REVIEW: From Here to Eternity Review: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty

Few life events affect us more than the death of a loved one. At times, it can seem that grief is monolithic, but not every culture deals with death and grief in the same way. The death culture of the US endeavors to paint a pleasing facade over what we consider macabre. Embalmers camouflage the reality of the grave with chemicals and adornments. Cemeteries wall off the dead behind stone, concrete, and coffin wood. In her nonfiction book From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, Caitlin Doughty delves into death cultures around the globe, thus casting a stark contrast between our national death avoidance and cultures that literally take death into their arms.

On her binge of thanotourism, Doughty investigated cultures in Belize, Indonesia, Mexico, Japan, Spain, and Bolivia in addition to small enclaves within the United States. She found two striking commonalities between cultures that don’t deny or try to hide the inevitability of death, in other words, “death positive” cultures. The first is that these cultures live closely with the dead and are not afraid to touch their bodies or their relics. For example, the people of Tana Toraja, Indonesia celebrate ma’nene, during which they exhume the bodies of their loved ones to clean and commune with the mummies. In unnamed-14Bolivia, many households keep ñatitas, skulls of the dead believed to possess a sacred link with the divine. The second commonality is that, in death positive cultures, the living feel a sense of purpose in caring for the dead. In Mexico, during the famous Dia de los Muertos, families bring offerings to the graves of their loved ones to share a night with their returned spirits. Even in Japan, custom dictates that family members pick through the deceased’s ashes with chopsticks and deposit their bones into an urn.

Doughty brings the life of these cultures to the page with vivid details, some of which aren’t for the faint of heart. However, Doughty’s appealing, insightful, often sarcastic voice makes this morbid topic approachable. This clear writing prowess in combination with her experience as a Los Angeles mortician allow Doughty to make effective contrasts between American death culture and what she believes are healthier attitudes towards death. “In my practice as a mortician,” says Doughty, “I’ve found that both cleaning the body and spending time with it serves a powerful role in processing grief. It helps mourners see the corpse not as a cursed object, but as a beautiful vessel that once held their loved one.”

Despite her Anthony-Bordainesque adventures, Doughty’s message is clear: she wants her American readers to reassess not only how they view death but how they perform grief. She wants Americans to turn away from “business models, upselling families on mahogany caskets and marble headstones” but saving the talk of death until the last minute to a culture that speaks openly about death and honors our dead and our environment instead of building walls to protect ourselves from reality.

NOTE: I received a digital arc of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.


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Book Review: Gilded Cage by Vic James

Vic James’s debut dystopic fantasy, Gilded Cage, blends the magic of Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen and the well-known squalor of The Hunger Games with a relatable cast of characters and vast plot that reminds me of A Song of Ice and Fire.

In the world of Gilded Cage, not everyone is created Equal. Most aristocrats wield astonishing magical powers in addition to their powers of wealth, governance, and prestige. The common folk are kept down by a law that requires them to complete their “slave days,” ten years of brutal servitude beneath the rule of the Equals. But the commoners can’t cower forever. In Gilded Cage, they begin to realize the strength in their numbers and how oppression steels people who were once soft.

Gilded Cage is characterized by layers. In the way of the best works of fantasy literature, the reader comes away with the impression that they have only read the very surface. The characters seem real. They all have hopes, passions, and dreams. Even those who might be villains have a positive side.

In all, Gilded Cage left me with the impression that there is so much more that this world has to offer. I applaud James for hooking me, and I can’t wait for the next installment of the Dark Gifts series.

*Disclaimer: An ARC of this book was furnished through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.


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Review of Annie Hartnett’s Rabbit Cake

Elvis Babbitt, who shares a name and birthday with the King of Rock & Roll, is the precocious and obsessive protagonist of Annie Hartnett’s Rabbit Cake. Elvis’s peculiar proclivities stem in part from her mother, a failed naturalist who settled for teaching in community college in Alabama. Mom herself harbors quite a bit of quirk. For one, she always makes her daughters, Elvis and Lizzie, rabbit-shaped cakes complete with raspberry blood for their birthdays. But that isn’t the only weird thing about Mom. Continue reading

My Top Five Favorite Novels of 2016

I have read a lot of books this year (124 as of today), some of them amazing, some of them egregiously bad. These are my top five favorite novels I read this year.

