Just Okay for Me, Dawg
This was one of the catchphrases of long-time judge Randy Jackson on the reality TV show American Idol, which was my guilty pleasure viewing for a decade or more. The three recent books for which I provide short-ish reviews below have nothing much in common apart from the fact that I requested or accepted them from publishers and ended up feeling disappointed but like I still owed a review. You can consider them all .
The Friendship Cure by Kate Leaver
(Duckworth, March 22nd)
We’re in the middle of a loneliness epidemic, so friends are more important than ever. That’s the impetus for Kate Leaver’s jaunty, somewhat insubstantial book about modern friendship. She observes teen girls on the Tube and reflects on how we as primates still engage in social grooming – though language has replaced much of this more primitive bond-forming behavior. We experience a spike in our number of friends through adolescence and early adulthood, but friendships can fall by the wayside during our thirties as we enter long-term relationships and turn our attention to children and other responsibilities. Leaver argues that female friendships can amplify women’s voices and encourage us to embrace imperfection. She also surveys the bromance, mostly in its TV and film manifestations. There are plenty of pop culture references in the book; while I enjoy a Scrubs or Parks and Recreation scene or quotation as much as the next fan, the reliance on pop culture made the book feel lightweight.
Perhaps the most useful chapter was the one on online friendships (hi, book blogger friends!). We so often hear that these can’t replace IRL friendships, but Leaver sticks up for social media: it allows us to meet like-minded people, and is good for introverted and private people. Anything is better than isolation. The biggest problem I had with the book was the tone: Leaver is going for a Caitlin Moran vibe, and peppers in hip references to Taylor Swift, Lindsay Lohan and the like. But then she sometimes tries for more of a Mary Beard approach, yet doesn’t trust herself to competently talk about science, so renders it in matey, anti-intellectual language like “Robin [Dunbar, of Oxford University] did some fancy maths” (um, I think you mean “Dr. Dunbar”!) or “Let me hit you with a bit of research.”
“on some days, somewhere in our souls, we still count the number of social media connections as a measure of who we are”
“When you successfully recruit a new person into your friendship circle, you’re essentially confirming that you are a likable human being, worthy of someone’s time and emotional investment.”
You might choose to read instead: Kory Floyd’s The Loneliness Cure; Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty; Anna Quindlen’s essay “Girlfriends” from Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake.
Writer’s Luck: A Memoir: 1976–1991 by David Lodge
(Harvill Secker, January 11th)
David Lodge has been one of my favorite authors for over a decade. His first memoir, Quite a Good Time to Be Born: A Memoir, 1935–1975 (see my Nudge review), is a good standalone read, even for non-fans, for its insight into the social changes of post-war Britain. However, this volume makes the mistake of covering much less ground, in much more detail – thanks to better record-keeping at the peak of his career – and the result is really rather tedious. The book opens with the publication of How Far Can You Go? and carries through to the reception of Paradise News, with a warning that he cannot promise a third volume; he is now 83. Conferences, lecture tours, and travels are described in exhaustive detail. There’s also a slightly bitter edge to Lodge’s attempts to figure out why ventures flopped or novels got negative reviews (Small World, though Booker-shortlisted, was better received in America), though he concludes that his career was characterized by more good luck than bad.
I liked the account of meeting Muriel Spark in Italy, and valued the behind-the-scenes look at the contentious task of judging the 1989 Booker Prize, which went to Kazuo Ishiguro for The Remains of the Days. Especially enjoyable is a passage about getting hooked on saunas via trips to Finland and to Center Parcs, a chain of all-inclusive holiday activity camps in England. Oh how I laughed at his description of nude sauna-going in midlife (whether I was supposed to or not, I’m not sure): “The difference in pleasure between swimming wearing a costume of any kind and the sensation of swimming without one, the water coursing unimpeded round your loins as you move through it, cannot be exaggerated, and I first discovered it in Center Parcs.” I also cringed at the Lodges placing “our Down’s son” Christopher in a residential care home – I do hope thinking about disability has moved on since the mid-1980s.
