Thursday, August 21, 2014

Caitlin Doughty's Lessons from the Crematory

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

Last spring, some of you may remember, I audited a journalism course at Florida Gulf Coast University. I really threw myself into it, and though I certainly didn't have to complete the assignments, I did want to pull my weight. So when we were assigned a 700 word personal essay, I decided to write about my experience purchasing a cremation service. You should have seen the kids' faces the day we went around the room and shared our ideas! Horrified. Appalled. Disturbed. Well, I get it, they're twenty and I'm sixty-five.

When I began reading early reviews about the perfectly titled, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and other Lessons from the Crematory," by Caitlin Doughty, I knew that I wanted to be an early reader. I wasn't disappointed. Ms. Doughty came to the subject of death and its treatment at the hands of dishonest funeral directors, guilt-inducing religious (she's not), and the general public, much the way I did but at a considerably younger age. Just think of all the angst she's spared herself.

The fear of death can be debilitating. It can stop you in your tracks, determine how you live your life for good or ill, and is a stultifying feeling that I personally blame on my Catholic upbringing. For Ms. Doughty, it was witnessing a horrific accident that resulted in the death of an eight-year-old. After earning a degree in medieval history studies, Caitlin, turned to a crematorium in Oakland, California, for her next life lessons.

This is one feisty gal. She didn't stand on ceremony or expect to be treated specially because of her fancy college degree. She jumped right into the heat, handling the bodies that need to be prepped for family visits, pulling them from the fridge and wheeling them into the ovens. I've seen this operation, believe me, it's pretty basic and, she tells us, very dirty. And yet, it is so right. After all, if you believe that the soul leaves the body at the moment of death, no problem. If you don't believe in anything at all, well, still no problem, right?

There is plenty of humor to be mined in the dust bins of the crematory and Caitlin is a very funny lady. There are also instances in which people behave so badly, especially families, that it's disheartening. If you've ever watched an episode of CSI, you understand that death can be a messy business. She pulls no punches about the ways of a body in decomposition. But don't be squeamish, she also takes every opportunity to quote from some of her favorite writers, Jessica Mitford and Joseph Campbell, two of my personal heroes as well.

There may be some extraneous bits to this book, but death and its handling is an important topic which needs to be talked about, so I was willing to overlook the parts about a love affair gone wrong. Perhaps it's there to let readers know that Caitlin had a life outside the crematory. The object of the book is to get families talking, to prod people to make their wishes known to those who care about you. I did, and it's such a load off my mind.

Caitlin now works as a successful mortician with her own business, an active online video presence, and an audience of people willing to be pragmatic as they work with her to try to create a "good death." To get a better sense of Caitlin Doughty and her calling, visit her wonderful website at:

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Time For a Book Giveaway!

There's nothing more exciting for a book reviewer than the sound of the UPS guy pulling up to the curb with a box of books. This week I received two advanced copies, along with a leisurely deadline. "Outline," by Rachel Cusk, which I'm halfway through, and "Africa 39," essays from new writers south of the Sahara.

The surprise in the box was a completed hard copy of a novel I reviewed back in January, a disturbing, psychological study by Richard Bausch. I compared "Before, During, After," to a Tennessee Williams play because it was so emotionally draining to read. Here's how I began:

"Natasha Barrett and Father Michael Faulk had at least one thing in common the evening they met at Mississippi Senator Norland’s house: neither wanted to be there. Yet within a few alcohol-fueled months of dating, they chose to ignore their misgivings, the 17-year age difference, the dearth of information about each other’s pasts, and planned a September wedding. As each tied up loose ends, Michael in New York City, Natasha in Jamaica, the unthinkable happened. September 11, 2001, gave Americans a collective case of PTSD. For Natasha, stranded in Jamaica, convinced that Michael was dead, an assault of a different nature had a similar effect."

 I'm sure I said it was compelling. It's a story about secrets. Why we keep them and how they can eat away at the soul until there's nothing left but the empty shell of the person we once may have been.

It's a love story as well. A novel of trust, lost and regained, the tale of two people traumatized by the very public terrorist attacks in New York City and the very private attack suffered by Natasha in Jamaica.

