Book Club, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction, Travel

From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty

Another book club pick! I’m really enjoying having a book club again, particularly one that reads exclusively nonfiction! This book was originally recommended by a former book store coworker and I can’t wait to tell her what everyone else thought of the book.

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
Fascinated by our pervasive fear of dead bodies, mortician Caitlin Doughty embarks on a global expedition to discover how other cultures care for the dead. From Zoroastrian sky burials to wish-granting Bolivian skulls, she investigates the world’s funerary customs and expands our sense of what it means to treat the dead with dignity. Her account questions the rituals of the American funeral industry – especially chemical embalming – and suggests that the most effective traditions are those that allow mourners to personally attend to the body of the deceased. Exquisitely illustrated by artist Landis Blair, From Here to Eternity is an adventure into the morbid unknown, a fascinating tour through the unique ways people everywhere confront mortality.

Review

As someone who has lost their fair share of friends and family members, as well as pets, almost exclusively to cancer, I’ve never really come to terms with how we, in the US, process death. A friend, who is currently going to school to be a mortician/funeral director, introduced me to Caitlin Doughty, an L. A. based mortician and founder of the Order of the Good Death, a nonprofit organization that focuses on helping people come to terms with their mortality and make decisions regarding the care and keeping of their body after they die.

These facts, when the book club picked it, made me a bit wary – I’m still not entirely at peace with my grandmother’s passing in the fall. I don’t like to talk about death. I don’t like to talk about dead bodies. I have difficulty with viewings and other death-related occasions. But, with an open mind, I started reading, with the hope that Caitlin would help me develop a better relationship one of the only facts about our lives on earth – they will end.

My husband often says he wants a Viking funeral, or a Tibetan Sky Burial, and each time he brings it up, I ask him to stop. I can’t stomach it. But Caitlin has gone all over the world, and her own country, exploring different cultures’ death rituals. And maybe it’s her writing, maybe it’s the distance, but it is absolutely fascinating! I really could not put From Here to Eternity – the travel aspect also helped me stomach the content. And at times, I cried, but for good reasons – Caitlin expertly goes back and forth between being detached and un-emotional, to feeling all the things when listening to her coworker recount the circumstances of the loss of her unborn son.

People die all the time, and she also goes into why cremation has become such a large part of the modern funeral industry, as well as the monopolies, corruption, and out-of-date laws that govern the industry in the US. To say I learned something would be a massive understatement. I was freaked out significantly less than I anticipated being while reading Packing for Mars last month.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback – $15.95 – 9780393356281 – 272 pages – originally published October 2017, this edition published October 2018 by W. W. Norton & Company – average Goodreads rating 4.29 out of 5 – read in June 2019

Book Club, History, Non-Fiction, STEM

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

Packing for Mars = Book #3 for my new Nonfiction Book Club! One of the members, not me, is super into books about space and Antarctica so our May read and July reads have been picked by her. And while I am a person who is often freaked out and overwhelmed by the vast void of space, I, surprisingly, wasn’t too freaked out by Packing for Mars.

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
The best-selling author of Stiff and Bonk explores the irresistibly strange universe of space travel and life without gravity. From the Space Shuttle training toilet to a crash test of NASA’s new space capsule, Mary Roach takes us on a surreally entertaining trip into the science of life in space and space on Earth.

Review

Admittedly, I’ve started reading/listening to 3 Mary Roach books prior to starting this one. And while I’ve enjoyed them all, for some reason I put each one down without coming back to it after reading about 50%. Bonk, Stiff, Gulp, each one fascinating, but I certainly haven’t finished them. And I really couldn’t put my finger on why until Packing for Mars.

Mary Roach has a near insatiable curiosity – she could probably ask questions endlessly. I thought I was curious, but she far surpasses my natural inclination to learn about the same topic for any significant amount of time. By the halfway mark, my curiosity regarding her chosen subject is pretty much fulfilled. However, because of her curiosity, I see her fulfilling a unique role to the film industry.

NASA has actual space travel mechanics to figure out – I trust the astrophysicists to figure out how we’re actually going to move off Earth and survive, though I hope this doesn’t have to happen until after my lifetime. But science fiction film and books don’t always have a direct link to the scientists of NASA – enter Mary Roach! If the filmmakers of The Martian didn’t take a look at Packing for Mars or any other additional source material for actually living on Mars, I’d be surprised.

