Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

25189315Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty—a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre—took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Caitlin learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased.

Her eye-opening, candid, and often hilarious story is like going on a journey with your bravest friend to the cemetery at midnight. She demystifies death, leading us behind the black curtain of her unique profession.

Honest and heartfelt, self-deprecating and ironic, Caitlin’s engaging style makes this otherwise taboo topic both approachable and engrossing. Now a licensed mortician with an alternative funeral practice, Caitlin argues that our fear of dying warps our culture and society, and she calls for better ways of dealing with death (and our dead).

Review:

This isn’t the book for everyone, but at the same time, the more you resist the more you should probably read it. (Passes given for the truly squeemish and triggered, of course.)

In this memoir-of-sorts Doughty explores her life-long fascination with death and what it means to have a “good” one. She relates what it’s actually like to work at a crematory, how bodies of all descriptions get to their final resting place, Western culture’s relationship with death and how it’s changed over the centuries, and more.

Doughty speaks honestly about things we’d never admit to being curious about (why don’t we see dead bodies at the hospital?) and things many of us never think about (what happens when a homeless person dies?). Working in medicine I’ve already given thought to my own “good death” but she pushed me a step farther – what would I like to happen <i>after</i> I die? What would donating my body to science entail? What kind of rituals or ceremonies would help my family cope?

I won’t lie, parts of the book made my eyes leak, a ‘wow that’s so beautiful/touching/wrenching’ that hits you (lovingly) in the solar plexus. This is stuff we should all be thinking about it and as the author argues, turning a blind eye to death makes for an unhealthy relationship with it.

A hearty recommend for anyone interested by the title, and even those who aren’t.

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The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald

31021280When Betty MacDonald married a marine and moved to a small chicken farm on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, she was largely unprepared for the rigors of life in the wild. With no running water, no electricity, a house in need of constant repair, and days that ran from four in the morning to nine at night, the MacDonalds had barely a moment to put their feet up and relax. And then came the children. Yet through every trial and pitfall—through chaos and catastrophe—this indomitable family somehow, mercifully, never lost its sense of humor.

A beloved literary treasure for more than half a century, Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I is a heartwarming and uproarious account of adventure and survival on an American frontier.

Review:

I was excited to find that the author of the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books wrote a memoir about chicken farming in the Pacific Midwest, complete with “The Enduring Classic” blazed on the cover.  But this doesn’t feel like a classic at all, with MacDonald’s sharp wit aimed at people who least deserve the jabs.

She moved to the wilds of Washington with her husband, determined to be the best wife she can by doing whatever makes her husband happy, no questions asked.  Let’s count that as Anger Runneth Over #1 – woman with zero agency.  She hates the chicken farming her husband loves and seems to find no joy in life on the mountain. Sometimes the barbs are funny and telling of how awful she found things.

In my little Death and Food Record book, I, in my prankish way, wrote opposite the date and number of deaths; “Chickenpox-Eggzema and Suicide.” When he checked the records, Bob noted this fun-in-our-work, and unsmiling erased it and neatly wrote, “Not determined.” Men are quite humorless about their own business.

But these moments are few and far between. More often MacDonald lights into her neighbors and people in town, judging them by her city standards of culture and erudition.  Whole passages are written phonetically to exaggerate their manner of speaking and, apparently, the humor.

Charlie wath butchering and I athk him for the thpare ribth becauthe they kilt two pigth and I knowed that the two of them couldn’t eat all them thpare ribth, but that thtingy thkunk thaid, “The reathon I’M BUTCHERING, MR. KETTLE, is becauthe I need the meat,” and I wath tho mad I forgot the egg math I had borried.

Instead of poking fun at a situation she’s grinding people into the dirt, holding them at fault for being different or not being given the same opportunities she has enjoyed.  This closed mindedness and snobbery is Anger Runneth Over #2.

It’s not that MacDonald is incapable of nuance – if she gave other people the consideration she reserved for her grandmother the book would be much more readable.

Gammy was patient, impatient, kind, caustic, witty, sad, wise, foolish, superstitious, religious, prejudiced, and dear.  She was, in short, a grandmother who is, after all, a woman whose inconsistencies have sharpened with use.