So, I surmise that if you read this blog fairly regularly, you may be a reader who is also drawn to the dark side of humanity. I'll send this book out to the first person to comment on their reading tastes and, if you wouldn't mind, why not recommend something for the rest of us, something wonderful that you've read lately and would like to share. If you give me your email address I can contact you personally and follow up for your mailing address. Cheers!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers


I had the privilege of "discovering" Tom Rachman several years ago when I was given his first novel, "The Imperfectionists," to review for "Library Journal." There's a courageous element to pronouncing on a book for the readers of LJ. We reviewers see the author's work in its very first iteration, long before publicists have rolled out the advertising machine. Our words may help a librarian decide whether or not to spend money from a dwindling collection development budget on a particular book. We really want to get it right. If, several months later, I see a great review of something I took a chance on, in say, "The New York Times" or "The Washington Post," I feel deeply gratified.

All that is to say that I loved "The Imperfectionists," (and highly recommend it), but I can only say that I liked Rachman's very different second novel, "The Rise and Fall of Great Powers." I found it to be just as beautifully written and  wildly imaginative as his first, but it was simply too melancholy for me at this particular point in my life.

Note to readers! Please don't let my aversion to melancholy keep you from meeting the wonderfully quirky folks in this novel.

Literature lovers will immediately be entranced by the main character, the delightful, lovable, Tooly Zylberberg, who owns a wonderful, dusty old bookstore in Wales. She and her only other employee, the equally enjoyable Fogg, read all day long, happy for a customer's tell-tale ring of the bell, but not necessarily disappointed when none show up.

The problem is that the action doesn't take place in the bookstore. Rachman takes us back and forth over three decades, from Europe to Asia and New York, to illustrate Tooly's complicated backstory. How did this little girl, taken from school at the age of ten years old, become such a deep reader, thinker, and book lover? In one word? Loneliness.

You see, Tooly was first raised by a disconsolately lonely man named Paul. He'd wake her in the morning by shaking her hand. Parenthood, it seemed, was not his strong suit. Every year they moved to a new country and Tooly would have to adjust to a different school. By the time they set down in Thailand Tooly scarcely remembered what grade she was in. Books were her only friends.

Through bizarre happenstance, Tooly lands in the midst of a group of grifters, the fickle Sarah, the charismatic leader, Venn, and an old soul named Humphrey. With them she moves from city to city, always unsure who will be there in the morning, how and when she might eat, her only education coming from long, heated discussions about literature with Humphrey.

Though she is resourceful, and somewhat manipulative, Tooly is also rather na├»ve.  The lack of love and stability in her life leaves her with little to offer others. Her relationships are shallow and unsatisfying but she scarcely notices. She seems to always be on the periphery of others' lives.

Can you want what you've never had? As a reader, I craved happiness for Tooly, though I know that one must be happy within in order to share that emotion with others. Through the wonders of the Internet, a former boyfriend tracks Tooly down and sets her on the long and winding road to self-discovery. Rachman deftly takes all the disparate pieces of his story and creates a deeply satisfying whole.

Now that I reflect on it, maybe I did love this novel just a bit. Have you read it? What did you think?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

An Untamed State - Ferociously Powerful

Roxane Gay ( has been receiving some tremendous press for the past few months, not to mention an op-ed in last Sunday's "New York Times." If you have the stomach for it, you'll understand why when you read her novel, "An Untamed State," just out from Grove Atlantic.

The dedication page says, "For women, the world over." As you read you may ask yourself why a woman would write about so much shocking violence, aimed at one woman in particular, and then tell you that it's dedicated to you. You may reject it, as I almost did, but you'd be wrong to do so. The point is that women are subjected to subversive violations every day. We shrug and move on. Choose your battles, we say. But, if we are faced with the day when we may need to fight, can we? Will we?
In a country like Haiti, the very thought of the divide between the haves and the have-nots is ludicrous. No matter how lost the middle class is in the United States, we simply cannot comprehend the poverty and hopelessness of a battered place like Haiti. It is understandable that some might want to wipe that smug look off the faces of the matrons who hide behind their sunglasses, speed through town in their air conditioned limos, and glide behind the gates of their walled compounds to sterile safety.
Still, I was not prepared for the opening chapter, when Haitian born Mireille, her American husband Michael, and their newborn son Christophe, visiting her family's home in Port au Prince, are surrounded and attacked only feet from their fenced driveway. In astoundingly vivid detail, Roxane Gay ratchets up your blood pressure, as a band of young terrorists drag Mireille from her car, little Christophe screaming in the background.
Kidnappings, as we know too well from the news media, is a standard means of extracting money from wealthy families in third world countries. Often, victims are returned supposedly unharmed, but the crimes continue. Mireille will not be so lucky. Her father, Sebastien Duval, is a wealthy developer in Haiti. Perhaps, because he had pulled himself up from poverty, Mr. Duval felt immune to the dangerous jealousy and resentment that can build in the hearts of men who have nothing.
Unwilling to play games with the kidnappers, Mr. Duval waits twelve long days to negotiate a settlement for his youngest, most loved daughter. Twelve days can be an eternity when one is being tortured. Even reading the specifics felt like too much, too long. Yet now, as I finish this excruciating novel, I realize that it had to be, if only to understand how Mireille survived by dividing herself into two people, the woman before the kidnapping, the tough, proud, Miami litigator, and the one who, though still alive, is dead to her family and to love.
This is an amazing novel. I read it in just two days. It is disturbing and may leave you feeling raw. It is a story of love and a failure of love. It is a story of a forgotten country that may be beyond help. It is a story of resilient women and the weakness of men. But most of all, it is a story of power and one woman's defiance, her refusal to allow her captors to hold power over her. It is a story that will be difficult to forget.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Quick Notes on Sweetness and Snarkiness