Ultimately, I’m not sure Lodge has had an interesting enough life to warrant a several-volume project. He’s an almost reassuringly dull chap; “The fact is that I am constitutionally monogamous,” he admits at one point. Although it was fun for me to see the genesis of novels like Paradise News, I don’t think I’d have the stomach for reading any more about why Lodge thinks his star faded starting in the 1990s. However, I’ll keep this on the shelf to go back to for some context when I finally get around to rereading Small World and Nice Work.
“there has been a downside to the Prize Culture which the Booker engendered. It has warped the evaluation of new fiction by measuring success as if it were a competitive sport.”
You might choose to read instead: Lodge’s Quite a Good Time to Be Born or John Carey’s The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books – overall the better autobiography of a working-class, bookish lad.
The Parentations by Kate Mayfield
(Point Blank [Oneworld], March 29th)
Sisters Constance and Verity Fitzgerald have been alive for over 200 years. A green pool in Iceland, first discovered in 1783, gives them “extended mortality” so long as they take the occasional two-week nap and only swallow two drops of the liquid at a time. In London in 2015, they eat a hearty stew by candlelight and wait for their boy to come. Then they try the churchyard: dead or alive, they are desperate to have him back. Meanwhile, Clovis Fowler is concealing extra phials of the elixir from her husband, their son and the maid. What’s going on here? We go back to Iceland in 1783 to see how the magic pool was first found, and then hop across to 1783 London to meet the sisters as children.
I read the first 67 pages, continued skimming to page 260, and then gave up. At well past the one-third point, the novel still hasn’t established basic connections. A book of nearly 500 pages has to hook the reader in sooner and more securely, not lull them with wordiness (case in point: on the first page of the first chapter, the adjective “macilent” – I looked it up and it means thin or lean, either of which would have been a far preferable word to use).
I could see faint echoes here of so many great books – Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, A Discovery of Witches, Slade House, The Essex Serpent; works by Hannah Kent and Diane Setterfield, maybe even Matt Haig? I liked Mayfield’s memoir The Undertaker’s Daughter and had hoped for improvement with this debut novel. As it is, The Parentations has an interesting premise and lineage, but doesn’t deliver.
“His rage foments a decision. He will either take his place in the mounds of the dead, or he will find a good reason to stay alive.”
“Francis and Averil Lawless have impressed upon their daughters the concept of the consequences of a single moment, and there is no better teacher than the river’s majesty and its demand for respect for its waters, which can easily bring violence and ruin as well as wealth and peace.”
You might choose to read instead: Any of the literary fantasy novels listed above.
What books have disappointed or defeated you lately?
Two Recommended March Releases
The Little Book of Feminist Saints by Julia Pierpont
[Coming from Random House (USA) and Virago (UK) on the 6th]
Like A Glorious Freedom, this is a celebration of women’s achievements, especially those that have been overlooked. Each “matron saint,” presented in chronological order by birthday, gets a two-page spread, with a full-color portrait on the left (by Manjitt Thapp, a young British artist), often featuring a halo, and a very short biographical essay on the right that highlights the person’s background and contributions towards greater opportunities for women. The first two subjects give you a sense of the range covered: Artemisia Gentileschi and Michelle Obama. There are about 90 profiles here, and while I recognized many of the figures, a lot of the mathematical/scientific pioneers and civil rights activists were new to me. This is the perfect little coffee table book to gift to the women in your life this year.
E-ARC from Edelweiss.
The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman
[Coming from Viking on the 20th]
Charles “Pinch” Bavinsky is just an Italian teacher, though as a boy in Rome in the 1950s–60s he believed he would follow in the footsteps of his sculptor mother and his moderately famous father, Bear Bavinsky, who paints close-ups of body parts. When his father shattered his dream, though, he turned to criticism, getting art history degrees and planning to preserve his father’s reputation by writing his authorized biography. But along the way something went wrong. We follow Pinch through the rest of his life, a sad one of estrangement, loss and misunderstandings – but ultimately there’s a sly triumph in store for the boy who was told that he’d never make it as an artist.
