golems, crematories, ghosts, oh my!

I read a lot of wonderful books this month.

I know what you’re thinking. “Mary Chase, how do you have time to read? Aren’t you in grad school? Don’t you have things to read for grad school? Why would you do this? How can you read this much? What’s wrong with you? Why are you writing this? Shouldn’t you be studying?” 

A few things:

  1. Reading is an important part of my self-care, and I find it very enjoyable. It’s totally okay if you don’t like to read. I’m not going to make you, or think ill of you if you don’t.
  2. I read very quickly. Thanks, mom!
  3. Depending on the size of the book I read, I can finish a book in a week  by reading 30-50 pages a day. I know that sounds like a lot, but depending on what I read, it goes by very fast.
  4. Related, read books you want to read. If you don’t enjoy reading, and you pick up a book that feels daunting and you don’t want to read it…you will never enjoy reading. Read something that appeals to you, and don’t worry if other people give you a hard time about it (remember our good buddy Dr. Seuss, although I’m pretty sure this wasn’t actually his quote: those who mind don’t matter, those who matter don’t mind). I have no intentions of reading Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s not my cup of tea. But just because I/anyone else doesn’t like it/doesn’t think it’s good/whatever, does not mean you shouldn’t read it and enjoy it, if it’s something you would like to read. And you shouldn’t feel bad about liking any book you like. Contrarians ruin everything.
  5. Audiobooks rule. And yes, it counts.
  6. I read many of these during the first part of the month, during my winter break.
  7. Yeah, I’m in grad school and I just basically read 12 hours a day. And it works for me.
  8. I’ll always be studying.

Now that’s settled, and without further ado, here are the books I read this month:

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
A Beautiful Work in Progress by Mirna Valerio
The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty
From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty
The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman*
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders*
The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs
Lord of the Flies by William Golding^

Audiobook* 
Re-read^

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Aren’t they lovely? Pardon my dusty coffee table. And don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker: 5/5

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I. Love. This. Book.

Aunt Carolyn (Christopher’s aunt) gave this book to me for Christmas this year, and I loved every moment of reading it. The Golem and the Jinni is a story about a Golem (in Jewish legend, a clay figure brought to life by magic) and a Jinni (in Arabian and Muslim mythology, supernatural fire sprits that take the form of animals and humans, and can possess humans as well) who try to fit in as immigrants to America in New York City in 1899. This story was such a magnificent adventure. Much of the book is focused on building a gorgeous world, combining American history, Jewish folklore, and Arabian mythology. The cultural aspects are so beautifully woven into the narrative — a lovely reminder that our nation is comprised of immigrants. The Golem and the Jinni is historical fiction, fantasy, and magical realism. Be ready to absolutely devour the last 80 pages. It’s definitely one of those books that you finish, and immediately regret finishing the book because you’re not ready to leave the world or the characters. Fortunately, a sequel is coming out this year called The Iron Season. *squeals with delight*

A Beautiful Work in Progress by Mirna Valerio: 3.5/5

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This delightful memoir was our book club’s January selection. Mirna Valerio is an ultra marathoner, and writes the awesome Fat Girl Running blog. She shares details of her life, how she became a runner, why she runs, and shares insight to the runner’s world. This was really fun to talk about with our book club, because we have many runners in the group (including my husband, who ran his first marathon last year, and my good friend Michael, who has ran more races than I can count and recently traveled to Greece to run the Athens marathon). We were all very empowered to run; to conquer physical feats (such as trail running), to do the things we thought we could not do because of stigmas or stereotypes. Because we have bodies that can.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn: 4.5/5

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My sister-in-law, Meredith, is 2/2 for suggesting books that I will like, that I in turn stay up until ungodly hours of the night reading. The first was The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah — our family was on vacation, and I purchased the book per her recommendation and promptly stayed up until 2:30am reading it. It’s incredible. She and my mom are in a category of their own: I know I will love whatever they suggest I read. No questions asked.

Meredith gave me a copy of The Alice Network for Christmas this year (she read it during The Nightingale vacation) and I couldn’t stop reading. I devoured this book. It’s the story of Eve and Charlotte (known as Charlie), two women who cross paths as Charlie tries to find her cousin two years after the end of World War II. The story is told in flashbacks to World War I, where we discover Eve’s past as a spy for the Allies and a member of The Alice Network (that’s all I’ll say, go read it). It’s a lovely work of historical fiction and compulsively readable.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty: 5/5

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I’m not sure where to begin. I absolutely loved this book. As soon as I finished it, my first thought was, “I have to read this again.” Caitlin Doughty is the host of Ask a Mortician and now one of my personal heroes. Her videos are hinged on death education — to quell death anxiety and stigma around death and loss, combat our cultural (for the U.S., anyway) fear of death and dying, and share though warmth and humor, how to deal with the ultimate concern (Yalom, 1980). I’ve written that a lot lately, so I thought I should cite it in my blog.