A Wedding in Provence by Ellen Sussman
Ever since Don and I biked through Provence, several years and stronger knees ago, I've been a sucker for a field of lavender. Mix that field in France with a love story and I'm all in. Sussman's novel deals with middle-aged love, finding the right person at the right time in one's life, a phenomenon which happens more often than we believe, especially in the retirement havens of Florida.
But she also delves into love's intricacies, the idea of settling for comfortable rather than for the grand passion. Love for family, the complications that familial ties can arouse in a relatively new relationship, and long-time love, that survives through gracious acts of forgiveness, are all brought to the fore over one weekend at an inn in Cassis.
Olivia and Brody are taking the plunge, their best friends are hosting the wedding at their Provencal bed and breakfast, and Olivia's unhappily single daughters from her first marriage are working through their own strained relationship. In the course of a single weekend, bonds are forged and broken, past secrets are revealed, and love, in all of its iterations, conquers all.
Lost for Words
Leaving France with a sigh, I moved on to the witty, spiteful world of literary awards in Edward St. Aubyn's "Lost for Words." All I can say is OUCH! Even I, no expert on British writers and their judges, could easily recognize some of the real-life people St. Aubyn was satirizing in this clever, though not angry, expose of the Man Booker Awards, fictionally called the Elysian Awards, a shout out to the mega-corporation that owns and televises the annual festivities.
St. Aubyn exposes what I too believe is a flaw in the plethora of prizes for literature that exist in various countries. True, it's edifying to see books touted and writers presented with much needed monetary awards with which to continue their work, but.....there's also a false note to many of the awards.
Do judges deliberately choose novels that are simply unreadable because they don't want to be seen as not understanding what the writer is saying? Do the judges haggle ahead of time, pushing for their own favorite at the expense of the quality of the writing?
Literature lovers will laugh out loud and nod in recognition at the posturing critics as they fawn over an accidental entry for the Elysian Award in fiction, "The Palace Cookbook," which is, in fact, just a collection of recipes linked with prose reminiscences from the aunt of a renowned Indian writer whose thousand page tome is also in the running.
Might this book just be sour grapes? St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels received critical raves and one of them was on the short list for a Booker prize several years ago. I'm just saying......But, if you reveled in Richard Russo's "Straight Man," or chortled over Martha Grimes' "Foul Matter," you'll appreciate the humor in "Lost for Words."

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Lily King's Euphoria

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I'd have probably chosen this book anyway, just based on the riot of color that graces the cover and the one word title, "Euphoria," but I'd also been hearing some excellent buzz about Lily King's latest novel that made me curious.

It's no secret in literary circles that, for the past several years, a pseudo-biography about an interesting, perhaps unsung woman, is a sure-fire recipe for a hit novel. It started with "Loving Frank," then "The Paris Wife," and let's not forget "The Aviator's Wife." And why not? Shouldn't the tough woman behind the man finally start getting some credit?

In the case of "Euphoria" though, Ms. King turns this phenomenon on its head. The fascinating subject of her novel, Nell Stone, is a thinly disguised Margaret Mead, the ground-breaking, wonderfully controversial cultural anthropologist whose observations of tribal customs in the Asian Pacific resulted in the classic "Coming of Age in Samoa." (I regret that I've never read this but will now likely give it a look.) I love when reading fiction snowballs into other areas.

Researching through Mead's unpublished letters, King has written a tight, relatively short novel that packs in a great deal of information and character study. Nell is a woman who is so ahead of her time, so open to exploration, so driven to learn and to understand, that I found myself wishing that I could meet her.

