Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Death Class: A True Story about Life by Erika Hayasaki

4. A Book with Antonyms in the Title

So I found this book while reading book number one on my list.  Erika Hayasaki wrote a review for Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and that led me to her book. So a little oddly, 2015 has started off with two reads about Death and Dying. 

The Death Class covers about 4 years in the history of a college course on death and dying (with a three year waitlist) taught by an interesting women, nurse, professor named Norma Bowles.  The story of the class was the meta story and within that story were several individual stories of students who came to her class to talk and sort out their own issues with death. The overarching story over the entire four year class story was also the journalist's story of her experience with death, starting in Seattle when she was 16. So it was really stories within a story within another story.

So while the set up and framing device seemed rather odd and clunky, the stories within were compelling. The stories of the students and Norma herself illustrated the point of the class--the class itself became more of a foot note. Each chapter began with one of Norma's writing assignments: write your obituary, write a letter to someone you need to say good-bye to, write your bucket list. Some of the assignments were completed by various students in the class, others were blank. 

Exploring death feels important and necessary.  Death surrounds us in very calm, normal, age appropriate ways, and it also comes at us in tragic,  violent, unexpected ways. Ms Hayasaki is a narrative journalist, and is very adept at telling the stories. The poetic story of death: why it is necessary for us to confront it and talk about it and sit among the gravestones will be saved for the poets to write. This book doesn't truly put its fingers around the content of the class--it tells us more the people and how they come to the class wanting to understand the subject,   Thats okay for now. The subject is broad and vast and we readers know we can take our time exploring all kinds of entries into the literature of death.  This one is valuable entry on its own.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

3.  A Book Recommended by a Friend

On a recent trip to the Southwest with some writer friends, I got to know a lovely woman who had been undergoing some brain scans and doctor visits trying to pin down the source of some vision and balance and headache problems she's been having.  We began talking brains and neurologists which I am  familiar with because of our son's journey into the same world because of his epilepsy.

She was reading this book at the time and lent it to me last week when she finished. A stunning memoir by a young woman who had been through, quite literally, a month of madness. Sometimes I think it is really lucky when bad things happen to journalists and good storytellers so we can know some of these traumas with such detail and intimacy.

Brain on Fire read quickly and luckily has a happy ending. Although the actual disease is quite different from epilepsy--many of the treatments and exams are identical to what I have watched my son undergo.  What was especially poignant were some of her realizations at the end.  She met people with same disease struggling to understand what happened to them and she could relate. She met her tribe. Her case itself--being publicized--has allowed for more people to be diagnosed.   (This rare autoimmune disease mimics schizophrenia so many people with it are in mental hospitals.) People told her stories of carrying her first article on the topic into emergency rooms--insisting their loved one had this very problem and it was often the correct diagnosis.  The gifts she got when it was over, in spite of the horror she went through, somehow made it worth if for her.

What is interesting about this kind of memoir is that most of it is pure journalism. Susannah remembered nothing of her month of madness. She recreated most of the story from her parents' journals and her doctors notes and research into the medical field. All brilliantly woven together and told from a journalists perspective.

This was a fabulous book.  Especially interesting if you have dealt with neurologists and doctors and medical madness.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

Week 2: A Funny Book

I had to go back through my facebook feed to find out where I first came across this book. A reader friend whose taste seems to mirror my own recommended this epistolary novel.  I don't tend to like epistolary tales--they always feel very contrived, but this was an unusual premise.

The main character, English Professor, Jason Fitger writes letters of recommendation to his colleagues and contemporaries on behalf of his students and colleagues.  Through his letters we see the failings of his department, his institution, his students, and his life.

I work in an academic department and one complaint I hear frequently from faculty is how much time they put into writing letters of recommendation. This all rang very true for me, so true in fact, that what was supposed to be a highly satirical novel felt a little too close to home. It was short, sweet, rather sad and yes, very funny.  I recommend this all my wise and seasoned faculty friends. You'll see a bit of yourself and find things you wish you could say about students.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

Week 1: A Book by an Author Under the Age of 30

I have been on the waitlist for this book at the library for over three months. I got it just before the New Year Holiday and decided to make this my first book of the year. I have been thinking about funerals and cremation and death rituals since my trip to Pennsylvania this past fall to help my mother plan her funeral.

Although no fan of the dead body, I have a great deal of fascination for the funeral industry and death rites and rituals.  How do we honor the dead? How do we mourn and celebrate the passing of life? This seemed to be one very interesting and not often talked about viewpoint in the industry.  Also, of all the work memoirs I have read (I love personal narrative about what people do for a living.) this was something I had never read about.

Ms Doughty explains that she has been drawn to death and the macabre since she was a child and she witnessed the accidental death of a child about her own age. The image of this child falling to their death haunted her and replayed in her mind throughout her childhood and led her to contemplating death more than most children. After graduating from college Caitlin sent her resume around until she got an offer for a job at a crematory in San Francisco.  Her narrative chronicles what it is like to work at a crematory, burn bodies, work with the public in the funeral industry, her own eventual decision to go to mortuary science school, and why in fact she hated it and has begun a small grassroots movement to reform the funeral industry and bring about a revolution in how we treat death in our culture.

She does warn the reader before the book that the depictions of death and bodies can be rather grisley and hard to read. She was right about that. I especially found it hard to read about the cremation of babies and overweight people. (If your interested pick up a copy.) I read it all and learned a lot about the science of cremation.

I especially loved that the author came to know and respect and have great affection for the men who worked at and ran the crematorium. They taught her great lessons and were very good to her. She mentions them and their business often and after she goes to mortuary school returns to them for advice and interviews and even does some odd jobs.

If this topic holds any interest for you and you want to meet an unusual woman with some great ideas about reforming--not just the funeral industry--but how we think and feel about death as a culture--I strongly urge you to read this book.  Also, check out her ideas and website at The Order of the Good Death.

For those following my year in reading, Caitlin wrote this book before her 30th birthday, so I am counting it as a book by an author under 30.  I'd love to hear what people are reading in the new year. Please feel free to post it in your comments.

Monday, January 5, 2015

2015 will be the year of the reader

I have fallen off of my reading this year--hence not so many (or really no entries at all) posts on books or reading.  There has been no slow down in my book buying and borrowing however, so I thought 2015 would be a good year for increasing my reading.

While I was perusing the usual end of the year lists and stories, I came across a great reading challenge.  It is a list of 52 categories of books and a challenge to read, on average, one a week. I like it because it seems to give me wide latitude to poke myself to read outside my comfort zone and yet--it seems pretty flexible--easy to plug whatever I am currently reading into one of the neat categories. I plan on jumping around.  The hardest will be a book of more than 500 pages, a book set in my hometown (Mentor, Ohio!) and the one by an author with my initials (any suggestions? I got nothing.)

The only problem I had with the list is the one that asks me to read a book by a female author. I think that seems a little patronizing, and there is no equivalent--read a book  by a male author on the list, so I have replaced it with: read a how-to-book. Either that or read a book by a trans-gender author. I know of at least one.  I'll decide as the reading list unfolds.

Here's an alternative list posted by a librarian friend which has similar categories but only 15 books.  I figure I can always drop down to 15 books if the reading proves to be too much.

I finished my first yesterday...will blog tomorrow and I have a new library book to start reading.

Happy Reading in 2015!