Sunday, October 30, 2016

Review: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

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Fun fact: I've been fascinated by the death industry ever since a middle school summer vacation in Long Beach, WA, lead to a late-night viewing of the scary movie Mortuary on SyFy Channel. Creepy moss monsters aside, I had never really considered that part of dying before: basically, the cleanup, the whisking away to be deposited elsewhere... the fact that when someone passes on, their body doesn't just go away on its own (well, I guess that depends on what scary movie you're watching, too). 

This book shed a lot of light on a pretty dark subject, without making it too creepy. 

When I'd originally picked up Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematory - in hardcover for a positive steal of $7 this past year at a University Bookstore sale - I didn't know what I was in for, other than a gorgeous cover and fascinating subject matter. When I checked out with a handful of other titles in tow, the cashier raised her eyebrows at it, shook it in her hand, and said, "Dude. This is a good one." I have to say, she's absolutely right.

The book follows the career beginnings of author Caitlin Doughty, as she starts work in a San Francisco mortuary as a crematory operator. Now working as an alternative death specialist and funeral director in Los Angeles, the book shapes the development of her personal perspectives on the death industry, starting with her first attempt at shaving a dead body.

The anecdotes are visceral and unnerving - from lobbing a dead baby underhand into the crematory so they hit where the fire is hottest, to having the extra fat of a super-plus body leaching out of the machine onto the shop floor - but accompany straightforward answers to questions you didn't know you were allowed to ask: what happens to the bodies of the homeless and indigent populations of California? How long does it take for a corpse to actively start rotting outside of refrigeration? Can I order a remote cremation through the power of the Internet?

Obviously, there are parts of the book that are a little hard to read, but the author knows that. Doughty recounts an early life experience witnessing the death of a three-year-old at a mall, as well as the ensuing childhood obsessive compulsive disorder she developed as a result, with empathy and attention. Many of her interactions with the corpses she crosses paths with are illustrated with moving ties to her own life, whether it is considering the lives left impacted by the loss of the twenty-something who stood in front of a train, or comparing the face of a John Doe cadaver to an unrequited love she contemplates losing in a similarly anonymous fashion.

To be honest, the only part of the book that rubbed me a little the wrong way in places was our narrator herself, who seemed a little self-aggrandizing in parts, overly self-deprecating in others, and overall, just a little bit weird. Her opinions were loudly stated and uncompromising; however, in that way, the book is a complete success, in extrapolating on not just her career growth, but in how her start in the industry completely shaped the reasons why she decided to open her own practice. It's almost more of a sort of alternative business account than just a fascinating memoir.

Final Verdict: A creepy, comprehensive, and ultimately, compassionate account of one woman's early journey through the death industry, this book provides an insight into some of society's most well-hidden business practices, by exposing career insights into a job you had never really considered before. For anyone who loved Mary Roach's Stiff - or perhaps wonders about their own cold end - this book is an engaging and illuminating read.

Have you read a nonfiction account of a strange career? Would you ever read a book about this industry? Let me know, in the comments below!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Creepy Reads for Halloween!

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish!
Halloweek is here, and I'm officially ready to get spooky! 

All of my favorite television shows having been premiering their Halloween episodes, the Target holiday aisles are well-and-truly picked over for the prime goods, and our local Jo-Ann Crafts is gearing up their Christmas decorations already, which means I'm really in the thick of the spooky-scary spirit. Naturally, that meant it was time for another creeptastic special installment Top Ten Tuesday for the holiday, as well: Hello, Halloween freebie week!

To be honest, I was a little annoyed that past Savannah had already swiped the ideal holiday topic last year, when I talked about our family's severe holiday children's book fixation, particularly in regards to my fave spooktacular-and-not reads for the 31st. However, I quickly realized that there are plenty of creepy reads for those above a middle grade age bracket, too! 

Whether you're into YA or adult, fiction or non, here are my list of Top Ten Halloween Reads for those who may now be a little too old for trick-or-treating. (Which means you're plenty old enough to buy that bag of Reese's Cups for yourself... score!)

what pairs well with those pre-cut Pillsbury ghostie cookie things?

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1. Libba Bray's The Diviners 
1920s New York is a town long-famed for its fearless flappers... including one who happens to be a little more fearless than most, thanks to a mysterious power that helps her read the histories of those whose possessions she holds. Once a string of deaths starts to reveal the town's dark side, it's clear there's something malevolent afoot... and Evie's plenty well-heeled enough to take on the task of catching the culprit herself!

