already know a lot about spiritualism and research into psychic phenomena, there's little new material here. What there is, however, is a most charming tour guide. Roach goes to India to tag along with a reincarnation researcher, and a live rat falls off a balcony and lands on her shoes; she reads up on Victorian seances, then heads to a library to examine a preserved specimen of ectoplasm and read about a woman whose ectoplasm turned out to be sheep lungs; having finished that task, Roach goes to a Pakistani restaurant and orders lamb. Spook is rambling and not terribly deep, and it could have benefited from illustrations, but it's a quick, very funny, and periodically illuminating read.

The Killing Season: a Summer Inside an LAPD Homicide Division and Homicide Special, by Miles Corwin.

Corwin is a journalist who tagged along with two detectives working homicide in South Central for a summer. This was written in 1997, and nothing much has changed: the police don't have enough money, resources, or manpower to handle their caseload, and nobody seems to care much about black-on-black crime in the ghetto except the people who live there. The detectives are a mismatched pair: a driven black woman who grew up in South Central, and a wisecracking white man who's struggling to hang on to his job when everyone thinks he's too old and should retire. Their interactions are vivid, and the dialogue is snappy and believable. Corwin's explanations of the background and history of Los Angeles and its social structure and problems are pithy, clear, and insightful.

I picked this up because I had enjoyed Corwin's Homicide Special, a sort of sequel in which he tags along for a year with a different LAPD division, one investigating high-profile and unusually complex homicides involving international gangs, celebrity suspects or victims, cold cases, and so forth. I regret to say that I found that book much more interesting, because the crimes were more interesting as crimes. Reading purely as a reader looking for entertainment, the special cases and their investigations were much more involving than the ones in South Central, which were almost all gang or robbery-related. The special cases involved sleuthing of the sort you find in a mystery novel, where detectives ponder motive and opportunity; the gang homicides all had straightforward motives and solving them was about amassing physical evidence and interviewing witnesses... but none of the cases were especially mysterious. Also, I had trouble keeping track of who was who when a single case might have people named L'il Slugger, L'il Baby, and L'il Day Day.

Both of Corwin's books are worth reading, but unfortunately the one that has more social value by paying attention to people who are usually ignored, is not as gripping as the one about people who got plenty of press in other media already.
Spook: Science Investigates the Afterlife, by Mary Roach.

The delightfully-named Roach also wrote a book called Stiff, about cadavers, which became a surprise success because she's so damn funny. The subtitle of Spook is misleading, as it's not a general overview or history of scientific attempts to prove, disprove, or quantify the afterlife, but Roach's unstructured exploration of a selection of such attempts, the ones that happen to strike her fancy. If you already know a lot about spiritualism and research into psychic phenomena, there's little new material here. What there is, however, is a most charming tour guide. Roach goes to India to tag along with a reincarnation researcher, and a live rat falls off a balcony and lands on her shoes; she reads up on Victorian seances, then heads to a library to examine a preserved specimen of ectoplasm and read about a woman whose ectoplasm turned out to be sheep lungs; having finished that task, Roach goes to a Pakistani restaurant and orders lamb. Spook is rambling and not terribly deep, and it could have benefited from illustrations, but it's a quick, very funny, and periodically illuminating read.

The Killing Season: a Summer Inside an LAPD Homicide Division and Homicide Special, by Miles Corwin.

Corwin is a journalist who tagged along with two detectives working homicide in South Central for a summer. This was written in 1997, and nothing much has changed: the police don't have enough money, resources, or manpower to handle their caseload, and nobody seems to care much about black-on-black crime in the ghetto except the people who live there. The detectives are a mismatched pair: a driven black woman who grew up in South Central, and a wisecracking white man who's struggling to hang on to his job when everyone thinks he's too old and should retire. Their interactions are vivid, and the dialogue is snappy and believable. Corwin's explanations of the background and history of Los Angeles and its social structure and problems are pithy, clear, and insightful.

I picked this up because I had enjoyed Corwin's Homicide Special, a sort of sequel in which he tags along for a year with a different LAPD division, one investigating high-profile and unusually complex homicides involving international gangs, celebrity suspects or victims, cold cases, and so forth. I regret to say that I found that book much more interesting, because the crimes were more interesting as crimes. Reading purely as a reader looking for entertainment, the special cases and their investigations were much more involving than the ones in South Central, which were almost all gang or robbery-related. The special cases involved sleuthing of the sort you find in a mystery novel, where detectives ponder motive and opportunity; the gang homicides all had straightforward motives and solving them was about amassing physical evidence and interviewing witnesses... but none of the cases were especially mysterious. Also, I had trouble keeping track of who was who when a single case might have people named L'il Slugger, L'il Baby, and L'il Day Day.

Both of Corwin's books are worth reading, but unfortunately the one that has more social value by paying attention to people who are usually ignored, is not as gripping as the one about people who got plenty of press in other media already.
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