With the ever increasing temperatures on earth, as well as other troubles, it’s no surprise off-world action adventure movies have become more and more popular. Originally I thought Packing for Mars would make the great basis for a movie, but I’ve now realized it can serve as a popular science companion to The Martian, Passengers, and a whole host of other off-world science fiction adventures.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback – $15.95 – 9780393339918 – 334 pages – originally published August 2010, this edition published April 2011 by W. W. Norton & Company – average Goodreads rating 3.94 out of 5 – read May 2019

Fiction, Historical

The Lost Queen by Signe Pike

I’m reading fiction again! Oh my gosh, it’s a shocker! First time in 2 years!!! Well, other than Dear Mrs. Bird, but that doesn’t entirely count…

Synopsis

From Advanced Reader Copy:
Already being compared to Outlander, Camelot, and The Mists of Avalon, this spellbinding debut introduces Languoreth – a forgotten queen of sixth-century Scotland and the twin sister of the man who inspired the legend of Merlin.

This tale of bravery and conflicted love has everything you could want in a lusciously big and bold novel: courage in battle, enchantment, a changing society at war with itself, passionate romantic love, treachery and betrayal, and beautiful evocations of the natural world. At the center of it all is a girl becoming a woman who can throw a knife, read her twin brother’s thoughts, and fall in love with one man and marry another, a woman who must take frightening risks and make unimaginable sacrifices to secure the future of her people. Written by an extraordinary new talent and born storyteller, The Lost Queen mesmerizes readers through to its heart-stopping ending, leaving them eager for Book 2 of the Lost Queen Trilogy.

Review

Oh my gosh. I am so embarrassed to admit that I sat on this book for so long it is now available in paperback in the US. As a bookseller, when you are given an advanced copy, you’re expected to read it prior to the hardcover publication. Not the paperback… failure on my part. Though to be fair, I’ve had absolutely no interest in reading fiction for the past two, almost three years. So there’s that… But I literally carried the book around Scotland in January and didn’t read it until I go back and was missing the country like crazy.

I’d move to Scotland. I became obsessed when I first visited Edinburgh in June of last year and again when my husband and I road-tripped from Edinburgh to Kirkwall on the Orkney Islands and back in January. I’d love to find a job that affords me to the opportunity to spend every January there – it is beautiful and breathtaking, and I’m, well, clearly a bit obsessed. I told our publisher reps at the bookstore, I’ll read fiction – but only if it’s historical, set in Scotland, and not Outlander. Though full disclosure, I started the television show and I don’t hate it.

The Lost Queen is what I hope my own novel will be – a fully realized story about an extraordinary woman whose story has become lost to history, or worse, bastardized by the men who decided to make it a parable of Christian morality. Languoreth is the Scottish Alfhild (Alfhild was a Viking princess and subject of my current novel-in-progress) and boy can she kick some misogynistic ass. The Lost Queen, narrated by our fierceass protagonist, is her story, one of many years (roughly ten to thirty-two) and spanning a time of great change in Scottish history. It is post-Roman, pre-Viking, and specifically focuses on the rise of Christianity in the Western part of the UK.

Langoureth is my favorite type of protagonist, fiercely outspoken and one who is usually quick to fight with her words before thinking through their consequences. Some of the finer plot points and character relationships can feel a bit off/rushed/not fully realized, but it is by far one of the best debut novels I have had the pleasure to read. I’m already heavily anticipating the sequel – due out next summer – and am eternally grateful to the publisher for both the character listing and pronunciation guide provided in the book. So if you’re looking to get lost in a sweeping historical novel with tinges of magic, The Lost Queen is the perfect summer read.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback – $17.00 – 9781501191428 – 560 pages – originally published September 2018, this edition published June 2019 by Atria Books – average Goodreads rating 4.18 out of 5 stars – read June 2019

Non-Fiction, Psychology

Calm the F*ck Down by Sarah Knight

I’ve always been a worrier, and in my adult life was diagnosed with anxiety and suffer from panic attacks. But, I try to find books to help me cope that are helpful, but not overly serious. Calm the F*ck Down seemed like it would fit the bill.

Synopsis

From the back cover:
Do you spend more time worrying about problems than solving them? Do you let unexpected difficulties ruin your day, and do “what ifs” keep you up at night? Sounds like you need to calm the f*ck down. Just because things are falling apart doesn’t mean YOU can’t pull it together. Whether you’re stressed about sh*t that hasn’t happened yet or freaked out about sh*t that already has, the NoWorries Method from “anti-guru” Sarah Knight helps you curb the anxiety and overthinking that our making everything worse. Calm the F*ck Down explains the four faces of freaking out – and their flipsides, How to accept what you can’t control, productive helpful effective worrying (PHEW), the three principles of dealing with it, and much more!