2. Susan Dennard's Something Strange and Deadly
It's the 1800s, and zombies are a real and present threat, especially to a Southern deb. If you think running away from a horde of the shambling undead was hard already, try doing it in a hoopskirt!

3. Scott Westerfield's Peeps 
Being "parasite-positive" might just be the newfangled term for the newly-fanged, but Cal isn't going to let that hold him back. Following the sleuth-work of a man able to navigate the vamp-life without displaying its devastating symptoms, this fresh take on the old characterizations of vampirism has a lot more to do with bacteria and microscopic snails that it does with neck-munching... which might be even more scary.

i can watch the sixth sense without crying (most of the time)

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4. Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves
I could talk forever about this masterful mind-explosion of a beautiful and terrifying concept, but I've already gotten the chance to do that, as it was the central text - ie, the only thing we read all Quarter - in one of my senior-year college classes. This book didn't change my life... I'm pretty sure it changed me.

5. Steven King's Nightmares and Dreamscapes
A magnum opus of a horror grandmaster, this collection has probably been my favorite of his that I've ever read. The scarecrow cover is iconic, as are the short stories contained (barely) behind it.

6. Gillian Flynn's The Grownup
Breathlessly short and far-far-FAR from sweet, this fast-paced and slim-spined thriller - following the experiences of a fake medium and the strange family she encounters through her con - is a fitting fear-inducing work from the Gone Girl master of plot twists. 

you know what's truly terrifying? real life

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7. Caitlin Doughty's Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
The memoirs of a crematorium operator, better learning how to live from working with the dead, this recent read has been one of my favorites of the past year, for its illuminating insights into a secretive industry, and significant emotional intelligence.

8. Mary Roach's Spook 
The product of one of my favorite nonfiction authors' forays into the industries of the undead - from understanding EMF readings, to conversing with spiritual guides, and examining near-death experiences - this scientific perspective on popular ghostly theories, practices, and people from around the world is a fascinating one.

special effects can get old and hokey, but a good book can scare you forever

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9. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
I have held such admiration for this book for so long that I once actually had a dream that I had gotten it tattooed onto my skin. This iconic tale not only helped birth the science fiction genre, but its vivid descriptions and haunting characterizations remain spine-tingling even after it's been mangled by multimedia too many times to count. (My personal, ultimate example of "the book was better" arguments.)

10. Henry James' The Turn of the Screw
You'd think that if you'd read one Gothicky ghost story, you've read them all... but being introduced to this horror mainstay in a sophomore-year college class proved that some stories remain classic for a reason! A subtle and spooky atmospheric thriller that gave me new admiration for unreliable narrators, this one is a decently short read, but one that will stay with you.

You've got a little under a week left before Halloween... plenty of time to squeeze at least one more spooky read in! 
What's in YOUR top ten? Let me know, in the comments below!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

There Are Few Cool Reasons to Turn 23: A Birthday Haul

This past weekend, I celebrated my 23rd Birthday. 

The entire experience was a bit of a lesson in irony... Whereas usually, when you say, "I'm turning so-and-so years old," there is an abundance of people responding positively to that information, on my birthday, when I informed people that it was 23 I was turning, those I encountered openly responded with, "Ohmygod, it totally sucks, right?" So, I guess I've hit that point: the pinnacle of birthday excitement has passed... I am officially over the hill.

Despite my old age, my Mom really wanted to make sure I celebrated my birthday with good cheer, especially because she knew how much I was missing spending it with my sorority sisters. So, she made sure I had plenty of time in Seattle to have dinner with some of my best friends, as well as my sister, Delaney, and my birthday itself was spent hitting up a local theater's costume cleanout sale, my favorite specialty grocery store, and my local library.

And, of course, there were presents, presents galore! Naturally, there was an abundance of printed material, and so, I figured I would share my bounty with you, in a sort of mini-haul:

First off, I got two magazines, which are among some of my favorites: Frankie, an Aussie import that encompasses art, photography, fashion, food, travel, vintage, and more - and best of all, totally fits my personal aesthetic - and Jamie, the gorgeously photographed and deliciously inviting publication of super-Brit Jamie Oliver, aka, my eternal middle school #ManCrushMonday.

I also received four books: two memoirs, one work of historical nonfiction, and one poetry collection.

