Review: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

smoke gets in your eyes by caitlin doughtyFormat read: ebook provided by Edelweiss
Formats available: ebook, hardcover
Genre: memoir
Length: 272 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Date Released: September 15, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

A young mortician goes behind the scenes, unafraid of the gruesome (and fascinating) details of her curious profession.

Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty—a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre—took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Caitlin learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes tells an unusual coming-of-age story full of bizarre encounters and unforgettable scenes. Caring for dead bodies of every color, shape, and affliction, Caitlin soon becomes an intrepid explorer in the world of the dead. She describes how she swept ashes from the machines (and sometimes onto her clothes) and reveals the strange history of cremation and undertaking, marveling at bizarre and wonderful funeral practices from different cultures.

Her eye-opening, candid, and often hilarious story is like going on a journey with your bravest friend to the cemetery at midnight. She demystifies death, leading us behind the black curtain of her unique profession. And she answers questions you didn’t know you had: Can you catch a disease from a corpse? How many dead bodies can you fit in a Dodge van? What exactly does a flaming skull look like?

Honest and heartfelt, self-deprecating and ironic, Caitlin’s engaging style makes this otherwise taboo topic both approachable and engrossing. Now a licensed mortician with an alternative funeral practice, Caitlin argues that our fear of dying warps our culture and society, and she calls for better ways of dealing with death (and our dead).

My Review:

You would never expect that a book subtitled “and other stories from the crematory” would manage to be a quick, fun and sometimes even light-hearted read. But Caitlin Doughty’s personal coming of age story is exactly that, even though (she might say because) it also covers her introduction into the funeral industry.

This is a book about death. Not about the terribleness of it, because the author does not espouse the belief that death itself is awful. This is about the acceptance of the inevitability of death into our lives, injecting rationality into a process that is feared, hated, reviled and avoided at all costs.

Except we can’t avoid it in the end. The author’s thesis is that what we’re doing as a society is covering it up, turning something natural into something to be feared and hated. And that some of the lengths we go to in order to avoid even mentioning death and its inevitability.

If the mantra of Dr. Gregory House in the TV series was “Everybody Lies”, than I think it’s fair to say that Caitlin Doughty starts from the premise that “Everybody dies”. Which they do.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is both autobiographical and philosophical, as well as containing an extremely readable history of how humans have treated death over the centuries, particularly in Western culture but with some exploration of cultures outside of our own. She parses out the history amid her own story of her adoption into the modern funeral industry as well as her criticisms of it.

She starts out as a 23-year-old college graduate in Medieval Studies (more death, definitely more death) and a fascination with death that is not so much morbid as curious and engaged. She wants to be involved with the funeral industry because what happens to us after the inevitable event (dying) is something that has engrossed and sometimes terrified her since her 8-year-old self watched another child fall from the top of an escalator into silence. She never knew the fate of that other child, but the event, and the fears it generated, changed the direction of her life.

When she starts as a crematory worker, she starts out both deeply interested and slightly scared. We all know people die, but whatever happens behind the black curtain at a funeral home is mysterious to us. And it’s intended to be.

The author talks to us about her journey from crematory worker to mortician’s college to licensed funeral director, but she also details the actual processes that she undertakes behind the scenes.

As well as letting us see the gallows humor she shares with the staff who help her and train her. Her stories can be macabre, but they also bow to the inevitable, we all die. And it is better to face the unknown with knowledge than with fear.

Reality Rating A: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes was the number one pick of the Library Reads list for September 2014, and once you read it, it is easy to see why.

The author’s personal story fascinates, because she is letting us peek into something that we all must face, but that no one ever talks about. Dealing with final arrangements for a loved one (and what happens when there is no loved one) is something that we will all face and become part of in turn. Yet no one talks about it, except in the most oblique terms.

The history of funerals and death arrangements, and the history of the surrounding industry, is broken up into quite digestible bite-sized chunks. It flows very well into the personal story that the author tells, and she makes it easy to see how past practices and practices in other cultures have helped to inform her beliefs.

The people she works with, especially at her first crematory job, have a sense of gallows humor and fatalism that is every bit as funny, in its own way, as the “meatball surgeons” in MASH. No one in this story turns out to be deadpan, except the actual dead.

While her explanations of what happens to the unclaimed bodies, and the way that the scientific donations come to their final and fiery end have more than their share of pathos, this is information that people should have when they make their decisions.