By the time she arrives with her husband Fen, also an anthropologist, in the Sepik River area of New Guinea, she has already attained some renown from her first book. That fact is a thorn in the side of the less focused Fen and the seed of professional jealousy sprouts as Nell works successfully with the women and children of the Tam tribe, writing prodigious notes each evening, thriving in their female-dominated culture.

Enter Andrew Bankson, a British anthropologist well-known to the couple by his reputation, and the subtle fissures in Nell's and Fen's marriage open up. Bankson falls in love with Nell's mind first, perhaps why I fell half in love with Bankson, a fictional version of Mead's third husband Gregory Bateson. The two are so temperamentally suited, writing and talking together through many long nights, each one's ambition and love of the work feeds off the other's.

But what really excites me about this novel is the way Ms. King takes readers into the lives of the tribal women. Reminiscent of Ann Patchett's "State of Wonder," we feel the freedom that the women share, admire the way they work together to care for and feed their families, and envy their sensuous ability to exult in their femaleness and their unfettered sexuality. A visceral air of fecundity seeps through the village, instilling a deep longing in Nell for a child of her own. And because we come to care for Nell so much, we wish it for her as well.

One can't write a novel about Brits and Americans "studying" other cultures without the worry that the colonialist mindset will raise its ugly head. Though King touches on the hubris of explorers who have stolen artifacts from the countries that have welcomed them, she dwells more on characterization. What motivates these anthropologists? How do they achieve satisfaction? How do they manage to survive and even thrive so far from their own societies? Perhaps they are afflicted with a strong case of euphoria!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Why isn't Everyone Talking about Harry Quebert?

I was going to be alone this past weekend and had planned nothing more ambitious than binge watching the last season of Downton Abbey. But, along came my neighbor with a book that she was returning to the library. She said it was her favorite so far this year. Well, the gauntlet was thrown. I snatched it up, got comfy in the swing, and burned through this six hundred page monster in three days. I didn't lose patience until about fifty pages from the end so I guess that's saying something!

And who is the author Joel Dicker anyway? Here's an into: It's interesting to note that this novel was written in French and was a huge hit overseas. The book has taken a lot of negative hits on Amazon but I think the English translation is spot on and the plot is so convoluted that I defy you to tell me it doesn't hold your interest.

Book lovers will fall hard for this mystery which revolves around not one, but two writers - the most unreliable narrators in the world. (Remember that) Harry Quebert is the master, the teacher, who has written the "great American novel," and Marcus Goldman is the student who emulates him. Marcus has had an early success, much like his mentor, but is now plagued with writer's block. He decides that only Harry can help him overcome the stagnation and he happily accepts Harry's offer to come spend some time at Harry's home on the beach in New Hampshire.

Harry is an impossibly gullible and trusting man, supposedly so lonely that he'll open his home to anyone. It's not long before Marcus is snooping around and inadvertently comes upon a box laden with photographs of a young Harry with a much younger (under age) girl. Caught in the act, Marcus asks Harry to explain and then we're off and running. A doomed affair back in the summer of '75 has left Harry in relationship limbo for over thirty years.

Now, here is where you must simply give up all logic and go with the flow. It's well worth it, it's fun, and no sense spoiling the ride with those rude questions that deep readers ask, like, "how could this be?" Let's just say that a gardening project goes awry, a body is found on Harry's property and, lo and behold, the bones belong to the fifteen year old love of Harry's life, Nola. Harry is immediately arrested for Nola's death and Marcus becomes an overnight private eye sensation as he works to clear his friend's name.

Throughout the book, you'll meet a laundry list of absolutely crazy characters who certainly don't resemble anyone from my small New England town but, hey, who knows what goes on behind those closed doors? Oh, wait, now that I think about it....the police officer with the crush on the beauty queen who owns the diner, who had a crush on Harry and was thrown over for a fifteen-year-old. Then there's the kind minister, Nola's father, with the violent temper, and the disfigured chauffeur with a penchant for painting nude women. At some point each one of these folks will be a suspect.

When all is said and done, this is also a laughable send up of the publishing industry, the ridiculous multi-million dollar book deals, the press leaks, the pressure on young writers to live up to their own hype, and the back biting among agents, publishers, and those chomping at the bit for film rights.

Yes, it could have used better editing. Yes, there were points of repetition that got on my nerves, though I'll confess I thought it was done deliberately to make a point. Still, I could NOT put this book down until I had solved the mystery - and no, I never did. For pure camp, you really should give "The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair" a go. Oh, and if you've already read it, drop me a line and let me know if I'm crazy to be touting it.