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The Bone Woman: A Forensic Anthropologist's Search for Truth in the Mass Graves of Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo Hardcover

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Product Details

  • Hardcover
  • Publisher: Random House
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400060648
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400060641
  • Product Dimensions: 16.1 x 2.4 x 24.2 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 544 g
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #519,677 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
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By Brenda Pink TOP 500 REVIEWER on Nov. 13 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I approached this book expecting to read a lot of technical detail about the exhumation of mass graves in former war zones. There wasn't a huge amount of technical detail, but the book was a fascinating read. However, I agree with some reviewers that too much attention was paid to criticizing her superiors at the work site. Bearing in mind, the author was a young person just out of school and in fact her career started while still in school. So was it strange that she'd criticize her superiors? Maybe not. I know that some of that criticism detracted from the tasks at hand, although legitimately, she was talking about her experiences. As to the lack of emotion from the author? Think about the job to be done. If one were emotional, one would quickly go insane. She does talk about a few things that set off her emotions, and her thinking about the victims and what they were going through. I do find it comical that virtually every book I've read on this topic points to the fact, and yes I'm stereotyping, that forensic anthropologists all have very healthy egos!

In all, this was a very interesting book. It outlines some of the logistics of performing this sort of work in conditions that are most decidedly not ideal. She also does outline some of the history behind the wars - most of which I was not aware of, and found that helpful and interesting. The difference between this book and others is that Koff has worked at sites of mass graves. These stories aren't just a murder here and a killing there. Thousands of bodies had to be excavated from these graves, identified and repatriated with family. It shows the terrible history mankind has in conflict.
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By A Customer on Nov. 16 2004
Format: Hardcover
I was quite disappointed with this book. A review I read held out some promise, but I found the writing / author to be immature and, it seemed, more concerned with whining about her superiors. She described, of course, in detail the awful exhumations following atrocities in Rwanda, Bosnia, etc., and tried to convey her personal feelings, but, honestly, didn't really do the subject justice. Hannah Ahrendt once, in reference to Adolph Eichmann, coined the timeless phrase "the banality of evil". Maybe its that banality that defeats Ms. Koff here.
There is value in this book; the science of forensic anthropology is discussed, but I'd wait for the softcover.
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By C. Logan on Oct. 6 2006
Format: Hardcover
Clea Koff has done an excellent job conveying her experiences of her work. Her book helps to put a face to atrocities and genocides that we are all aware of, yet seem so unreal and far away. I really enjoyed the details of her work, despite the unpleasantries of such a job, and have begun to develop a respect for her profession (also thanks to the author Kathy Reichs.)

This is a good book to read for a down to earth experience.
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By Bernard Maftei on Oct. 16 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
very nice!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 28 reviews
36 of 41 people found the following review helpful
all comes together in the end May 27 2004
By Paul Box - Published on
Format: Hardcover
The book seems to read as a journal that was written up into a book. The majority of the book follows the author's thoughts and observations over a few significant years in her life, in pretty much chronological order. To a reader who's not paying attention, the whole thing might seem like an "I was there" account. However, one gets insight into how the author approaches her work, with careful observation, dispassionate analysis, and contemplation of the pieces to solve a larger puzzle. She also convincingly communicates an underlying enthusiasm and idealism that drew her into the work and maintained interest throughout. The narrative contains many anectodes about kinds of information that bones can reveal, and does a good job of communicating nightmarish conditions in a mass grave and speculation about the atrocities that created them, but concentrating on the interesting problems to be solved rather than going into gratuitous "gross-out" descriptions of the conditions or the violence. (They seem to have left her with a few nightmares, but whether she was having nightmares was never the point of the narrative.)
The writing style is good throughout the book, but the last chapter, which I expected to be some editorial "wrap-up" of the book, turned out to be a real thought-provoker. It's extremely bad form for a reviewer to discuss the ending of a book, and my overpromoting it may lead to dissapointment in some. However, she describes some bigger picture issues and generalities, conclusions about the world that comes from the commonalities of the various cases she worked on. Coming at the end of the book, you can see her conclusions arising out of the same piecing together and contemplation of results for society and political systems that she applied to individual corpses and grave sites. I suspect that these realizations may be one of the primary motivators for her writing the book; it's where the long string of anecdotes becomes a discussion of the world at large. I would like to have seen more of this discussion, but that may be for a later book. I simply trying to say here that it's worthwhile to finish the book.
I may be overly generous giving the book five stars, as it's not the "perfect" book, but I think it should be required reading in some circles. It's certainly one to hold your attention on an extended flight.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Important for Anthro Students Jan. 16 2010
By S. Cunningham - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I was surprised to read such negative reviews for a book that I dearly love and have bought twice (after one copy was loaned and not returned). Maybe it's just an anthropology thing. As an anthro grad student who wants to work in the same types of situation that Ms. Koff describes, her book gives insight into her experiences.

