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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]

3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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2.0 out of 5 stars Bone story needs more flesh Nov. 16 2004
By A Customer
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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5.0 out of 5 stars excellent book 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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Amazon.com: 3.3 out of 5 stars  23 reviews
36 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars all comes together in the end May 27 2004
By Paul Box - Published on Amazon.com
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.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Important for Anthro Students Jan. 16 2010
By S. Cunningham - Published on Amazon.com
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
3.0 out of 5 stars An Interesting Window Into Grisly Work Jan. 11 2005
By Melissa Martin - Published on Amazon.com
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
5.0 out of 5 stars A stunning book and a compelling read May 10 2004
By Federico (Fred) Moramarco - Published on Amazon.com
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.
6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Look Beyond Mere Storytelling...Focus On the Main Theme April 26 2005
By Roger Williams - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I have read many reviews where reviewers misinterpret Koff's frustration over the bureaucracy that took place during her field assignments as her being self-centered and "full of herself." These reviewers need to understand that though she wrote and published the book several years after, I believe, she was only 23 years old at the time of the Rwandan field operation. At that critical period between girlhood and adulthood, emotions can run high, particularly when one's placed in pressure-laden situations, and any little thing can set off one's frustration, so it behooves us to take that into consideration when looking at the experience as a whole. With that said, I found the book to be quite informative. I think it's a perfect book, not only for first-year anthropologists, but for anyone wanting a deeper insight into their world. The over-arching theme of the book, however, is that mass-misunderstanding mixed with propaganda can, in fact, lead to mass-murders, if not, genocide. We as Westerners can become quite comfortable with the fact that we have strong, stable democracies where such things as mass-murders can never transpire on our soil, but this book warns us that it could happen anywhere.
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