vegetarian-coverOn its surface, The Vegetarian by Han Kang is a deeply disturbing story of a woman’s descent into madness. But don’t let the surface fool you. At its core, this novel is about the rules for femininity that confine Korean society. I highly recommend The Vegetarian by Han Kang. It’s astonishing (but tight!) prose and highly significant subject matter would make it the perfect book for readers of literary fiction and maybe even for book clubs that want to push the envelope and spark discussion. Read the rest of my review. Continue reading

Review of The Most Dangerous Place on Earth

Full of turmoil, love, loss, and pain, Lindsey Lee Johnson’s The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is a complex meditation on privilege and the crucible that is adolescence. Set in Mill Valley, California, at the real life Tamalpais High School, the story centers on a fledgling teacher, Molly Nicoll, as she discovers and comes to terms with the complex lives of her students and her role (or absence) in their evolution as people. With perspectives that alternate between Molly and the main group of her students, Johnson weaves a series of interconnected life stories that create a portrait not only of the idyllic Mill Valley, with its towering redwoods and foggy views of San Francisco Bay, she creates a portrait from the inside, from the multifaceted and often breaking hearts of the teenagers who are beginning their lives there. Continue reading

Review of Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Review of Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s latest novel, Hag-Seed, the latest in Hogarth Shakespeare’s series of modern retellings, interprets The Tempest in a technique that layers contemplation, action, and exegesis.

This is the second of the Hogarth Shakespeare series that I have read, and so far, it is the strongest. However, The Tempest is probably one of Shakespeare’s plays that I know the least. That being said, I wasn’t comparing and contrasting the original versus the interpretation; and this version, more than anything, acts as an exegesis, a teaching text, of the original.

Set in a Canadian prison, the main character Felix Philips teaches literacy through theater, but his endeavor isn’t completely altruistic. In the beginning of the novel, Felix is the main director at the semi-famous Makeshewig Festival, but he’s going off the deep end. He takes too many directorial risks, and many of the people he works with want him out. This makes it all the easier for Tony, his highest underling in the theater company, to usurp his place as director and have him fired. Continue reading

Review of Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt

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Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt has been difficult for me to review. I finished it a few days ago, and since then, I’ve been ruminating on it.

In its essence, Cruel Beautiful World is a novel about family and love. But the horrible underside of humanity is afoot as well. Yes, it takes place during the same time as the Manson murders, but that isn’t the true specter that hangs over the characters’ psyches. The true roots of the novel’s conflict lie in the question: How well can we really know the ones we love?

The climax and denouement of Cruel Beautiful World answer this question two ways. Without giving you any spoilers, I’ll say that one represents the beautiful and one represents the cruel. Continue reading

Review of The Ballroom by Anna Hope

The Ballroom, a novel by Anna Hope, is a book with a split personality. That is pretty ironic considering that it is set in an early 20th century mental hospital on the English moors. Truthfully, I was a bit wary of the subject matter at first. Many authors have a tendency to either romanticize or vilify people with mental illness. Although The Ballroom centers around a romance, the greatest accomplishment of the novel is that it does neither, instead portraying the characters as human being with thoughts, fears, and troubles just like anyone else. Hope also seeks to enlighten her readers with the lesser-known treatment of those who are mentally ill. To do this, Hope writes a doctor character who wishes to take part in the implementation of a eugenics program in England, starting with Sharston, the mental institution where the novel takes place. Continue reading

Review of The Vegetarian by Han Kang

“It’s your body, you can treat it as you please. The only area where you’re free to do just as you like. And even that doesn’t turn out how you wanted,” (Kang 182).

On its surface, The Vegetarian by Han Kang is a deeply disturbing story of a woman’s descent into madness. But don’t let the surface fool you. At its core, this novel is about the rules for femininity that confine Korean society.

While The Vegetarian is divided into three sections, each section centers on the main character, Yeong-hye. It is absolutely vital to the novel’s message that the story be told from outside points of view. The first two of these perspectives are male: Yeong-hye’s husband and Yeong-hye’s brother in law.

From her husband’s perspective, Yeong-hye’s first symptom of insanity is that she stops eating or cooking meat, in direct disobedience to her husband and father. This section comes to a head when her father tries to physically force Yeong-hye to eat meat. Yeong-hye resists, and in an act of defiance, she cuts herself with a knife.

Continue reading