This is not a technical book, in fact it reads more like a memoir. So don't expect detailed excavation information, that's not what this book is. And Ms. Koff is young when she goes on these digs (she is just out of her bachelors when she travels to Rwanda). For those who may not know anything about anthropology, this is a big deal. People without a masters degree or with little field experience aren't usually part of these recovery efforts. Ms. Koff was lucky and competent enough to have worked with good professors who had connections and helped her to get on the UN mission. This is not to say she isn't a good scientist, she is, but as many in the field (and in life) know, half the battle is knowing the right person.

Some people seemed to want to see some strong emotional responses by Ms. Koff, and I can understand for most people excavating a mass grave in Rwanda would be horribly traumatic. But this is why some people do this work and others don't. You wouldn't expect a doctor or a firegfighter or a soldier to be so wrapped up in the emotion of the moment that they can't focus and get the job done. She is affected, she discusses what she is seeing, imagines what would she do if something as awful as genocide happened to her, how would she save her mother who suffers from some physical limitations making a quick escape impossible. These are the reactions of a forensic anthropologist who has worked on two long and difficult mass recovery missions.

There is a place for intense sorrow and grief. The book by the head of the UN security mission (his name escapes me) who worked tirelessly and with little resources to save people during the killing in Rwanda is a good example.

Ms. Koff's efforts begin several years after the killings ended. She is an anthropologist who knew what she was getting into and wanted to take on this difficult task to give something of the lost back to their loved ones. This is what a forensic anthropologist does. Becoming overwhelmed by her experiences does a disservice to the same people she is trying to help. She is affected, she feels the responsibility of the mission and her actions and the loss of lives keenly, but she sucks it up and gets the job done. If the Rwandans and Kosovars can bear their losses and continue on, the least she can do is what is expected of her and help them recover their relatives. And this is what she does.

She's competent,confident, but young and you can see the issues that occur when a small group of people are doing dangerous and emotionally wrenching work. This book is a must for anthropology students, especially those wanting to work in mass disaster and human rights situations.
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
An Interesting Window Into Grisly Work Jan. 11 2005
By Melissa Martin - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Honestly, I am somewhat surprised by the tone and number of negative reviews of this book. While no reviewer would pretend that the Bone Woman is any work of great storytelling, I nonetheless found it to be an intriguing look into a world that I myself can scarcely imagine: that of forensic anthropology.

One regular criticism of the book seems to be that Koff expresses no moments of emotion in the field, whereas she experiences major frustration over certain perceived iniquities in the organization of the excavations. I believe that Koff herself more than addresses this seeming dichotomy when she stresses, early on in the book, her love of her work and her ability to find some measure of peculiar tranquility in excavating the graves, a sense of being party to an act of absolute justice.

Given that approach, I don't think that her apparent lack of emotional trauma in the field is so hard to understand, and her frustrations with the bureaucratic nature of field operations is also in sync with other memoirs written by various NGO or UN workers. I would also suspect that often, professional detachment in the field creates stress that is released via frustrations with intra-staff relations outside of it. Koff was a woman who wished to be completely engaged by her work: the reality of disturbances to that immersion naturally emerge in the text.

With that said, the book itself is no classic; it lacks a sense of greater purpose, or a concept of her work's place in the greater whole. It is field-focused and neither particularly revelatory or particularly insightful.

However, to those interested in humanitarian efforts and in world events, it is an accessible and interesting look into the grisly and yet absolutely necessary work of documenting war crimes' dead.