Like his previous book, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, Rachman’s new one jets between lots of different places – Rome, New York City, Toronto, rural France, London – and ropes in quirky characters in the search for an identity and a place to belong. Although I preferred the early chapters when Pinch is a child – these have some of the free-wheeling energy of The Imperfectionists, Rachman’s first novel – this is a rewarding story about the desperation to please, or perhaps exceed, one’s parents, and the legacy of artists in a fickle market. Existing Rachman fans will certainly want to read this, but for those who are new to his work I’d particularly recommend it to fans of Daniel Kehlmann’s F and Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos.
E-ARC from Edelweiss.
Plus one I’m a bit less enthusiastic in recommending, alas.
Anatomy of a Miracle by Jonathan Miles
[Coming from Hogarth on the 13th]
On August 23, 2014, wheelchair-bound veteran Cameron Harris stands up and walks outside the Biz-E-Bee convenience store in Biloxi, Mississippi. In the rest of the novel we find out how he got to this point and what others – ranging from his doctor to representatives of the Roman Catholic Church – will make of his recovery. Was it a miracle, or an explainable medical phenomenon? Miles has been rather sly in how he’s packaged this. On the title page he calls it a “True Story,” but an asterisk qualifies that with the phrase “a novel.” The style, reminiscent of journalistic reportage, is like what Dave Eggers uses in Zeitoun. He keeps up the pretense of the whole thing being based on interviews with the key players, all the way through to the acknowledgements. But early on I searched for information on a war veteran named Cameron Harris and found nothing. Miles made it all up.
It’s hard to reconcile the style with the fictional contents. That’s a shame, because there are interesting questions here that would be rewarding for a book club to discuss. What is the relationship between science and storytelling? How can we determine what “God’s will” is? Miles’s previous novel, Want Not, is one of the books I most wish I’d written, so it was perhaps inevitable this one would suffer in comparison. (Full review at The Bookbag.)
Other March releases I’m planning to read:
- Happiness by Aminatta Forna (Grove Atlantic, 16th)
- The Friendship Cure, by Kate Leaver (Duckworth, 22nd) – for blog review
- The Long Forgotten by David Whitehouse (Picador, 22nd) – for blog tour
- The Parentations by Kate Mayfield (Oneworld, 29th) – for Shiny New Books review
What March books do you have on the docket?
Have you already read any that you can recommend?
My Most Anticipated 2018 Releases, Part I
Here are 30 books that are on my radar for the months of January through June. This is by no means a full inventory of what’s coming out (or even of what I have available through NetGalley and Edelweiss); instead, think of it as a preview of the books I actually intend to read. This time my list seems strangely skewed towards plants (the covers too), with a couple of bird- and medical-themed reads in there too. Also: two feminist group biographies, plenty of historical fiction, some short stories, a bit of true crime, and a fair few memoirs. I hope you’ll find a book or two here to tempt you.
(The descriptions below are generally adapted from the publisher blurbs on Goodreads, NetGalley or Edelweiss. Some of these I already have access to in print or galley form; others I’m still on the look-out for. The list is in chronological order by first publication date; if multiple books release on the same day they are in alphabetical order by author surname.)
On the Bright Side: The New Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen [Jan. 11, Michael Joseph (Penguin UK)]: I loved the first Hendrik Groen novel back in 2016 (reviewed here); this promises more of the same witty, bittersweet stories about elderly Dutch eccentrics. “Chaos will ensue as 85-year-old Hendrik Groen is determined to grow old with dignity … He dreams of escaping the confines of his care home and practising hairpin turns on his mobility scooter.” (NetGalley download)
Writer’s Luck: A Memoir: 1976–1991 by David Lodge [Jan. 11, Harvill Secker]: I reviewed the first volume of Lodge’s memoirs, Quite a Good Time to Be Born, for Nudge back in 2015, so I’m eager to continue his life story in this second installment. “Readers of Lodge’s novels will be fascinated by the insights this book gives—not only into his professional career but also more personal experience. The main focus, however, is on writing as a vocation.”