Instead we run into Anger Runneth #3, her view and treatment of the Native Americans of the area.  I went into the book knowing that racism of this sort would be an issue and prepared to see the book as of its time, but it’s hateful and awful even for the 1940s.

Little red brothers or not, I didn’t like Indians, and the more I saw of them the more I thought what an excellent thing it was to take that beautiful country away from them.

It hurts me so much to even type that.

There are a couple of chapters that are funny if separated from all the rage-inducing passages but I doubt it’s worth the effort.  Consider The Egg and I a classic you can safely skip.

I Don’t Care if We Never Get Back by Ben Blatt and Eric Brewster

Synopsis:

18668201Ben, a sports analytics wizard, loves baseball. Eric, his best friend, hates it. But when Ben writes an algorithm for the optimal baseball road trip, an impossible dream of every pitch of 30 games in 30 stadiums in 30 days, who will he call on to take shifts behind the wheel, especially when those shifts will include nineteen hours straight from Phoenix to Kansas City? Eric, of course. Will Eric regret it? You might ask, Are Dodger Dogs the same thing as Fenway Franks? As Ben and Eric can now attest, most definitely.

On June 1, 2013, Ben and Eric set out to see America through the bleachers and concession stands of America’s favorite pastime. Along the way, human error and Mother Nature throw their mathematically optimized schedule a few curveballs. A mix-up in Denver turns a planned day off in Las Vegas into a twenty-hour drive. And a summer storm of biblical proportions threatens to make the whole thing logistically impossible, and that’s if they don’t kill each other first.

Review:

A fun look at doing the impossible – seeing a game in each of the 30 major league baseball parks in 30 days.

Like: Ben and Eric own who they are: white guys who just graduated from Harvard with a once in a lifetime shot to do something this crazy. They got a lot of help along the way and everyone is appreciated and thanked in the afterward, down to the police departments that wrote them tickets.

Interesting: I’m not sure what to call this voice… they use “we” but never “I”. It’s Ben thought this and Eric said that. It took a few pages to fall into the groove but I think it was the best way to handle the narrative.

Meh: While most of the numbers and itineraries are neat it did bog down in a couple of places. If you’re a baseball person and therefore have a high tolerance for crazy stats you won’t even notice.

Like: The prose isn’t literary by any stretch, but it’s readable and interesting. It also strikes me as fair and honest, as Ben and Eric are pretty good at pointing out each other’s faults and graceful enough to accept their own (sometimes).

Don’t Like: This feels like it was written right after the trip, before they completely processed all of their experiences. While there are insights, they were pointed out by Eric’s mom and rehashed in the last couple of chapters. I would have loved to see another chapter about life after the trip and how it changed them (or didn’t).

If you’re into baseball or road trips or books that follow crazy self-imposed journeys you’ll enjoy I Don’t Care if We Never Get Back.

The Job by Steve Osborne

Synopsis:

22822859Steve Osborne has seen a thing or two in his twenty years in the NYPD—some harmless things, some definitely not. In “Stakeout,” Steve and his partner mistake a Manhattan dentist for an armed robbery suspect and reduce the man down to a puddle of snot and tears when questioning him. In “Mug Shot,” the mother of a suspected criminal makes a strange request and provides a sobering reminder of the humanity at stake in his profession. And in “Home,” the image of his family provides the adrenaline he needs to fight for his life when assaulted by two armed and violent crackheads. From his days as a rookie cop to the time spent patrolling in the Anti-Crime Unit—and his visceral, harrowing recollections of working during 9/11—Steve Osborne’s stories capture both the absurdity of police work and the bravery of those who do it. His stories will speak to those nostalgic for the New York City of the 1980s and ’90s, a bygone era of when the city was a crazier, more dangerous (and possibly more interesting) place.

Review:

Think of Steve Osborne as a regular at your neighborhood bar. Not a fancy place with strobes and a dance floor but a grimy hole in the wall with good beer, a decent pool table, and a temperamental jukebox.

