Friday, April 14, 2017

A Review of 'Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory' by Caitlin Doughty

"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).

I first found Caitlin on her YouTube channel 'Ask a Mortician.'  I'm not sure when I first found it or how I first found her channel, but I've been hooked ever since.  It's such a weird thing to find fascinating.

I love that this is a memoir about a topic very few people know about or are willing to ask about openly.  I so appreciate that Caitlin is very honest and open about her experiences and what she has come to discover about the funeral industry.  Her tone is much like her YouTube videos in that she speaks honestly, but not in a condescending way like she knows more than you (which, for this subject, is likely absolutely true).  I also like how inviting she is when it comes to considering different points of view on death and everything that comes with death.  She helped me think more openly about the deaths within my family that I've experienced and she invited me to think about my own inevitable death (as Caitlin says when signing off her Morbid Minute videos, "And remember, you will die.").  The best part is that she doesn't make it seem like these types of ponderings are weird, because they're not.  In fact, it's smart to think about these things now.

Another thing that I appreciated about this book was Caitlin's humor in talking about these morbid situations.  I think that's largely how you get through situations like gracefully removing a body from a family's home, dealing with getting cremated human out of the cracks in the crematory, and so on.  It's little things that as someone who doesn't have to deal with death on a daily basis that I never have to think about or deal with as problems.  But death can be as funny as life is sometimes.  It can be serious.  I don't have to think of death as this scary thing that's looming ahead of me.

I wish I could say something more about this book and something profound, but honestly, this book is best read and reflected upon and then discussed with someone else who has also read this book.  I think a lot of this has to do with the stigma that death has.  You know, the feeling that if you want to talk in depth about death and really dig in that there's something wrong with you.  But that's absolutely not the case and more people need to know that.

Whether you consider yourself a death-positive person or if you're looking to challenge your own views about death, this is a great read and you should go pick up this book.

I give 'Smoke Gets In Your Eyes':
Thanks for Reading!


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

A Review of 'The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian' by Sherman Alexie

Note: This is my last review for 2016.  All the rest of the reviews posted will be from 2017 reads.  Thank you!

"Bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.  Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot.

Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author's own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings by Ellen Forney that reflect the character's art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he was destined to live." 

I had the privilege of teaching this book twice this year-- once to rising eighth grade students at Breakthrough and while I was student teaching in ninth grade.  Twice I was able to enjoy the wacky illustrations that show Junior's life and twice I was able to enjoy the main character's sense of humor and sense of self.

One thing I really like this book is how fearlessly it puts two different cultures together and asks you to really examine them.  I loved being able to talk about rules that exist in different parts of our lives.  For Junior, unspoken rules at home in Wellpinit were different than at the school in Wellpinit which were different that the rules that existed in Reardan, which is a town that is overwhelmingly white.

This book also asked me to look at what gets a person to be in their living situation-- what leads to a family being poor, to not getting a good education, to having certain values, to having a certain lifestyle-- and what can lead a person to break out of the mold that one may or may not be destined for.  To paraphrase something John Green said about other people, this book challenged me to think about people who are different than me in a more complex way.  That's something I've been striving to do in my daily life and in my reading.

Most of the students I read this book with really liked this book.  They liked how relate-able the characters were (even if they didn't completely identify with Junior) and they liked how the story was told (through words and pictures).  Some young people I worked with, especially some of my ninth graders, didn't like that this book felt like a stereotype.  They became very wary about what they were reading.  Some of them didn't like the typical young adult novel cliches of introspection, philosophical findings, and a character reactions.  But as I said, generally my students really liked what they were reading.

I give 'The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian':
Thanks for Reading!


Monday, February 13, 2017

A Review of 'Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls' by David Sedaris

Note: I am working on finishing reviews for books that I read last year.  I'm almost done and reviews for 2017 reads will be published shortly!

"A guy walks into a bar car and...

From here the story could take many turns.  When this guy is David Sedaris, the possibilities are endless, but the result is always the same: he will both delight you with twists of humor and intelligence and leave you deeply moved.