Brass: A Novel by Xhenet Aliu (for BookBrowse review) [Jan. 23, Random House]: “A waitress at the Betsy Ross Diner, Elsie hopes her nickel-and-dime tips will add up to a new life. Then she meets Bashkim, … who left Albania to chase his dreams. … Told in equally gripping parallel narratives with biting wit and grace, Brass announces a fearless new voice with a timely, tender, and quintessentially American story.” (NetGalley download)
Heal Me: In Search of a Cure by Julia Buckley [Jan. 25, Weidenfeld & Nicolson]: The “search for a cure [for chronic pain] takes her on a global quest, exploring the boundaries between science, psychology and faith with practitioners on the fringes of conventional, traditional and alternative medicine. Rais[es] vital questions about the modern medical system … and the struggle to retain a sense of self.” (print review copy)
The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar [Jan. 25, Harvill Secker]: “A spellbinding story of curiosity, love and obsession from an astonishing new talent. One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid.” Comes recommended by Elle. (NetGalley download)
Owl Sense by Miriam Darlington [Feb. 6, Guardian Faber]: Darlington’s previous nature book, Otter Country, was stunning. Here, “Darlington sets out to tell a new story. Her fieldwork begins with wild encounters in the British Isles and takes her to the frosted borders of the Arctic. In her watching and deep listening to the natural world, she cleaves myth from reality and will change the way you think of this magnificent creature.”
The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place by Alan Bradley [Feb. 8, Orion]: I’ve read all eight Flavia de Luce novels so far, which is worth remarking on because I don’t otherwise read mysteries and I usually find child narrators annoying. There’s just something delicious about this series set in 1950s England. This one will be particularly interesting because a life-changing blow came at the end of the previous book.
A Black Fox Running by Brian Carter [Feb. 8, Bloomsbury UK]: “A beautiful lost classic of nature writing” from 1981 that “sits alongside Tarka the Otter, Watership Down,” et al. “This is the story of Wulfgar, the dark-furred fox of Dartmoor, and of his nemesis, Scoble the trapper, in the seasons leading up to the pitiless winter of 1947. As breathtaking in its descriptions of the natural world as it is perceptive in its portrayal of damaged humanity.” Championed by Melissa Harrison.
White Houses by Amy Bloom [Feb. 13, Random House]: The story of Lorena Hickock’s friendship/affair with Eleanor Roosevelt. “From Washington, D.C. to Hyde Park, from a little white house on Long Island to an apartment on Manhattan’s Washington Square, Amy Bloom’s new novel moves elegantly through fascinating places and times, written in compelling prose and with emotional depth, wit, and acuity.” (Edelweiss download)
The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman [Feb. 20, Riverrun/Viking]: I’m a huge fan of Rachman’s, especially his previous novel, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers. “1955: The artists are gathering together for a photograph. In one of Rome’s historic villas, a party is bright with near-genius, shaded by the socialite patrons of their art. … Rachman displays a nuanced understanding of twentieth-century art and its demons, vultures and chimeras.” (Edelweiss download)
The Sea Beast Takes a Lover: Stories by Michael Andreasen [Feb. 27, Dutton (Penguin Group)]: “Romping through the fantastic with big-hearted ease, these stories cut to the core of what it means to navigate family, faith, and longing, whether in the form of a lovesick kraken slowly dragging a ship of sailors into the sea [or] a small town euthanizing its grandfathers in a time-honored ritual.” (NetGalley download)
The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington [Feb. 27, PublicAffairs]: “After two three-year-old girls were raped and murdered in rural Mississippi, law enforcement pursued and convicted two innocent men, [who] spent a combined thirty years in prison before finally being exonerated in 2008. Meanwhile, the real killer remained free.”
The Gospel of Trees: A Memoir by Apricot Irving [March 6, Simon & Schuster]: “Apricot Irving grew up as a missionary’s daughter in Haiti—a country easy to sensationalize but difficult to understand. Her father was an agronomist, a man who hiked alone into the hills … to preach the gospel of trees in a deforested but resilient country. Her mother and sisters, meanwhile, spent most of their days in the confines of the hospital compound they called home. As a child, this felt like paradise; as a teenager, the same setting felt like a prison.”