After twenty years on “the job” he has a raft of stories that are funny, shocking, and tragic in turns. Each time you see him you ask for another. Today he leans back and says, “Did I tell you the one about the hotdogs?” Continue reading “The Job by Steve Osborne”

Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson

Synopsis:

18934820It begins with a simple ritual: Every Saturday afternoon, a boy who loves to cook walks to his grandmother’s house and helps her prepare a roast chicken for dinner. The grandmother is Swedish, a retired domestic. The boy is Ethiopian and adopted, and he will grow up to become the world-renowned chef Marcus Samuelsson. This book is his love letter to food and family in all its manifestations. Yes, Chef chronicles Samuelsson’s journey, from his grandmother’s kitchen to his arrival in New York City, where his outsize talent and ambition finally come together at Aquavit, earning him a New York Times three-star rating at the age of twenty-four. But Samuelsson’s career of chasing flavors had only just begun—in the intervening years, there have been White House state dinners, career crises, reality show triumphs, and, most important, the opening of Red Rooster in Harlem. At Red Rooster, Samuelsson has fulfilled his dream of creating a truly diverse, multiracial dining room—a place where presidents rub elbows with jazz musicians, aspiring artists, and bus drivers. It is a place where an orphan from Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, living in America, can feel at home.

Review:

Before reading this book I had never heard of Samuelsson, as his rise and career in front of the camera came after I moved halfway across the world. I’m glad that I now know who he is but I feel oddly disconnected from him as a cook… not what I was expecting from a food memoir.

Continue reading “Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson”

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch

Synopsis:

9476292Caught up in grief after the death of her sister, Nina Sankovitch decided to stop running and start reading. For once in her life she would put all other obligations on hold and devote herself to reading a book a day: one year of magical reading in which she found joy, healing, and wisdom.

With grace and deep insight, Sankovitch weaves together poignant family memories with the unforgettable lives of the characters she reads about. She finds a lesson in each book, ultimately realizing the ability of a good story to console, inspire, and open our lives to new places and experiences. A moving story of recovery, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is also a resonant reminder of the all-encompassing power and delight of reading.

Review:

Many “stunt” memoirs are about doing a crazy, unsustainable thing – making every recipe from a huge cookbook, living to the letter of the Bible, going without or making do with.

Sankovitch makes it clear from the beginning that she will not fail. For her reading a book a day isn’t a trial, but an escape and path to healing after the loss of her sister. By giving herself permission to take a year “off” and simplify her life she finds what she was looking for… and what she was running from.

If I found this book at a different point in my life – after a profound loss of my own, say – it would have been more meaningful. I live on the other side of the world from my family and have no sisters nor kids of my own, making it hard for me to identify with much of what Sankovitch talks about. Even so I was left misty eyed repeatedly… not good when you’re reading in a restaurant. But hey, at least it wasn’t crowded.

This would be a great read for someone that’s looking to restart their life after a death of a loved one. While many works are mentioned if you’re itching for book-on-book action you’ll probably be disappointed.

Fire Season by Philip Connors

Synopsis:

9341909A decade ago Philip Connors left work as an editor at the Wall Street Journal and talked his way into a job far from the streets of lower Manhattan: working as one of the last fire lookouts in America. Spending nearly half the year in a 7′ x 7′ tower, 10,000 feet above sea level in remote New Mexico, his tasks were simple: keep watch over one of the most fire-prone forests in the country and sound the alarm at the first sign of smoke.

Fire Season is Connors’s remarkable reflection on work, our place in the wild, and the charms of solitude. The landscape over which he keeps watch is rugged and roadless — it was the first region in the world to be officially placed off limits to industrial machines — and it typically gets hit by lightning more than 30,000 times per year. Connors recounts his days and nights in this forbidding land, untethered from the comforts of modern life: the eerie pleasure of being alone in his glass-walled perch with only his dog Alice for company; occasional visits from smokejumpers and long-distance hikers; the strange dance of communion and wariness with bears, elk, and other wild creatures; trips to visit the hidden graves of buffalo soldiers slain during the Apache wars of the nineteenth century; and always the majesty and might of lightning storms and untamed fire.