Sedaris remembers his father's dinnertime attire (shirtsleeves and underpants), his first colonoscopy (remarkably pleasant), and the time he considered buying the skeleton of a murdered Pygmy.

With Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, David Sedaris shows once again why his work has been called 'hilarious, elegant, and surprisingly moving' (Washington Post)."

I have read a few stories by David Sedaris and honestly... I can't quite get a read on him.  He's such a character.  His sense of humor always manages to take me by surprise.

This book is a series of short stories about some of the experiences he has had in his life from living abroad to experiencing his first colonoscopy.  Even stories that seem like they might be gross end up being incredibly funny!  But maybe you just have to have the humor of an elementary school boy at times... and I think that's in all of us, even a little bit.

What really caught me off guard was when I could relate to what David Sedaris was saying.  It just seems like we're worlds apart in terms of our identities and our bodies of experience.  Maybe that goes to show that even those who seem like you wouldn't get along or you could never find something in common... there's always a similarity to find.  We're not so different after all.

It's hard to review a book of short stories because all of the stories are so different from each other.  And not all of the stories seem to be in David Sedaris' voice which really threw me off while I was reading.  There was a point where he wrote a narrative of a very politically conservative person (I think a woman, but I don't think I realized that until the end) who was up on her soap box ranting about a little of everything.  The nice thing about his stories are that he never fails to keep your attention and more importantly, keep you on your toes while you read.

This is a great read for those who are looking for a lighter (in tone) read, who appreciate good humor writing, or if you just want to read some off-the-wall writing.

I give 'Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls':

Thanks for Reading!


Friday, February 10, 2017

A Review of 'The Pregnancy Project' by Gaby Rodriguez

Image result for the pregnancy project"Growing up, Gaby Rodriguez was often told she would end up a teen mom.  After all, her mother and her older sisters had gotten pregnant as teenagers; from an outsider's perspective, it was practically a family tradition.  Gaby had ambitions that didn't include teen motherhood.  But she wondered: how would she be treated if she 'lived down' to others' expectations?  Would everyone ignore the years she put into being a good student and see her as just another pregnant teen statistic with no future?  These questions sparked Gaby's school project: faking her own pregnancy as a high school senior to see how her family, friends, and community would react.  What she learned changed her life forever, and made international headlines in the process.

In The Pregnancy Project, Gaby details how she was able to fake her own pregnancy-- hiding the truth from even her siblings and boyfriend's parents-- and reveals all that she learned from the experience.  But more than that, Gaby's story is about fighting stereotypes, and how one girl found the strength to come out from the shadow of low expectations to forge a bright future for herself."

Prior to beginning my student teacher, my cooperating teacher sent me the list of summer reading that students received and asked me to read as many as possible.  This was, I think, the first one I chose.  I was drawn in by the bright colors of the cover and the fact that the word "project" went along with "pregnancy" was intriguing to me.

I was surprised that this was a true story to begin with.  At Gaby's school, seniors are expected to produce a final project on a topic they care about.  Being the excellent student she is, Gaby started thinking about this project early and began planning everything.  She planned what her bump would look like and feel like, she planned what she would say and do to make her pregnancy convincing, and she planned who she would tell amongst her friends.  After that, she only had to live her life as a pregnant woman and listen and observe what others were doing and saying about her.  The whole thing is equal parts bizarre, since we're in on her secret, and illuminating as we hear what others say about her.

This book does an amazing job of highlighting what stereotypes exist for pregnant mothers in their teens.  I love that Gaby didn't just do a surface-level project but took a topic that has affected her family many times over (including her own mother) and blew it wide open for everyone to see.  It was very brave of her and I love that she forced everyone to confront their own prejudices about teen pregnancy, especially those mothers who decide to keep their child and raise them.  But she doesn't just challenge the people who were physically present for her presentation, she continues to challenge readers to examine their own thinking and check themselves.