Take the Bone Woman for what it is: a rare opportunity to get a hands-on feel of what is for most of us and almost unimaginable profession. As an opportunity to see a window into that world, it has value indeed.
17 of 24 people found the following review helpful
A stunning book and a compelling read May 10 2004
By Federico (Fred) Moramarco - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It's simply hard to believe that Clea Koff was only 23 years old when she experienced some of the things she describes in this remarkable book. Ms. Koff is a forensic anthropologist who exhumed mass graves in Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and elsewhere in the 1990s, and kept a meticulous journal of her activities. She's converted that journal to lucid and poetic prose that confronts mortality squarely and underscores the extraordinary inhumanity that human beings are capable of. She writes about the grisliest details with grace, luminosity, accuracy, and even lyricism. This is a must read and I can't recommend it too highly. It's one of those books that can change your life.
One Account Of Grim But Important Work March 19 2015
By EpicFehlReader - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Though this was published in 2004, this memoir looks back at Koff's work as a budding forensic anthropologist going out on her first major assignments in the mid to late 90s (the last bit of the book ends around 2000) and how these first jobs affected and molded her not only professionally, but as a person. I personally found this memoir fascinating. Not only is the work she does grim but interesting, but Koff herself comes from a unique background -- born in England, Koff comes from an American father with Polish-Russian heritage and an English-raised Tansanian mother (with 1/2 her family being from Uganda). As Koff puts it, "instead of national identity, we had strong family identity." This background influences Koff some emotionally when she takes her first job working for the UN to investigate mass graves of victims of the genocide in Rwanda. She quickly learns that many of the victims came from multiple backgrounds within one family tree and were often killed for it during the months of the genocide.

Koff first visits the mass graves in Rwanda in 1994, and again in 1996. Through her investigations and information that became available in the months and years after the genocide, it's learned that in less than four months, 800,000 people were murdered, most by blunt force trauma. In Kibuye (just one county in Rwanda) alone, 250,000 were killed in just three months, and over 100,000 children were left orphaned. IN MONTHS. One thing that Koff says she quickly picks up on and something she is really moved by is the clearly indomitable spirit of the people of Rwanda. Despite these horrors these families had to survive, she still found a community full of warm and friendly people who (maybe not always, but oftentimes) welcomed her into their homes and their lives. This maybe plays a part in her experiencing what she describes as occupational "double vision" -- where her professional distance with a skeleton was temporarily lost and she would get a strong vision of what the person might have been like / looked like as a living, breathing human being. As you might imagine, this can make your work extraordinarily difficult when processing mass graves every day if this happens multiple times a day, trying to document that many remains!

The memoir goes on to also share her experiences working in mass graves (victims of war crimes) in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. The book is divided into sections by country and the beginning of each section includes a paragraph & map of the area briefly explaining the political situation at the time that led to the mass graves she ends up excavating. I thought this was a helpful touch for those who either don't remember all the historical facts of the time or have yet to learn them.

It's here that she illustrates cracks in the UN's systems of protection for their workers out in the field: she shares a story of how a security team was sent out in an armoured Land Rover that could withstand bullets but didn't come with doors that lock!

The accounts of her work in Bosnia I found especially saddening. Koff discusses how she is struck by the tragedy that bodies were being identified by family members recognizing their stitching patterns on the clothes (As Koff explains, during the war many citizens were left too poor to buy new clothes so old clothes were stitched together multiple times -- mothers, wives, daughters, etc were coming to grave sites and recognizing stitches on clothes. That's how they ended up identifying many). The grave sites ran so large sometimes that they actually had to be divided up into quadrants! But the story that struck me the most was regarding the body of a boy Koff discovers who still had marbles in his pocket. That's how young the victim was. That story just crushed me when I read that.

I think I can safely say, this book won't be for everyone. I for one though found her story fascinating and moving. Tragic, yes, but important work. Her job enables her to give surviving family members a sense of closure they maybe could not get otherwise. And like she said, her work also forces the killers to be held accountable. This memoir also makes the reader contemplate just how badly people can treat each other and how that has to change. But it won't change unless we face what's happened in the past. That's why I find this book an important read for those brave enough to delve into it.