This year in books was kind of a rough one for me. I didn’t get a lot of reading done in the first half the year (except for reference books for thesis reasons). Freed from grad school, I tried to make some forays into genres I typically don’t read, driven by a dearth of new Father Brown episodes and Netflix into the murder mystery/thriller genre. It didn’t go super well. I think I must have happened to pick up the worst Agatha Christie book, and Father Brown is kind of a jerk in the short stories I read. Not nearly as lovable and understanding as when played by Mark Williams. I also bought a bunch of pulpy sci-fi and fantasy from the 70s and 80s at my local used bookstores, and those ranged from an absolute delight to horrifically offensive. But I did read some great books, nevertheless! The saving grace this year for me was nonfiction, particularly the works of Caitlin Doughty.
So, here’s 6 books I read and loved this year.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty – Oh boy this book did make me cry. A wonderful autobiographical account of working in the funeral industry that also reveal much of the dysfunction and hang-ups the U.S. has about death and funerals and the body. This book is very empathetic to the dead, the grieving, and to the author herself. I’d recommend reading it, and then checking out the Order of the Good Death. (I also successfully managed to count this book as thesis research, so that was nice).
From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty – Doughty did a talk that I think was part of the press tour for this book in October of 2018 that I went to, and I debated buying a copy of the book to have her sign at the event as a birthday gift for myself. Talked myself out of it by telling myself I needed to make less impulse purchases, which was foolish! This would have been the best, most perfect impulse purchase! Oh well.
I think one of the masterful things about this book, is that Doughty never stoops to making a spectacle of the death practices and other cultures she visits and documents. She muses on the healing and beneficial effects that the practices can have for individuals and the community, without making them out to be “weird,” in comparison to death culture in the United States. In fact, Doughty devotes three individual chapters to states in the U.S., which both serves as an equalizer – all places have death practices, and they’re all unique – and to point out the dysfunction in the modern U.S. funeral industry and practice. The chapters in the U.S. do give hope, however, highlighting people and places that seek to allow more healthy grieving and celebration practices around death, and that are trying to broaden the funeral industry and what’s possible and acceptable in the U.S. The opening chapter on Crestone, Colorado was my favorite, as I know there’s a place nearby me that I could get a natural burial now.
The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh – This is a life-changing book. I feel that I would not be as worried about climate catastrophe, nor as engaged with solutions if not for this book. After reading it, it felt like everything clicked into place, like a new doorway or window had been opened, and I could view things in a more holistic way than before. The book talks about the colonial legacies that have led us to the state we are in regarding climate catastrophe, as well as documents how, while speculative fiction, and particularly science fiction, has been reckoning with climate catastrophe since its inception, literary fiction has failed to do so.
Moving out of non-fiction into my typical wheelhouse of speculative fiction were:
The Mere Wife – Maria Dahvana Headley – Embarrassingly, I’ve never actually finished Beowulf. I’ve started and abandoned it multiple times, I’ve read John Gardner’s “Grendel,” I love the Mountain Goats song “Grendel’s Mother,” I am all about monsters and their moms, and yet.
If you too, are about monster’s and their moms, consume every piece of Beowulf media except Beowulf itself, like retellings of myth, or even, have actually read Beowulf, you should absolutely read this book. I think sometimes modern retellings risk losing their bite and The Mere Wife one certainly doesn’t. It’s rooted in the real while still holding on to otherworldly landscapes, dreams, and portents. The characters are all complex and three-dimensional. It’s sorrowful and glimmering.
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson – I devoured this book in a day. The setting is amazing, a future earth ravaged by climate catastrophe and ecological collapse, trying to claw its way back, but still being mired in bureaucracy and banking and calls for proposals. The characters are charming and three-dimensional. The ending initially left me feeling a bit numb, somewhat unfulfilled, but on sitting with it, I really like it. I think it strikes a balance between mournful and hopeful and bitter-sweet that will leave you really thinking about the book for much longer than it takes you to actually read it. Always a good sign.
And lastly, and most tenuously, The Werewolf Principle by Clifford D. Simack – This was one of the pulp books I got for $1 this year. I bought it based on how good the cover was and how funny I thought the title was (which is how I buy all sci-fi and fantasy from the 70s and 80s).
I thought the setup was fun, the future the story builds is unique and a delight, with underpinnings of dystopia, and the ending was shaping up to be great. Spoilers:
The ending really dwelled and mused on loneliness, the self, Othering, and the human (and not so human) condition. Can’t end our sci-fi novel called the Werewolf Principle on that though, can we.
The book decides to ruin all that pensive yearning with some deus ex heterosexuality. It makes sure that at the very last minute a woman in the same lonely boat as the protagonist man shows up to ease his mournful solitude. If it had ended on the poignant musings of loneliness I think it would have been a really moving piece of sci-fi. So, aside from the last three or four pages, this was a great book.
Here’s to more reading in 2020!