If you're looking for a true story and a relatively quick read (I was able to finish in a few days), this is a great book to grace your bookshelf and that will pique the interest of young people in your life.

I give 'The Pregnancy Project':
Thanks for Reading!


Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Review of 'Persepolis 2' by Marjane Satrapi

Note: Thank you for your patience as I finish up the reviews for books I read last year.  I am almost through my list and you'll be seeing reviews for 2017 reads very shortly!

"In Persepolis, heralded by the Los Angeles Times as 'one of the freshest and most original memoirs of our day,' Marjane Satrapi dazzled us with her heartrending memoir-in-comic-strips about growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution.  Here is the continuation of her fascinating stoy.  In 1984, Marjane flees fundamentalism and the war with Iraq to begin a new life in Vienna.  Once there, she faces the trials of adolescence far from her friends and family, and while she soon carves out a place for herself among a group of fellow outsiders, she continues to struggle for a sense of belonging.

Finding that she misses her home more than she can stand, Marjane returns to Iran after graduation.  Her difficult homecoming forces her to confront the changes both she and her country have undergone in her absence and her shame at what she perceives as her failure in Austria.  Marjane allows her past to weigh heavily on her until she find some like-minded friends, falls in love, and begins studying art at a university.  However, the repression and state-sanctioned chauvinism eventually lead her to question whether she can have a future in Iran.

As funny and poignant as its predecessor, Persepolis 2 is another clear-eyed and searing condemnation of the human cost of fundamentalism.  In its depiction of the struggles of growing up-- here compounded by Marjane's status as an outsider both abroad and at home-- it is raw, honest, and incredibly illuminating."

After I finished student teaching and graduated, I had some time before the New Year.  At the beginning of the school year, I picked up both Persepolis 1 and 2, thinking that my students would be reading both, but I was mistaken.  So I thought it would be a good time to read part 2 and see how Marjane was getting along.

This story picks up right where Persepolis left off.  Marjane steps off the plane in Vienna, Austria where she is to live and get an education in a much more free environment than her home in Iran, which has become incredibly stringent in terms of rules.  Here she spends her teen years... becoming a teenager and surviving everything that comes with it is difficult enough, but now put that teen virtually alone in this country she has never visited before with people she isn't terribly familiar with and with a language she doesn't speak.  I don't know about you, but that sounds like a situation that would make me cry.  I mean, I'm experiencing all of these physical changes, emotions I might never have felt before, and then I can't express myself in a language I'm proficient in with people I trust.  Wow.

What I like about this book is that Marjane continues her pattern of just gathering knowledge.  This time, she's surrounded by anarchists and people who come from different thought backgrounds, so she is reading all of these different works by these great thinkers on top of those she has already read... it's interesting to see her reconcile all of the knowledge she has been gaining for the purpose of making sense of the world she's in and that world she comes from.  That's what I find fascinating about being a teenager... you're stuck between what you know the rules are and then what other people say the rules are and you just have to... figure it out.

What was even more interesting to read about was when Marjane came home after finishing school.  She had to adjust to what like in Iran was like again.  Living in a different country and coming back to your home is such a strange experience... you don't even have to be away that long either to experience that kind of change, but she was away from home for about four years.

I loved this addition to what was started in Persepolis.  It made me think about Marjane as a person more complexly because she allowed me as a reader to know more about her and see how she changed and developed during this critical time in her life.  This is a great read for those who like coming of age stories and those who fell in love with Persepolis.

I give 'Persepolis 2':
Thanks for Reading!


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Review of 'Persepolis' by Marjane Satrapi

Note: I am working to finish reviews for the books I read last year.  This review is for one of those books.  Once they are finished, I will be reviewing more recent reads.  Thank you!

"Wise, funny, and heartbreaking, Persepolis is Marjane Satrapi's memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution.  In powerful black-and-white comic strip images, Satrapi tells the story of her life in Tehran from ages six to fourteen, years that saw the overthrow of the Shah's regime, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, and the devastating effects of war with Iraq.  The intelligent and outspoken only child of committed Marxists and the great-granddaughter of one of Iran's last emperors, Marjane bears witness to a childhood uniquely entwined with the history of her country.