The Little Book of Feminist Saints by Julia Pierpont (illus. by Manjitt Thapp) [March 6, Random House]: This project reminds me a lot of A Glorious Freedom with its focus on women’s achievements and the full-color portraits of the subjects. I’ve just opened the file and the first two pieces give you a sense of the range that will be covered: Artemisia Gentileschi and Michelle Obama! (Edelweiss download)
Orchid Summer: In Search of the Wildest Flowers of the British Isles by Jon Dunn [March 8, Bloomsbury UK]: Dunn’s were my favorite contributions to the Wildlife Trusts’ Seasons anthologies (e.g. Winter). I’ve also enjoyed following his botanical travels on Twitter. “From the chalk downs of the south coast of England to the heathery moorland of the Shetland Isles, and from the holy island of Lindisfarne in the east to the Atlantic frontier of western Ireland, Orchid Summer is a journey into Britain and Ireland’s most beautiful corners.”
Anatomy of a Miracle by Jonathan Miles [March 13, Hogarth]: Miles’s previous novel, Want Not, is one of the books I most wish I’d written. “Rendered paraplegic after a traumatic event, Cameron Harris has been living his new existence alongside his sister, Tanya, in their battered Biloxi, Mississippi neighborhood where only half the houses made it through Katrina. … [A] stunning exploration of faith, science, mystery, and the meaning of life.”
Happiness by Aminatta Forna [March 16, Grove Atlantic]: “London. A fox makes its way across Waterloo Bridge. The distraction causes two pedestrians to collide—Jean, an American studying the habits of urban foxes, and Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist there to deliver a keynote speech. … Forna’s unerring powers of observation show how in the midst of the rush of a great city lie numerous moments of connection.” (NetGalley download)
The Long Forgotten by David Whitehouse [March 22, Pan Macmillan/Picador]: “When the black box flight recorder of a plane that went missing 30 years ago is found at the bottom of the sea, a young man named Dove begins to remember a past that isn’t his. The memories belong to a rare flower hunter in 1980s New York, whose search led him around the world and ended in tragedy.” (NetGalley download)
The Parentations by Kate Mayfield (to review for Shiny New Books?) [March 29, Oneworld]: From editor Jenny Parrott: “a stunning speculative historical novel … The story spans 200 years across Iceland and London, as a strange boy who can never die is surrounded by a motley collection of individuals, each with vested interests in his welfare. … [S]ome of the most extraordinary literary prose I’ve read during a thirty-year career.”
Things Bright and Beautiful by Anbara Salam [April 5, Fig Tree]: “1954, the South Pacific islands. When Beatriz Hanlon agreed to accompany her missionary husband Max to a remote island, she knew there would be challenges. But it isn’t just the heat and the damp and the dirt. There are more insects than she could ever have imagined, and the islanders are strangely hostile. [Then] an unexpected … guest arrives, and the couple’s claustrophobic existence is stretched to breaking point.” Sounds like Euphoria by Lily King. (NetGalley download)
Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean [April 10, Grove Press]: “Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm—these brilliant women’s lives intertwine as they cut through the cultural and intellectual history of America in the twentieth century, arguing as fervently with each other as they did with the sexist attitudes of the men who often undervalued their work as critics and essayists.”
The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World’s Rarest Species by Carlos Magdalena [April 10, Doubleday]: “Carlos Magdalena is not your average horticulturist. He’s a man on a mission to save the world’s most endangered plants. … [He] takes readers from the Amazon to the jungles of Mauritius. … Back in the lab, we watch as he develops groundbreaking, left-field techniques for rescuing species from extinction, encouraging them to propagate and thrive once again.” (NetGalley download)
The Man on the Middle Floor by Elizabeth S. Moore (for blog tour) [April 12, RedDoor Publishing]: “Despite living in the same three-flat house in the suburbs of London, the residents are strangers to one another. … They have lived their lives separately, until now, when an unsolved murder and the man on the middle floor connect them. … It questions whether society is meeting the needs of the fast growing autistic section of society.” (print ARC)
Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan [April 24, Random House UK]: “This is a love letter to the joys of childhood reading, full of enthusiasm and wit, telling the colorful story of our best-loved children’s books, the extraordinary people who created them, and the thousand subtle ways they shape our lives.” (NetGalley download)
You Think It, I’ll Say It: Stories by Curtis Sittenfeld [April 24, Random House]: I would read anything Curtis Sittenfeld wrote; American Wife is still one of my absolute favorites. “The theme that unites these stories … is how even the cleverest people tend to misread others, and how much we all deceive ourselves. Sharp and tender, funny and wise, this collection shows [her] knack for creating real, believable characters that spring off the page.”
The Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallack [May 3, Canongate]: I’ve reviewed and enjoyed both of Tallack’s previous nonfiction works, including The Un-Discovered Islands. “Set against the rugged west coast of Shetland, in a community faced with extinction, [this] is a novel about love and grief, family and inheritance, rapid change and an age-old way of life. … [T]hese islanders must decide: what is left of us when the day’s work is done, the children grown, and all our choices have been made?”
Shapeshifters: A Journey through the Changing Human Body by Gavin Francis [May 8, Basic Books]: “Francis considers the inevitable changes all of our bodies undergo—such as birth, puberty, and death, but also … those that only some of our bodies will: like getting a tattoo, experiencing psychosis, suffering anorexia, being pregnant, or undergoing a gender transition. … [E]ach event becomes an opportunity to explore the meaning of identity.”
The Ensemble by Aja Gabel [May 15, Riverhead]: An “addictive debut novel about four young friends navigating the cutthroat world of music and their complex relationships with each other, as ambition, passion, and love intertwine over the course of their lives.”
Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? by Lev Parikian (for blog tour) [May 17, Unbound]: “A lapsed and hopeless birdwatcher’s attempt to see 200 birds in a year. But it’s not just about birds. It’s about family, music, nostalgia; hearing the stories of strangers; the nature of obsession and obsession with nature.”
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai [June 19, Viking]: I loved both of Makkai’s previous novels and have her short story collection on my Kindle. “Fiona is in Paris tracking down her estranged daughter, who disappeared into a cult. While staying with an old friend, a famous photographer …, she finds herself finally grappling with the devastating ways the AIDS crisis affected her life and her relationship with her daughter.” (Edelweiss download)
Other lists of enticing 2018 releases that might give you some ideas:
Guardian (UK, nonfiction)
Halfman, Halfbook (UK, mostly science/nature and history)
Parchment Girl (mostly nonfiction)
Which 2018 books are you most looking forward to? Do any of my choices interest you?
Review: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, by Caitlin Doughty
Caitlin Doughty, a funeral director in her early thirties, is on a mission. Her goal? Nothing less than completely changing how we think about death and the customs surrounding it. Her odyssey through the death industry began when she was 23 and started working at suburban San Francisco’s Westwind Crematorium. She had spent her first 18 years in Hawaii and saw her first dead body at age eight when she went to a Halloween costume contest at the mall and saw a little girl plummet 30 feet over a railing. In another century, she reflects, it would have been rare for a child to go that long before seeing a corpse; nineteenth-century tots might have experienced the death of multiple siblings, if not a parent.
“Today, not being forced to see corpses is a privilege of the developed world,” she writes. And if we do see a dead body, it will have been so prettified by mortuary workers that it might bear little resemblance to how the person looked in life. Here Doughty reveals all the tricks of the American trade – from embalming (a post-Civil War development) and heavy-duty makeup to gluing eyes closed and sewing mouths shut – that give the dead that peaceful, lifelike look we like to see at wakes. Compare our squeamishness with the openness of various Asian countries, where one might see dozens of corpses floating down the Ganges or Buddhist monks meditating on a decomposing corpse as a memento mori.
Doughty is in a somewhat awkward position: she is part of the very American death industry she is criticizing – those “professionals whose job was not ritual but obfuscation, hiding the truths of what bodies are and what bodies do.” Although she reveled in her work at the crematorium despite its occasional gruesomeness and seems to believe cremation is an efficient and responsible choice for body disposal, she also worries that it might be a further sign of people’s determination to keep bodies out of sight and out of mind. As anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer noted, “In many cases, it would appear, cremation is chosen because it is felt to get rid of the dead more completely and finally than does burial.”