  • The first, I bought for myself: Bloom, by Estee Lalonde, is a recently published memoir from one of my favorite lifestyle YouTubers. 
  • The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson, is a historical account of one of the deadliest diseases to have ever hit London, the cholera epidemic! 
  • Sylvia Plath's iconic poetry collection, Ariel. What  excites me about this particular edition is that it has been arranged into a facsimile of what her original manuscript would have looked like. 
  • and, courtesy of my Dad's knowledge of my favorite subjects, The Ride Delegate: Memoir of a Walt Disney World VIP Tour Guide, by Annie Salisbury. It's small-press-published, and that sort of self-made quality is what excites me the most... it means it's probably going to be really juicy! 

Of course, I got plenty of non-book presents, too, however, there were a few more that were kind-of book-related, so I figured those deserved a mention, too!

I've been on a total handbrush-lettering kick recently, and my parents are feeding the obsession with two packs of Dual Brush Pens from Tombow, as well as a Calligraphy Starter Kit from one of my favorite pen companies, Staedtler. They also got me a sort of instruction manual on the matter, which I'm definitely looking forward to marking up in the near future!

And remember that awesome Austen movie Callie and I saw over the summer? It's on DVD! Love and Friendship was a super welcome gift, though it had originally made my younger brother a little nervous: apparently, listing the words "Love and Friendship" on your bday list - even if it's underlined, like a title is supposed to be - can raise some concern for your personal well-being.

I also got a gorgeous Julep nail polish inspired by my Zodiac sign - Libra, duh! - and to wrap it all up, I got the background piece for both of these displays: the "Banned Books" scarf from Out of Print Clothing! My family got a kick out of reading between the blacked-out lines, to find some of their favorite titles among the print.

Overall, my birthday was super-fun, despite the age that I was turning itself being distinctly less-than. I am so blessed and grateful to be surrounded by the amazing friends and family that I have, who can fill up a weekend with my absolutely favorite things.

And thank you to you all, too, for sticking by me for yet another trip around the sun! Hopefully, 23 won't be as bad as everyone's chalking it up to be.

What's your favorite way to celebrate a birthday? What's the best book you've ever been given as a present? Let me know, in the comments below! 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Book Reccs

"Top Ten Tuesday" is a bookish meme hosted every week by The Broke and the Bookish!
This week's theme on Top Ten Tuesday - Top 10 Books You've Been Recommended by a Friend - is one that took me about five minutes to compile a list for, because really, if I'm getting reccs from anywhere, they're coming from one of three places: my great friend, Callie (whom I've talked about before), the wide and abundant sources of the Internet (Goodreads in particular), and my Dad (the one person who Google +s every single post on this blog). 

The funny thing is, though, they each carry their own kind of hallmark for what books they're telling me to read, because each lender has their own signature set of genres and categories that we have in common! So, for convenience's sake, I've lumped the two together. 

And, of course, they're all titles I'd recommend to you, too! 

but I know, it's all callie's fault // Callie and YA

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Callie is absolutely no stranger to this blog, being that I've written about her quite a few times, whether it was about our summer movie viewing, or her incredibly gracious lending habits. Our fave titles to trade include high fantasy and YA, especially when combined. She's a laugh and a half, and always down for coffee dates, which makes her one of my favorite bookish people!

Red Queen, Victoria Aveyard
A Court of Mist and Fury, Sarah J. Maas
The Darkest Part of the Forest, Holly Black

the internet is for books // Goodreads and Comic Books

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I have plenty of great sources for awesome Comic Book reads - including my great friend Bernie, who is currently having an awesome time in France, as well as our local comics hot spot, Destiny City Comics in Tacoma - but an especially surprising place for high quality recommendations comes straight from everyone's Internet bookshelf, Goodreads! While Bernie and I like to swap around physical copies, usually my first encounter with great comics, comes from a more digital source. 

Nimona, Noelle Stevenson
Rat Queens, Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch
Fables, Bill Willingham and Lan Medina
Hark! A Vagrant, Kate Beaton

i got it from my daddy // Dad and SciFi/Horror

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With almost 40 community theater shows under his belt even since he's left college, you can tell that my Dad has a flair for the dramatic, and the stuff he reads is really no different: if there isn't an earth-pummelling, heart-stopping, spine-tingling plot at its heart, he wouldn't read it. So, despite the fact that both the books I gave him for his birthday in January and Father's day this past summer have both continued to gather dust on his shelves, I know he appreciates the crazy, killer reads I lend him, because of how willing he is to pay back the compliment. Some of the best (and only) science fiction and horror books I've read, have been because of him! 

Dune, Frank Herbert
The Martian, Andy Weir
Any and all Stephen King

What's in your Top Ten? Let me know, in the comments below!