Persepolis paints an unforgettable portrait of daily life in Iran and of the bewildering contradictions between home life and public life.  Marjane's child's-eye view of dethroned emperors, state-sanctioned whippings, and heroes of the revolution allows us to learn as she does the history of this fascinating country and of her own extraordinary family.  Intensely personal, profoundly political, and wholly original, Persepolis is at once a story of growing up and a reminder of the human cost of war and political repression.  It shows how we carry on, with laughter and tears, in the face of absurdity.  And, finally, it introduces us to an irresistible little girl with whom we cannot help but fall in love."

I love this book.  This is one that I read with my ninth graders while I was student teaching.  The kids really liked it too.  As an educator, I love that even though the history behind the story being told (the Iranian Revolution in the 1970s) was a little unfamiliar and took some time to work through as a group, this book was very accessible.  This is a story told in the form of a graphic novel which is great for struggling readers and for those who are looking to delve into this complicated and very politically charged piece of history.  The neat thing for me, as an avid reader of memoirs, was that I had never read a memoir that was presented in this way.

I appreciated that Marjane never held back anything from the reader.  She did an awesome job of showing what was going on, her family's take on the matter, and then how she reconciled with both sides and educated herself so that she could be an active part in this revolution, even as a child.  She did an amazing job of showing the reader what daily life in Iran under the Shah's regime was like, especially for women and girls.  Even though I'm very far removed from this part of history and this culture, I could imagine myself in her place and indirectly experience her daily struggles.

This is a wonderful graphic novel that will transport you and make you fall in love with Marjane and the cause that she and thousands of other revolutionaries faced during this time.

I give 'Persepolis':
Thanks for Reading!


Sunday, January 1, 2017

Goals for 2017

This year is going to be an interesting one.  For me personally, the main reason is because I am newly graduated!  This will be the first time I have quite a bit of freedom to decide what I'm going to do in my life.  In the spirit of this freedom, here are my goals for 2017:

Goals For Reading/Blogging

1. Read Up On White Privilege And Race.  I feel that this is a personal responsibility.  As a white person, I have the privilege to ignore the shootings that have been happening around the U.S.  I can pretend that these problems don't exist because I'm not personally experiencing them.  But if I, and others like me, did that, no change will happen.  I want to do this for my students who were scared when they heard the results of the 2016 election.  I want to do this for my students and friends who have to fight for their right to be taken seriously and to stay alive.  It's not much, but at least it's something.

2. Read 40 Books.  This goal is lower than I've usually had.  I will have quite a bit of extra time to read, since I'm not in school any more, but I want to read more for content rather than for quantity of books.  In school, I was swamped with required reading, so the reading that I did for fun, usually it was stories that I could become engaged in, but not always the books that I would be sucked into reading.  I read to think about other things.  This time, the function of my reading will be a bit different than it has been lately.

3. Half Of The Books I Read Will Already Be On My Shelves.  I have fallen into the classic reader trap where I buy a lot of books and then they spend a lot of time on my shelves before I actually get around to reading them (if I get around to reading them).  So I hope to weed through my shelves and find hidden gems.  And even if I find some duds, at least I'll know which books I can take off my shelves to find better homes for.

4. Blog Regularly.  My goal is to put out something once a week, whether that's a post about life or a book review.  Because of the other writing opportunities I have had this past year, this blog has really gone to the wayside.  I'd like to revamp it a bit and get things going again.  Give me a moment to get my life in order post-graduation and then I'll let you know what that regular schedule looks like.