Review:

This summer I decided to tackle a bunch of fire-related books I’ve been meaning to get to.  I figured that with the AC pumping and typhoons doing their best to aim at the island I call home they would be less threatening, and they sorta were.  Next up – Fire Season.

The book covers one year of lookout duty by Connors, starting with a five mile hike up the mountain with his dog, Alice.  His food and other supplies will be brought in by mule.  The wet spring quickly turns dry and he spends his time reading, writing, entertaining thru hikers, and looking for smoke (natch).  This account is interspersed with asides about the history of the area, the Forest Service, other writers who were lookouts, and the author’s personal life.  Forest management has changed a lot over the past 100 years and it got me thinking about public lands are being taken care of all over the country

Sometimes I liked these diversions better than the main narrative.  Connors talks about his mountain, his tower, his experience.  I would have liked him to take a step back and muse about, say, the human need for solitude instead of just his need for solitude.  Other lookouts are name checked but I’d like to know more about them and how their experience differs.  Is the female lookout as eager to invite hikers up to her tiny tower?  Connors makes it sound like you need to be like him in order to do this job when obviously that is not the case.

Faced with the prospect of training a relief lookout he says,

…the skills required of a person here, aside from the use of the Osborne Firefinder, are more intuitive than mechanical and therefore difficult to impart.  It’s one of those jobs you can learn only by doing.

Despite this we don’t get to see him mess up or learn much of anything.  The book covers his eighth season – he has all the mountain and valley names memorized, he knows exactly when he can get away with taking a nap, he clears rat nests out of his cabin without even wrinkling his nose because hey, he’s done it for the better part of a decade.  Connors meets bad circumstances but they’re acts of nature, not due to a misstep or bad planning on his part.  The whole thing comes off as macho and annoyed me more as the book went on.

I may sound negative but all in all I enjoyed the read.  Now I want to go on and read more about the history of the area as I’m woefully ignorant about the Southwest.  It also persuaded me to extend the Summer of Fire by one book – Smokejumper, here I come!

Hammer Head by Nina MacLaughlin

Synopsis:

22253729Nina MacLaughlin spent her twenties working at a Boston newspaper, sitting behind a desk and staring at a screen. Yearning for more tangible work, she applied for a job she saw on Craigslist—Carpenter’s Assistant: Women strongly encouraged to apply—despite being a Classics major who couldn’t tell a Phillips from a flathead screwdriver. She got the job, and in Hammer Head she tells the rich and entertaining story of becoming a carpenter.

Writing with infectious curiosity, MacLaughlin describes the joys and frustrations of making things by hand, reveals the challenges of working as a woman in an occupation that is 99 percent male, and explains how manual labor changed the way she sees the world. We meet her unflappable mentor, Mary, a petite but tough carpenter-sage (“Be smarter than the tools!”), as well as wild demo dudes, foul-mouthed plumbers, grizzled hardware store clerks, and the colorful clients whose homes she and Mary work in.

Hammer Head is a passionate book full of sweat, swearing, bashed thumbs, and a deep sense of finding real meaning in work and life.

Review:

Many people talk about making a big change but few actually do it. I don’t mean something as lofty as following your dreams, but something like quitting the job that is stealing your soul one day at a time. Think of all the people that stay where they are, mired in fear or doubt or worse.

MacLaughlin is not one of them. She made the leap, quitting her journalism job to do something better. She wasn’t sure what. When she saw an ad on Craig’s List for a carpenter’s assistant she jumped and never looked back.

I enjoyed watching the author learn the job – the broad strokes come quickly, like in so many things, but the details take years master. “So much of carpentry is figuring out how to deal with mistakes,” she’s told, and I can’t help but think life is the same way.

While Hammerhead follows MacLaughlin’s journey in loving detail it’s also about the meaning of work. What does our profession say about us? How do we change when our job changes? People view her differently, both as a person and a woman, and her insights are interesting and telling.

The writing is solid and beautiful. After explaining how carpenters use levels she writes,

I sometimes wish a tool existed that could measure the plumbness of our spirits, a tool that would help us decide what’s right for our own lives. How helpful to have an instrument that signaled, with the silent fluid shift of a bubble, that we should shift our spirit a little to the left – just a skosh – and all would be balanced and right.