I read this book for both personal and professional interest. As many of you know, I am pursuing my PhD in Counselor Education and Practice, and death anxiety is on my research agenda. I’ll share more about that later.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is Doughty’s memoir of her year working as a crematory operator for a funeral home in San Fransisco. The lessons are heartfelt, told with warmth, humor and without inhibition. I cannot recommend this one enough. I’d like to make it a class requirement one day for counselors in training.

From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty: 5/5

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My sister Jayme gave both of Doughty’s books to me for Christmas this year (my family knows me well) and I devoured this one as soon as I finished Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. From Here to Eternity is a beautiful book. In each chapter, Doughty shares various accounts of cultural death rituals from all over the world. It really shines a light on our Americanized fear of death/dying/dead bodies, especially learning how so many different cultures deal with grief by spending time with dead bodies. This one is a bit more structured and informational than her memoir, but equally as readable and fascinating. I loved it.

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins: 4.5/5

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This was, without a doubt, the weirdest book I have ever read in my life, and unlike any book I have read before. The Library at Mount Char is wildly original, bizarre, terrifying, and hilarious. It’s fantasy/science fiction/horror/dystopia and I can’t compare it to anything. I don’t really know how to write this blurb about it. I will say this was one of Victoria Schwab’s (author of my new favorite fantasy series, Shades of Magic) “just trust me” recommendations. I adore Schwab’s work – in fact, I’ll probably write a post dedicated to her books – so I trusted the recommendation she provided on a guest post with NPR. It took me about 100 pages to get into the story — it’s just so bizarre — but once I was 100 pages in, I couldn’t put it down. Also, Scott Hawkins lives in Atlanta, which I think is really cool. It’s a good city.

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman: 5/5

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The Rules of Magic was my first audiobook of the year, and it was just fantastic. It’s read by Marin Ireland, and I was sad to finish. I did not want it to end. It’s about the lives of Frances and Jet, the aunts in Practical Magic (side note: I love Practical Magic, and I had no idea it was a book first. The Rules of Magic is the prequel). This book is truly magical — Ireland reads the glorious world Hoffman built, and spans decades. It’s a story of love, grief, family, and the importance of being true to who you are.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: 5/5

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Lincoln in the Bardo is right up there with The Library at Mount Char when it comes to the category of “weird books that I loved.” I listened to this book, and it is hands-down the best audiobook I’ve ever experienced. If you listen to any books this year, make sure this one is on your list. I’ll probably read the book one day, but listening to the cast of voices (166 total, led by Nick Offerman and David Sedaris) with Saunders’ strange, albeit beautiful storytelling was just incredible. I felt like I was listening to a Greek Chorus tell a Civil War ghost story. Lincoln in the Bardo is a story about heart-wrenching grief and love, told with bursts of humor and fascinating accounts of history. It checks all my boxes, and I will be listening to it again with Christopher on our next road trip.

The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs: 4.5/5

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Last year, I read Paul Kalanithi’s incredible memoir When Breath Becomes Air, in which he accounts his final days and the journey of having terminal cancer at age 37. His wife wrote the epilogue after his death. I came across The Bright Hour after discovering that Kalanithi’s widow Lucy is now dating Riggs’ widower John. Nina Riggs died of metastatic breast cancer at age 39. She is a direct descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and shares her family history, skill with words, gut-punching humor and profoundly human reflections in this memoir.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding: 4/5

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For my last book of January 2018, I decided to re-read something I read in high school. It’s been 13 years since I first read Lord of the Flies, and I enjoyed reading my copy from freshman year. I’ve changed a great deal about many things in the past 13 years, but not one bit when it comes to reading and taking notes. Highlighters, notes to myself in the margins. My copy looks like I could have made those notes yesterday, rather than 13 years ago. And in a purple pen, no less (What can I say? I’m very on-brand when it comes to purple). It was fun reading alongside 14-year-old Mary Chase.

The book itself is the same dark, dismal story I remembered with profound symbolism. One thing that struck me on this second go-round was a particular character’s death (at the risk of spoiling anything, it was not the one with the glasses that we all remember from high school). I don’t remember feeling gutted by this character’s death in high school. When I re-read it, it really stuck with me.

Most of the books I read this month have to do with death. This isn’t surprising, mainly because death is part of my research and the work I do in graduate school. But I also recently had an experience with death — my wonderful Aunt Ellen died on December 18, 2017, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. I’ll write more about her this year as well. Reading is also a part of how I grieve.

I hope you enjoyed this post, and I’d be delighted to know if you have read any of these books and/or will read any of these books in the future.

Cheers,

Mary Chase

 

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