5. Reread Harry Potter.  I have read each book in the series and I have seen the movies more times that I would care to share with you.  But it has definitely been a while since I've cracked the spine of this particular set of books that has changed my life.  I recently re-watched, from start to finish, each of the eight Harry Potter films.  I was taken in by the magic once again and I want to have that with the books.  I have my perspective on the series as a younger person, now I want my adult self to experience Harry.  Maybe I'll attempt to read the books in French or Dutch, since I have both of those sets as well.  It'll be good practice for me.

Goals For Healthy Living

1. Slowly Cut Out Meat And Some Animal Products.  Last Spring, I started my research on being vegetarian when I wrote an article for my university.  I interviewed people to learn more about their personal reasons for being vegetarian or vegan and learned about how they made the change from what most Americans would call a "regular" diet (leaning towards being a true omnivore to carnivore).  The article that came after that, I tried being vegetarian (or more accurately, the occasional pescatarian) for a short period of time.  While the ethics side of eating vegetarian is a great reason for eating this way, I don't think this is reason enough for me to adjust.  Call me selfish, I guess.  But what I noticed during this brief experiment is that I never felt stuffed after I ate (there tends to be fewer calories in vegan/vegetarian food than in meat-based food), there were a lot of options for me as far as things to eat that I actually really liked, and I generally felt good, physically speaking.  I can only wonder what would happen if I tried this experiment again for longer.  I also add the caveat in the title "and some animal products" because I would like to cut down on the amount of dairy that I eat.  Again, it's a physical well-being thing.  This will probably be the most challenging aspect for me, since I love dairy.

2. Get An Exercise Routine With Varied Exercises.  This is something that has popped up on my goals list in the past (and I know I'm not alone), but I have really been having trouble getting my routines to stick.  I do know these things though: I like swimming, yoga, and walking.  I think these will be the varied exercises that I focus on.  I also know this: I'm not trying to become fit or trim for a specific life event.  This past year, my goal was to fit into my wedding dress for my August 2016 wedding.  Once the day of the wedding came and went, my exercise and eating habits went to hell in a hand basket.  This time, I don't have such a life-event.  I'll be working to look and feel better for my own sake.  I'll have to have some safe-guards in place to keep me on track, but I think having that non-life event based goal will help me stick with it.  I'll have to think about a weight goal though.  That is a goal that should absolutely stay.

3. Drink More Water.  I think this will go with wanting to feel better physically, but it also goes with being very conscious that I don't drink nearly enough water.  I have a Nalgene water bottle that I often carry around with me, but I usually reach the bottom of it  in 2-3 days.  Not good... I want to at least work my way up to drinking one full bottle each day.  Progress is progress, I suppose.

4. Remove Useless Crap And Mess.  Over the past few months, I have really been bitten by the cleaning bug.  My house is an absolute mess.  A lot of it has to do with just having too many things.  I want to go through everything I own (kitchen supplies, books, clothes, papers, etc.) and get rid of anything that I haven't used in the last few months.  I want to have a better sense of organization and control in my life.  Why not start with my home?  And since my evenings won't be filled with homework due to being out of school, I think I'll finally be out of excuses and I can work on making this happen.

Goals For Life In General

1. Attempt NaNoWriMo A Couple Times This Year.  The only official National Novel Writing Month is in November, but I also plan to attempt it in January.  I'll have to see what life is like in November (I hope to be teaching full-time, but we'll see what happens), but I'm thinking I could also try Camp NaNoWriMo over the summer.  I believe if there's something you want, it doesn't matter how many times you have fallen in the past, you have to be persistent.  Here's to persistence.

2. Volunteer Regularly.  I don't necessarily need to find one place to volunteer at once a week, but that would be okay.  My main goal is to find a way to give back to my community.  For a while, I think that'll mean giving time rather than giving financially.  But we'll see what I can swing.  A lot can change in a handful of months.

3. Obtain My First Teaching Job.  I have earned my degree, I have a lot of teaching experience already... I'd like to become a better teacher with a class of students of my own.  I've been waiting for this for a really long time.

I think these goals will be enough to keep track of this year.  I hope that the New Year has started out just swimmingly for you and that it only gets better from here!