Could cremation be noble instead? Doughty traces its origins to ancient Roman funeral pyres, as different as could be from the enclosed, clinical environment of a modern crematorium. Two factors led directly to cremation becoming increasingly accepted and popular after the 1960s. One was Jessica Mitford’s book The American Way of Death (1961), which mocked the same Los Angeles area cemetery Evelyn Waugh does in The Loved One, Forest Lawn. The other was Pope Paul VI overturning the Catholic Church’s ban on cremation in 1963. Doughty quotes George Bernard Shaw’s rapturous account of his mother’s cremation in 1913 as proof that it can be not only natural, but even aesthetically pleasing:
And behold! The feet burst miraculously into streaming ribbons of garnet colored lovely flame, smokeless and eager, like Pentecostal tongues, and as the whole coffin passed in it sprang into flame all over, and my mother became that beautiful fire.
It is rare, however – and, for the workers, nerve-racking – to have witnesses at a cremation. For the most part Westwind worked like a factory, cremating six bodies per weekday. Doughty experienced all sides of the work: collecting dead fetuses from hospitals for free cremation, shaving adult corpses before burning, enduring the stench of decomposing flesh, and taking delivery of a box of heads whose bodies were donated to science. She is largely unsentimental about it all; who is this fairytale witch who speaks of “tossing” babies into the oven and grinding their little bones?
“Handmaiden to the underworld,” she describes herself, and given her medieval history degree and Goth-lite looks, you can see that a certain macabre cast of mind is necessary for this line of work. She also has a good ear for arrestingly witty one-liners; my favorite was “As a general rule, if anyone ever asks you to put stockings on a ninety-year-old deceased Romanian woman with edema, your answer should be no.”
Still, Doughty recognizes the almost unbearable sadness of many of the cases the crematorium sees – the young man who traveled to California from Washington just to stand in the path of a train, the “floaters” found in the ocean, the elderly with oozing bed sores, and the homeless folk of Los Angeles who were cremated and dumped in a mass grave after they were used for embalming practice at her mortuary school. She even considered committing suicide herself on a lonely trip out to a redwood forest.
What has kept her going is the desire to combat misconceptions and superstitions about the dead. As she realized after a potentially serious car accident on the freeway, she has lost her own fear of death, and she wants to help others do the same. This will require getting people talking about death, something she is doing through her online community Order of the Good Death and her Ask a Mortician YouTube videos. She would also like to see people having involvement with dead bodies again, as they did in previous centuries, perhaps by washing their dead relatives or keeping them at home before the funeral rather than having them taken away. “It is never too early to start thinking about your own death and the deaths of those you love.” This is not morbid; it’s just planning ahead for an inevitable experience. “We can wander further into the death dystopia, denying that we will die and hiding dead bodies from our sight. Making that choice means we will continue to be terrified and ignorant of death, and the huge role it plays in how we live our lives.”
The sections of personal anecdote in this book are better than those based on anthropological research – which is not woven in entirely naturally. Ultimately, it’s a little unclear exactly how Doughty plans to change things. She speaks of designing her own welcoming crematorium, an open, airy space that doesn’t suggest a death factory. But it’s enough that she’s part of a movement in the right direction, and beneath her wry tone her passion is clear.
Further reading suggestions: For more on how people are revolutionizing how we think about death, I highly recommend Anne Karpf’s book for the School of Life, How to Age. Other death-themed reads I have particularly enjoyed are The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch, The Removers by Andrew Meredith, and A Tour of Bones by Denise Inge. Less effective as a memoir but still interesting for its view of the funeral home business is The Undertaker’s Daughter by Kate Mayfield.
Note: I was originally going to review this book for a British website, so I received a free copy of the UK edition from Canongate. Doughty inserts British statistics and information to increase the book’s relevance to a new audience. She also astutely notes that British funerals minimize interaction with a dead body, something I have certainly found true in the two cremations I have attended in England. The Irish are famous for their wakes, but the British do not have this custom. In fact, when we attended my brother-in-law’s viewing and funeral in America earlier this year, it was the first time my husband (aged 31) had seen a dead body. Although I can see Doughty’s point about a prettified corpse not being representative of what the dead ‘should’ look like, I must also say that the funeral home had done a fantastic job of making him look happy and at peace, like he was sleeping and having pleasant dreams. He certainly didn’t look like a man who had suffered the ravages of brain cancer for four years. The same was not true for my ninety-something grandmother, however, who was nearly unrecognizable.