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.