We Are Okay (CBR11 #15)

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I struggled with this book for quite a while. For reasons I now don’t remember I believed this book to be a graphic novel and had filed it as such as a different task for Read Harder challenge than I eventually recorded it under. Then, once I began reading it for what it truly was, I found myself struggling through the chapters. Marin the protagonist is in such a low place, and Nina LaCour writes it so well that I felt myself being pulled under as I was already feeling a bit out of sorts. There were a few times I thought I might DNF the book, but the writing itself kept pulling me back in.

The story in We Are Okay is one of immense grief. We join events in progress, Marin is waiting for Mabel to come visit her at college over winter break. Marin hasn’t spoken to Mabel in nearly five months and is living a sort of half-life. There was something terrible that happened, or perhaps several terrible somethings and we are reading to find out what they were. The novel works back and forth between the previous summer and this Christmas and we slowly piece together Marin’s truth as she becomes more and more ready to say the words, even to herself.

This novel unpacks what it means to discover someone has kept an enormous secret from you, and how life’s transitions can both change us drastically while also reaffirming exactly who we are.  Nina LaCour created astonishing characters and a deep story that absolutely earned its Printz Award. As long as you are in the headspace for it, I suggest this one mightily for those of us who read YA.

Soul Music (CBR11 #4)

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I don’t know what to say about this one, really. Its plagued me for over a week – I liked the book, I liked what it had to say about grief and memory… but I can’t quite put it together into a comprehensive opinion about the book. Here’s some thoughts I do have, though.

The book in typical Pratchett and DEATH fashion splits the narrative – we have a fab foursome causing wizards to shake, rattle and roll, and managing to bring some broken furniture and jam-packed concerts to the Mended Drum. Suddenly, there’s an earworm loose in Discworld, and now everyone’s got a song in their hearts. In addition to that, we have Death once again going off the grid and abandoning his responsibilities in a similar vein to Mort, leaving the repercussions to be dealt with by someone else. This is only the third Death book and yet it already feels repetitive. Part of the reason it frustrates me is because Death is a fun character, and I want to see more of him doing the job of Death. It was also a lot of waiting for emotionally honest moments like Reaper Man. But when they come his expresses misery at the fact that he is capable of preventing deaths but is forbidden to do so is poignant.

This one fell flat for me. I think most of the music references were from the 50s and 60s, and since that’s the music my dad played all the time I think I caught most, but certainly not all, of Pratchett’s in-jokes, but they felt more tiresome than inspiring by page 200 of 424 (there was a time I was lamenting the relatively short length of Mort, and unfortunately this one being nearly twice as long doesn’t help). The constantly-repeated “he looks elvish” joke, Imp’s translated name… it’s all a bit much. It squeaks by with 3 stars because I love the Death of Rats, Quoth the Raven, Susan, the swing that Death built for her and pillows on bony knees, and her memories returning while Binky and Albert go about what needs doing.

As is usually the case, it’s easier to identify my complaints than what worked. I enjoyed the humor as is usually the way with Pratchett books, he has a great way of using witty descriptions for common things. I also really enjoyed the character of Susan, as the granddaughter of the anthropomorphic personification of a concept. The things she “inherits” from him even before officially inheriting the work are another interesting sidetrip into what we pick up in all the other ways besides genetics.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and stick it to cancer one book at a time.

Reaper Man (CBR10 #63)

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Its been quite awhile since I read my last Discworld novel, but I wanted to read Hogfather this year (a goal I will be missing by a few days, but I’ve got it out from the library) and my need to read the various subseries in their orders meant I decided to go back and pick up where I left off with Death. I found myself with Reaper Man (and Soul Music) in my to read queue. Death (in all caps) is a loveable character through and through so I didn’t mind at all taking a side trip to get to my eventual destination.

Reaper Man chronicles what happens when Death is forced into an early retirement and all of the life forces of those who die before the new Death is online get backed up in Ankh Morpork. Taking us through that vein of the story is Windle Poons and everything else that has died since Death lost his job. The novel turns into an ever-escalating mass of controlled chaos where metaphors become reality, cities lay eggs, and swear words pop into physical existence as twittering, flying creatures. Thi certainly isn’t a treatise on the human experience (although my gut instinct is that taken together Discworld is) it does say some very specific (and hilarious) things about the human condition.

However, about a third to a full half of the book didn’t work well for me. I liked Windle Poons fine, particularly after he comes back to the world undead and in search of answers, but the madcap adventures of the Unseen University staff fighting off the trolleys and everything else popping to life from the extra life force hanging around left me feeling flat. I’m not really worried though, Death and his newish personality are a delight, as is the Death of Mice.

 

“LORD, WHAT CAN THE HARVEST HOPE FOR, IF NOT FOR THE CARE OF THE REAPER MAN?”

 

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. We will be beginning our ELEVENTH year in a few days and we are always looking for new reviewers who want to read and review and say “fuck you” to cancer.

