Smoke Gets In Your Eyes (& Other Lessons from the Crematory) by Caitlin Doughty

A young woman’s mortuary career and enthusiasm for death inform an entertaining and thought-provoking memoir.

smoke

At 23, Caitlin Doughty had an undergraduate degree in medieval history and a lifelong fascination with death. Interested in turning her preoccupation into a profession after a move to the Bay Area, she found it surprisingly difficult to get a job in the mortuary business without relevant experience, but eventually secured a position as crematory operator at Westwind Cremation & Burial in Oakland, Calif. In just a few months of working with her deadpan boss Mike, socially awkward body-transport driver Chris and jovial embalmer Bruce, Caitlin learned a great deal, as she relates in her debut, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.

She learned how to cremate bodies (do the larger people early in the day, babies at the end), what exactly happens after the oven (bones have to be ground down in a special blender to create the uniform ashes the family expects) and how to pick up a recently deceased body from a family at home (mostly, keep your mouth shut). She learned that dead people aren’t really scary, once you get used to them, and came to believe that wired jaws and copious makeup are less attractive and less respectful than simply letting the dead look–and be–well, dead.

In her memoir of “lessons from the crematory,” Doughty shares tidbits of research into the death rituals and mythologies of other cultures throughout history: Tibetan sky burial, the dutiful cannibalism of the Wari’ people in the jungles of Brazil, ancient Egyptian embalming techniques. She points out a central difference between contemporary Western practices and theirs: the Wari’ and others conform to a system of beliefs, where our so-called modern death-disposal techniques arise from a fear of mortality and a need to hide dead things away. In her experience at Westwind, and later in mortuary school, Doughty developed her own value system, emphasizing an honest relationship with our mortality and a frank acceptance of and love for our dead.

Doughty’s research, musings and anecdotes about the crematory are charmingly conveyed in an earnest yet playful voice, brimming with surprising humor as well as insight. Her coming-of-age tale encompasses love and life (and death), and her appeal for a new cultural approach to the end of life is refreshingly frank and simple at the same time that it is profound. Despite addressing a subject that will strike some as morbid or unpleasant, Doughty is an engaging and likable narrator,and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is thoughtful and approachable.


This review originally ran in the August 21, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 dresses.

guest post: Fire Season by Philips Connors

You will recall from way back my original post about this very fine book, and my dad’s review of same. Now I have another to add to the accolades.


fireFrom his website, I’d like to share with you my buddy Christopher Tassava’s review (even with the undeserved praise in that opening line).

My ridiculously well-read friend Julia recommended that I read Fire Season, a book-length essay by Philip Connors on his work as a fire-tower lookout in the mountain forests of New Mexico. Connors’ writing is amazing, evoking both the wildness of his setting (which I now have a deep desire to see firsthand) and the civilized nature of his work, which aims, at its base, to preserve what man values in nature. I loved lines like

Time spent being a lookout isn’t spent at all. Every day in a lookout is a day not subtracted from the sum of one’s life.

which seems as true for my favorite outdoor activity (riding bikes!) as it does for being a lookout.

Connors’ skills at crafting prose are matched by his skills at explaining the American perspectives on fire and on wilderness. Much of the book concerns how the U.S. Forest Service – Connors’ employer – has understood the primordial force of wildfire, and how it has reacted to it. The historical material is fascinating on its own (someone seriously proposed clear cutting the Rockies to prevent fires!) and as context for Connors’ own stints in the watchtower. Not all of the fires he spots garner a response from the Forest Service: some are left to burn acres and miles of forest, contributing to the endless natural cycle of burning and growth.

But Connors also adds his voice to the conversation about what wilderness is, and what it’s for. He comes down in favor of preserving wilderness for its own sake: not as a place for humans to “recharge” but as a place apart from humans and, I thought by the end of the book, better than we are.

Glad you loved it, Tassava! Next up is Dirt Work, which I believe he is also loving. Stay tuned.