One of my requirements for a five star read is that after I put the book down I think, “I can’t wait to reread that”. This book passes with flying colors.

The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

Synopsis:

20910034A working father whose life no longer feels like his own discovers the transforming powers of great (and downright terrible) literature in this laugh-out-loud memoir.

Andy Miller had a job he quite liked, a family he loved, and no time at all for reading. Or so he kept telling himself. But, no matter how busy or tired he was, something kept niggling at him. Books. Books he’d always wanted to read. Books he’d said he’d read that he actually hadn’t. Books that whispered the promise of escape from the daily grind. And so, with the turn of a page, Andy began a year of reading that was to transform his life completely.

This book is Andy’s inspirational and very funny account of his expedition through literature: classic, cult, and everything in between. Beginning with a copy of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita that he happens to find one day in a bookstore, he embarks on a literary odyssey. From Middlemarch to Anna Karenina to A Confederacy of Dunces, this is a heartfelt, humorous, and honest examination of what it means to be a reader, and a witty and insightful journey of discovery and soul-searching that celebrates the abiding miracle of the book and the power of reading.

Review:

From the title and cover copy you’d think Andy Miller was a man in crisis that was saved from the brink by great literature, or maybe a former reader that found himself enlightened and his life enriched by a year with the classics.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Miller is a man of letters through and through, a reader born into a family of readers. He went to college for literature, worked for years at a bookshop, and eventually became an editor for a London publishing house. Books are, and have always have been, his life and his livelihood.

But then something happened – he had a kid and moved to the suburbs. This, apparently, is what his life needs saving from. You see with a young child in the house he had trouble finding time to read. Oh dear. I guess that no one told him kids are time consuming?

His solution is to make a list of 50 books that he’s lied about reading and actually finish them. He manages this easily by cutting out the sudoku on his commute and disappearing for hours at a time on the weekend to get the 50 pages in.

The list gets read without much hardship. Miller does a great job discussing some titles, making weighty tomes approachable and interesting. He has me considering reading Anna Karenina and War and Peace, books that until this point I thought would require two weeks of solitude to even attempt. Most other books, though, are a springboard into memories from his childhood. I’m glad that this or that book means a lot to him and that it connects deeply with his past… but I’d like to hear more about the actual book, you know?

This is the main problem I have with Reading Dangerously. Instead of examining books through the lens of his life he plops his life front and center, dressing it up with classics and cult novels. (But never, ever genre. The horror.) Every once in a while Miller manages to hit something more universal, more human, but it happens so rarely I think it must be a fluke.

Other problems abound. Miller harangues Dan Brown for filling his writing with the odd “clunking… expository dialogue or pseudo-scholarly statistic or shockingly ugly sentence.” Then he writes this in a chapter that he admits if it were up to him (wasn’t it?) would have been cut out entirely:

I am writing to you from the lobby of the British Library in London. The St Pancras facility, which consists of reading rooms, galleries, cafes and a shop, was designed by the architect Colin St. John Wilson and opened to the public in 1997. It is the largest public building constructed in the United Kingdom in the twentieth century, requiring approximately ten million bricks and 180,000 tonnes of concrete….

Pot, meet kettle.

Much of the second half of the book feels like vamping for the sake of meeting a page quota. We have detailed descriptions of his four(-ish) encounters with Douglas Adams, a “fan letter” to an author, and three appendices – the original list of 50 books, 100 books that influenced him, and books “I still intend to read”.

To top it all off there is stuffy disdain for books with a plot, the “feminization” of reading, and all those people on the internet that are diluting the opinion of professional critics. “The Internet is the greatest library in the universe,” he writes. “Unfortunately someone has removed all the ‘no talking’ signs.”

So yeah. Way to piss me off.

While I made a fair share of notes throughout the book the overwhelming majority are quotes by other people. I was hoping Reading Dangerously would open my eyes to new books and new ways of looking at old favorites, but instead I was saddled with a navel-gazing working father that spouts all sorts of things that don’t add up to very much.