From Here to Eternity (CBR10 #44)

Two years ago I read and truly enjoyed Caitlin Doughty’s debut book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, which chronicled her journey from someone curious about the business of death into an advocate for seeking out what she terms “the good death” and changing the funerary business as it is now in the United States.  Besides being an interesting story about her life, the book is basically a treatise about making death a part of your life, of staring down your fears and accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety of our modern culture is not.

I wasn’t expecting their to be another book by Caitlin Doughty, which is perhaps silly based on the work she does at The Order of the Good Death and Ask A Mortician so I was caught off-guard last year when Lollygagger raved about Doughty’s second book, From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death. I was so excited to find out that there was another book and one well-loved by Cannonball Read’s resident non-fiction medical/disaster/death reader (I hope that’s a description she doesn’t mind) that I promptly added it to my to read list and I had my Cannonballer Says bingo square.

Picking up where her first book left off, From Here to Eternity strives to demystify death and examine how other cultures deal with the rituals of mourning. Doughty remains the kind of author I enjoy reading; she takes a possibly taboo topic and makes it both welcoming and absorbing. Doughty believes (and I agree with her) that it is time once again, as a culture to become comfortable with what death really means, since it’s an experience we will all share. Our ancestors only two or three generations ago knew death, were familiar with its look, its smell. We now have an industry built around keeping these things away from us, and to what end? The book chronicles the travels to remote and near places to investigate people who are still intimately familiar with death and how they inhabit those relationships and those who like us are on the spectrum away or towards a more personal relationship with death.

Not every chapter held my attention so I find myself rating this one four stars as opposed to Lollygagger’s five, but it is still a book I would suggest to any reader wholeheartedly.

(This is neither here nor there but the cover art is beautiful for this book and the interior illustrations by artist Landis Blair are delightful as well.)

 

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

Everything I Never Told You (CBR9 #22)

I don’t know how I feel about this book.

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There is so much that this book does well, starting with its beautiful prose. It’s loosely a mystery, but more in the ethereal way that mysteries exist in our lives when tragedy strikes. There are some questions that we will simply never know the answers. This book unravels the ambiguities of familial relationships and societal pressures which shaped its characters and leaves us with enough unresolved to feel real, and true.

Each character in this family is fully formed and three-dimensional, and our central character, the now deceased Lydia, carries the burden of the expectations of those other characters. Her parents, like far too many parents, place the pressure on her to be what they wished they had been. It is enough to choke whatever she would have wanted out of the realm of possibility.

Lydia’s death is not a spoiler; the book opens with its acknowledgement. The greater mystery of the work is how she could have died in the manner she did without anyone truly knowing what happened. No one in her family saw past Lydia’s serene façade.  Her parents viewed her through their own expectations and the show she put on, and her siblings knew her better, they knew of anger, they knew  she could be scheming but also deeply lonely. However, did anyone really know her?

I don’t know that I’ve ever read something that does such a good job of capturing the complicated web of family dynamics, and that may be the reason that I was in some ways turned off from the novel. It all rang perhaps a little too true, a little too close to home for me to sink into this work of fiction. For that perhaps I should rank it highly? But what about my overall ambivalence to the work, and coaxing myself to read it? Should that not rank it lowly? Instead, I will demure, and leave it unrated.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory (CBR8 #36)

Ah, here we go. I tore through this book over two mornings ingesting every detail Ms. Doughty had to offer about her life and what her time working in crematories and mortuaries has taught her. Perhaps it was a kinship I felt with a similar academic mind craving information. Perhaps it was my previously mentioned interest in forensics, death, and disaster. But whatever it was, this book simply worked for me in a way that my previous read did not.

Perhaps the best way to understand Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is to understand its author. Caitlin Doughty was a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a fascination with death took a job at a crematory, turning her curiosity into her life’s work. Starting with her first job in the industry, which fills in the majority of this memoir, Caitlin (I’m going to call her Caitlin, I don’t think she’d mind) learned to navigate the mysterious culture of those who care for the deceased. But perhaps what inclined me to appreciate Caitlin and her book is that she strives to demystify death. She leads us behind the often closed doors of her unique profession and answers questions you need answered.  For example, do you know how many dead bodies a Dodge Springer van can hold? You’ll learn.

This book is honest and heartfelt, self-deprecating and ironic, and its engaging style reminds me favorably of Dr. Mutter’s Marvels in that it makes a taboo topic both welcoming and absorbing. Caitlin is now a licensed mortician with an alternative funeral practice, which you can learn more about by visiting her website Order of the Good Death. I’ll tell you one thing though, I am even more convinced than I was upon finishing Mary Roach’s Stiff that I will not be having myself embalmed. Natural burial or science, those sound more and more like the only rational choices, not what the death industry has become.  I agree with Caitlin that it is time to become more comfortable to what death really means, since its an experience we will all share.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.