The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar by Martin Windrow

A fondly affectionate portrait of a Tawny Owl, tempered by wry wit and British reserve.

owl

Military historian Martin Windrow (Our Friends Beneath the Sands) never considered himself an animal lover. But to aid his recuperation after a skydiving accident, Windrow allowed his brother to acquire for him an unusual pet. Wellington, a Little Owl (“this is a species, not a description”), was more than he had bargained for, and too much for his London flat; when Wellington escaped, Windrow found himself shamefacedly relieved. Convinced to try a different species, he made a second attempt with a Tawny Owl hatchling he named Mumble, and they became fast friends.

The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar is in large part a loving memoir of a dearly departed and singular companion. Windrow also shares his research into the biology, history, folklore and usual habits of the Tawny Owl and its strigine relations. He repeatedly stresses the amateur nature of these studies, but nonetheless imparts wisdom and praise for this corner of the animal kingdom, as well as for his friend of 15 years.

Mumble is an endearing juvenile, a feisty adolescent, and initially tolerant of visitors, but eventually too prickly to admit her master’s friends. Windrow moves out of London and into the country to allow her greater freedom, and watches her personality and customs change as she ages, molts and nests. It has taken nearly 20 years after Mumble’s demise for him to reopen the tender subject of her life, drawing on diary entries that recorded her vocalizations, eating habits, grooming and quirks. Fans of loving memoirs about pets, accessible science writing and dry humor will be charmed by Windrow’s love letter to Mumble.


This review originally ran in the June 13, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 HHS (hoot and head shots).

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

motherI am deeply impressed by Alison Bechdel: her self-awareness, her fraught journey through her life and her relationship with her mother, her psychoanalysis and her work in this book (and, I’ll wager, her earlier Fun Home, which I haven’t read but have heard lots of good things about. I’ve put it on the list). This is a memoir of her mother, at first glance; but it’s more self-involved than that, although I don’t mean that in a bad way. That’s just what this book is. It’s the story of her writing a book about her mother, and it’s that book; it’s really a book about herself, then.

It is also a graphic memoir, which is not a format I’ve spent much time on, as I find it a little exhausting to follow; I guess I’m a traditionalist when it comes to my reading matter! I prefer traditional fonts, and certainly hard-copy rather than electronic (well, there are the audiobooks…). I’ve read very few graphic works, and although I’ve enjoyed them all, I tend to find them a little more effortful. On the other hand, though, I sped through these 289 pages easily in an afternoon. Seeing Bechdel’s visual version of herself, her mother, and her other characters (a father, two brothers, two psychoanalysts, a few girlfriends) added to the experience; so, props on the format as well, as it turns out. (This is where I’ll note that Alison Bechdel is also the author of the esteemed comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, and a whole pile of books of said comic.)

I feel the need to address a personal element of my reading this book. I have aspired for a handful of years now to write a book about my own mother. And it was my mother who gave me this book – I believe after she went to an author reading at a bookstore? – with a nudge toward writing my own version. This is funny to me now that I’ve read Are You My Mother?, because for one thing, Bechdel’s mom was less than pleased with her efforts (is there a joke in there, Mom?); also, the book I envision, hope, one day to write is not very much like this one. No criticism there, of course. I dream of something a little more like Haven Kimmel’s mother-book, She Got Up Off the Couch. That is, I want to tell my mother’s story (unavoidably mediated through the lens of being her daughter), because I think her life story needs telling. Bechdel’s need was admittedly a little more self-focused. She quotes Virginia Woolf more than once: about To the Lighthouse, “I suppose that I did for myself who psycho-analysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest.” And that is what Bechdel is working on doing through this memoir: psychoanalyze herself, and put her emotions to rest. At the end, it feels like she does, at least a little.

She is quite involved in the idea of psychoanalysis, and does quite a bit of her own research; in addition to relationships with two different analysts, she reads Freud and some lesser-knowns; her personal favorite is one Winnicott. She opens each chapter with a dream, then sets it in the timeline of her life and discusses what it might mean. It’s an interesting lens, and not one I’m familiar with. I’m not ready to go get analyzed, myself, but I came away respecting Bechdel’s process. Some of the papers she studies and quotes from are overly academic for what I was looking to get out of this book, but that’s okay; I let them flow over me and stayed on track with what Bechdel was up to, which was what I was looking for.