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Review: Sleeping Giants

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I originally got the ARC of this book secondhand this past Spring, after a promotional event at a local Seattle book retailer, but I'd been saving it for a good summer night... mainly because I honestly feel that's the optimal time for science fiction reading! Unfortunately, in the end, it took me a lot longer than a couple blissful, balmy evenings to finish. 

I don't usually do in-depth reviews for 3-star reads, but this one had enough interesting plot and structural elements, that I felt like I just wanted to talk about it. So, strap in! 

Dr. Rose Franklin never expected herself to be working on a top-secret government operation, piecing together fragments of lost alien technology, found across the globe... then again, she never thought she'd have originally unearthed it so many years ago in the first place! Alongside a team of military professionals, a geneticist, a linguist, and more - including a mysterious and seemingly all-knowing project supervisor - Rose is tasked with reuniting the broken pieces of what just might be Earth's deadliest weapon. Told through the perspective of classified government files, including interviews and personal journal entries, the characters in Sylvain Neuvel's Sleeping Giants awakens not just a long-dormant extraterrestrial power, but the ambitions of those foolish enough to try and command it for themselves. 

The book is billed for fans of Andy Weir's The Martian, due to its document-oriented format, lending itself to categorization as intense science fiction realism. However, Sleeping Giants loses a key facet of that book that did so much to humanize its intangible characters: humor.

When you parse out a narrative's components through the fractional viewpoint of a series of external focuses - whether its a journal entry, a back-and-forth interview, etc. - you lose the personal connection of firsthand "experience," whether that's from the external observations of an omniscient narrator, or the deeper internal exposition of a firsthand one. That distance needs to be remedied by a harder-working stylistic or tonal element to bridge the gap, that provides a point of connection, which, for The Martian, was humor. Without that element of outreach, Sleeping Giants, and its occupants, seemed removed and distant, which did not do much to make me connect to the characters or story line.

Perhaps the situation could have been remedied - or at least alleviated - if I was more invested in the characters themselves; unfortunately, the people involved with this alien project were all pretty darn unlikable (or, at least, uninteresting). Had I been more compelled by their stories or viewpoints, I might have been more invested, but instead, it just looks like yet another layer of missed connection with the audience.

(Okay, t-b-perfectly-h, I was kind of interested in one character in the story: the know-it-all interviewer and political master manipulator of the novel, our project's mysterious supervisor, who managed to play every character in this book like a chess Grandmaster. In my head, I cast him as a cross between Agent Coulson from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and the Cigarette Smoking Man from The X Files, which is probably why I liked him.)

In terms of the production element of the format in itself, I felt like there was a lot of clunky exposition overlaid in those interviews. I saw words around various other reviews like "infodump" and "overwhelming," and I agree. Being that you're denied the opportunity as a firsthand observer to witness what something looks like through primary description, I'll give a pass for the extensive detailing of various aesthetic values...but what I won't excuse is the clumsy mishandling of providing backstory or demonstrating personal development. You think I'm going to believe an actual person was willing to say some of that stuff in front of not just a project superior, but also a functioning tape recorder?

Any additional suspense that was supposed to be added by the mysterious epilogue, I'm counting as not-very-effective as well, by sheer presence of one of my least favorite cliches in any story: if the only way you feel like you can cap off an ending is by saying, "We have much we need to discuss," then you didn't do a good enough job generating a conversation I even want to be a part of.

I also think the book summary overall is a little misleading, because I never for a second thought that this story revolved around the project's original scientist, Dr. Rose Franklin. If you wanted to make such a big deal about her having found the original alien component, and then revisiting it as an adult, then you should have made it a big deal... if anything, the book managed to effectively pass it off as mostly coincidence, and then shunted her aside into a stock character role. I understand there might be additional interest generated in the book's sequels towards her, specifically, but I feel like there wasn't enough done to capture focus in the first place.

In total, it took me a couple of weeks to get into this book. So, it was one of my last books of the summer, and, the fifth that I finished this Fall.

Final Verdict: A new and interesting narrative, told through a format which - while wholly appropriate and true to the nature of the story - did little to actively engage the reader. Unreachable characters and intangible plot points did little to bring me in further, and in the end, it just seems like a bit of a wasted opportunity. I'll give it a 3-star for its innovation, in terms of use of format, and in terms of performing technological marvels within the scope of science fiction realism. I'd probably read another book written by this author, but not if it's a sequel.

Have you read Sleeping Giants? What did you think of it? Do you think I'm being too harsh on the narrative style? Let me know, in the comments below!