Death is a serious topic, but the author provides a treatment of this usually avoided topic in a way that makes you think, not with fear, but with consideration about the way we will handle the inevitable when it comes.

Some of her conclusions about the long reach of the death-avoidance culture and how it can be changed, left me pondering. A lot.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s On My (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 5-19-13

Sunday Post

The fantastic thing about living in a reading city like Seattle is just how many authors stop by on their tours. It’s not just that Seattle is one of the top 20 cities on Amazon’s annual list of America’s most well-read cities, but it’s also a city that everyone, authors included, love to visit.

The World's Strongest Librarian by Josh HanagarneLast night we went to a book signing at Third Place Books for The World’s Strongest Librarian. We’d both read the eARC and loved it, so when the opportunity presented itself to see the author in person, we jumped at the chance. Josh Hanagarne was terrific, so if you’re in Seattle and are interested in either books, libraries, strength training or Tourette’s, there’s still a chance to see/hear him tomorrow at the Seattle Central Library.

Tomorrow night we’ll be at the University Book Store listening to John Scalzi talk about The Human Division. And even though we both read (and adored) a review copy, yes, we’ll buy a print copy and get it signed.

Winner Announcements:

Paperback copy of Bare It All by Lori Foster: April P.
Ebook copy of His Southern Temptation by Robin Covington: Amy P.

The Human Division by John ScalziBlog Recap:

A- Review: The Human Division by John Scalzi
D+ Review: The Right Bride by Jennifer Ryan
B+ Review: The Roots of Betrayal by James Forrester
B Review: Wife in Name Only by Hayson Manning
B+ Review: The World’s Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne
Q&A with Author Josh Hanagarne
Stacking the Shelves (45)



The Perfume Collector by Kathleen TessaroComing up this week:

Review: The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro (blog tour)
Review: Chasing Mrs. Right by Katee Robert
Review: Lightning Rider by Jen Greyson (blog tour)
Review: Doctor Who: Festival of Death by Jonathan Morris (blog tour)
Review: Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers

What’s coming up in your week?

Review: The World’s Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne

The World's Strongest Librarian by Josh HanagarneFormat read: ebook provided by NetGalley
Formats available: ebook, hardcover, audiobook
Genre: Memoir
Length: 288 pages
Publisher: Gotham Books
Date Released: May 2, 2013
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

Josh Hanagarne couldn’t be invisible if he tried. Although he wouldn’t officially be diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome until his freshman year of high school, Josh was six years old and onstage in a school Thanksgiving play when he first began exhibiting symptoms. By the time he was twenty, the young Mormon had reached his towering adult height of 6’7” when—while serving on a mission for the Church of Latter Day Saints—his Tourette’s tics escalated to nightmarish levels.

Determined to conquer his affliction, Josh underwent everything from quack remedies to lethargy-inducing drug regimes to Botox injections that paralyzed his vocal cords and left him voiceless for three years. Undeterred, Josh persevered to marry and earn a degree in Library Science. At last, an eccentric, autistic strongman—and former Air Force Tech Sergeant and guard at an Iraqi prison—taught Josh how to “throttle” his tics into submission through strength-training.

Today, Josh is a librarian in the main branch of Salt Lake City’s public library and founder of a popular blog about books and weight lifting—and the proud father of four-year-old Max, who has already started to show his own symptoms of Tourette’s.

The World’s Strongest Librarian illuminates the mysteries of this little-understood disorder, as well as the very different worlds of strongman training and modern libraries. With humor and candor, this unlikely hero traces his journey to overcome his disability— and navigate his wavering Mormon faith—to find love and create a life worth living.

My Review:

Melk Abbey LibraryThe first chapter of The World’s Strongest Librarian should be required reading for people who want to become librarians. Especially the ones who have a completely romanticized view of what it is like to actually BE a public librarian on a day-to-day basis. At the end of the chapter, I think they’ll still want to do the job, but they’ll have one hell of a lot better idea of what they’re letting themselves in for.

And I laughed myself silly. On the bus. It’s too bad I wasn’t in the staff room at work. At least, then, I could have shared instead of just sounding like a lunatic.

But all professions have their in-jokes, and that’s not what’s at the heart of this book, or Josh’s story.

Josh does share his profound love of reading in a way that is joyful. He obviously deeply loves reading, but uses it to escape from a world that has often contained it’s share of difficulties. While his memoir covers his struggle with Tourette Syndrome, I think that a lot of us who have become librarians have, in one way or another, found an escape from something in the pages of books that we have loved.