I found Bechdel funny, personable, sympathetic, and authentic. I’m glad for her in what she gained through this process. I expect to come back to this book for some thoughts on my own work, if/when I ever get that far; for now, it was a rewarding read. And I’ll be looking for Fun Home. For feminists, lesbians, mothers, daughters, or people with relationships to solve – I recommend this deftly drawn work of emotion and searching. Thank you, Alison.


Rating: 7 sessions.

Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild by Novella Carpenter

Back-to-basics urban farmer Novella Carpenter investigates family in her second contemplative memoir.

gone feral

When Novella Carpenter was 36, her father went missing. It turned out to be a false alarm, but the threat of losing him helped Novella realize that, if she was ever to get to know George Carpenter, she might be running out of time, since their relationship had been stuck somewhere between uneasy and estranged for years. Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild charts her journey home.

After a romantic meeting in 1969 San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, her parents embarked on an idealistic European tour before settling on a farm in Idaho in “voluntary poverty.” But the marriage ended when Novella and her sister were five and seven, and their mother moved them to Washington State; Novella didn’t see much of her father after that. Now, three decades later, she has a small urban farm in Oakland, Calif., which she documented in her memoir Farm City. When she and her boyfriend, Bill, decide to try to get pregnant, she wonders about her own genetic legacy. Breeding ducks, chickens and milk goats has taught her the importance of the stock line. In working to become a parent herself, after the scare of George going missing, she goes in search of her father, hoping to build the relationship they never had.

George is still scraping by near the Idaho farm where Novella was born. He’s a regular backwoods curmudgeon, making a meager living by logging and cutting firewood and sharing his cabin with wild animals. She hopes they’ll go fly-fishing, re-creating the romance of A River Runs Through It. Maybe they’ll forage for wild foods or he’ll teach her how to fell a tree perfectly. Instead, he rants about the devils that possess the old family farm and exhibits previously unnoticed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (the legacy of his service in the Korean War). Novella is disturbed, angered all over again at what she sees as his abandonment, and concerned about the genes she’ll pass on to a child, if she ever succeeds in getting pregnant.

Gone Feral is reflective, as Novella ponders the paradoxes of her upbringing–for example, the liberal hippie value system (hers and her mother’s) that rejects her father the mountain man–and wonders what it is she really wants for her own child. Traveling through the country and her own past teaches her about herself, her origins, and how to build a future that includes father as well as child.


This review originally ran in the May 20, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 5 babies.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar by Martin Windrow

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

owl

Sorry; I know I gave you the beginning just the other day. But I couldn’t help myself.

Talk about charming. If this isn’t British and eccentric and oddly, wryly funny enough for you… well, it is for me.

Mumble found herself frantically flapping and back-pedalling on top of (the paper towel roll), riding the ever-diminishing cylinder like a lumberjack on a rolling log until both of them fell off the end of the table. She seemed to find my helpless laughter irritating (one can take umbrage so much more convincingly when one has a lot of feathers).

That final parenthetical kills me.

Martin Windrow kept a Tawny Owl as a… companion, I think, more than pet, for something like 15 years. It is an interesting story and I think I’m going to recommend it. Stay tuned.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

book beginnings on Friday: The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar by Martin Windrow

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

owl

This book is as thoroughly delightful as the title implies. I’m only a few pages in, but I’m hooked. Check this out.

Shaving is tricky with an owl on your shoulder.

When I am working on the right side of my throat, Mumble tends to make darting, snake-like passes with her beak at the handle of the razor as it reaches the top of each stroke.

Windrow goes on to note that he has tried to shift Mumble to his left shoulder while he shaves his right side, but she is no more a morning person than he is; they are both reluctant to try new things at such an hour.

Subtitled “Living With a Tawny Owl,” The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar (a bust of Caesar, that is) is absolutely charming so far. I think I’m going to recommend this one.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

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