Josh just has a more compelling way of expressing both his love of the books that he is diving into, and the sometimes seemingly overwhelming challenges that he faces, than most of us do.

Josh HanagarneThis is a hard book to review. It feels as if I’m reviewing Josh’s life as well as the way he wrote about it, and that seems like a double-whammy. It’s not quite fair.

Josh writes in a way that makes the reader empathize with his struggles, even when, occasionally, you aren’t able to 100% understand the pain, only that there is a tremendous amount of it. And, like anyone else writing their own story, one suspects that it was probably even worse than Josh writes it, and he’s none too kind to himself at some points.

Although he talks a lot about his physical strength training, it’s Josh’s inner strength that shines through.

Reality Rating B+: The strength in Josh’s writing is his sense of humor. His biggest target (no pun intended, he’s 6’7″) is always himself. He never intentionally aims his wit to laugh AT anyone else. He doesn’t place blame.

And without fail, he credits the support of those around him, particularly his parents and his wife. It’s refreshing to read about someone with any kind of difficulty who isn’t playing the “blame game” and who isn’t going overboard in the other direction, claiming that he’s doing everything all by himself.

For a reader who isn’t into strength training, the details can be a bit eye-glazing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some readers find the library details somewhat mind-numbing. And vice-versa.

It’s hard to bare your soul as openly and Josh has in this book and make it readable. He writes about seemingly everything; his parents, his doubts about his Mormon faith, his Tourette’s and the problems it causes, his search to find a meaningful career, everything. And he makes the reader want to keep reading.

I’m glad that he went into the reasons why he thinks that books and reading are important, and makes an impassioned plea for the future of libraries. For that, I thank him from the bottom of my library-loving heart.

But most of all, his is an amazing story. You’ll be glad you read it.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s On My (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 5-12-13

Sunday PostHappy Mother’s Day to all the mothers out there!

And welcome to the middle of May. Thank goodness the temperature has dropped back to Seattle normal, in the mid-60’s

This is our first Spring/Summer in Seattle. Apartments (and houses) do NOT have air conditioning here. Everyone says we don’t need it. Except last week, when Seattle and Phoenix were the two hottest cities in the continental US. And we DID.

Dead Every After by Charlaine HarrisIn book news, the Sookie Stackhouse series is over. I read Dead Ever After this week. I wasn’t planning to buy a copy, because the last few books weren’t all that fantastic, but then I read the screaming fits that people were having, and I decided not to wait.

The book is fair game. It’s entertainment, and it’s out there to be reviewed. (My review will be posted on Monday at Book Lovers Inc.) Some of the comments about egging Charlaine Harris’ house, and worse, seem one stake too far. (And no, we are not related.)

Bare It All by Lori FosterWinner Announcements:

Gina L. Maxwell Rules of Entanglement/Seducing Cinderella Swag Pack: Shelley Summers
Autographed copy of The Forever Knight by John Marco: Shelley Summers
The Magic Circle by Jenny Davidson: Erin Fender

Giveaways currently open:

Bare It All by Lori Foster (print copy/US only)
His Southern Temptation by Robin Covington (ebook copy/INT)

Wicked as She Wants by Delilah S. DawsonThis week’s recap:

B Review: The Peculiar Pets of Miss Pleasance by Delilah S. Dawson
A- Review: Wicked As She Wants by Delilah S. Dawson
B+ Review: Bare It All by Lori Foster
Q&A with Author Lori Foster + Giveaway
B+ Review: Scarlet by Marissa Meyer
Interview with Author Robin Covington + Giveaway
C+ Review: Back on Track by Donna Cummings
Stacking the Shelves (44)

I’m going to try something different this week. Up til now, I’ve been listing the previous week’s posts (see above) and then burbling about the upcoming week’s posts. This time I’ll list the upcoming week. (It’s not as if I don’t know ;-)) Please let me know what you think in the comments.

The World's Strongest Librarian by Josh HanagarneReview: The Human Division by John Scalzi
Review: The Right Bride by Jennifer Ryan
Review: The Roots of Betrayal by James Forester (blog tour)
Review: Wife in Name Only by Hayson Manning
Review: The World’s Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne (author tour)

Josh Hanagarne will be in Seattle for his book tour next weekend, which is kind of cool. The title is not a joke, Josh really IS a librarian.

What are you looking forward to this week?