Review

Ugh. I like Sarah Knight, I like her sense of humor. And I broke my no bestsellers rule for this book. The entire book is summed up by its subtitle: “How to control what you can and accept what you can’t so you can stop freaking out and get on with your life.” Great – how do I do that? Sarah starts by talking about how she did it – moved to a Caribbean island. Thanks Sarah. Think I can pull that off? No.

Everyone’s anxiety is different, a point Sarah acknowledges. And I think if this book were my first trip to the anxiety self-help book subgenre, I’d react to what she’s writing a lot differently. I’d probably find bits and pieces of it helpful, but it really boiled down to the fact that everything she said I’d a, heard before, and b, contributed to making my anxiety worse, not better.

Sarah is not a fan of the current president of the US. That’s okay, I refuse to use his name and love Alyssa Mastromonaco so I think that should make my position quite clear. But please, I need help dealing with my anxiety over the disappearance of women’s basic rights and fear that we’re about to go to war with some of our most unstable enemies, I don’t need reminders of how much his presence in the Oval Office terrifies me. Don’t tell me to take a nap and deal with it tomorrow.

While Calm the F*ck Down reminded me a great deal of my all-time favorite self-help book, You’re Not That Great (But Neither is Anyone Else) and I appreciated Elan’s approach to dealing with disappointment and accepting that we are not all going to be the best at everything (especially when anxiety is triggered by a need for perfection). I feel like Sarah ran away from the causes of her anxiety, and then attempts to help other people from her tropical paradise, which undercuts her credibility in my eyes. Elan Gale might be a Hollywood producer, but I found his position much more relatable.

Rating: 5 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover – $19.99 – 9780316529150 – 304 pages – published December 2018 by Little, Brown and Company – average Goodreads rating 3.47 out of 5 – read in April 2019

Bookish Tuesday

5 Recent Book Stores Visited

I love visiting all sorts of bookstores and below are just a few that I’ve visited since the start of the year.

Strand Book Store

Each and every time I visit New York, I make a point to stop by the Strand Book Store. A New York City institution, it is one of the largest independent bookstores in the country. My coworker Mary, who came to BookExpo with me on Thursday, had never been, so we took a short field trip away from the Javits Center to visit the 18 miles of shelves of books. While we always browse the books, we usually wind up walking away with non-book items as we don’t get our typical bookseller discount outside of the store we work at.
Strand Book Store, 828 Broadway at 12th Street, New York, NY 10003 – www.strandbooks.com

Oblong Books

In March I was invited to attend a book buyers retreat in Rhinebeck NY and while I was driving up, I kept thinking of how familiar the name of the town sounded. And it’s a small town, how could I have heard of it? It’s Lucy Knisley & Alyssa Mastromonaco‘s hometown! The store is awesome, and they happily let me pre-order/reserve 4 of Lucy’s books and Alyssa’s for their events and they had them personalized and sent to me! I now scour their website and emails for upcoming events to have books signed and shipped!
Oblong Books, 6422 Montgomery Street, Rhinebeck, NY 12572 – www.oblongbooks.com

Whistlestop Bookshop

My hometown has a bookshop! And it’s nearly as old as I am. And I didn’t discover it until last year. I blame my parents. I LOVE Whistlestop, though I may be slightly bias. There’s a bookstore cat (!!!!) named Mulan, it’s delightfully rustic and loved, the owner does every transaction without a computer, and his Agatha Christie is unrivaled – he has just about every title she wrote, something I’ve only seen at much larger shops in the UK. If you’re ever in the middle of Pennsylvania and want to talk mysteries with a knowledgeable bookstore owner, Whistlestop’s your shop!
Whistlestop Bookshop, 129 W High Street, Carlisle, PA 17013 – www.whistlestoppers.com

Watermill Bookshop

On our recent road trip through Scotland, I made my husband stop at countless bookstores, but I was most excited for Watermill. Owned by Monty Python alum Michael Palin, I had intended to pick up both his book, and Eric Idle’s. Unfortunately, while the shop is idyllic, it seems a bit stuck on the outside of the internet world. The inventory isn’t listed online, you cannot search for a title, and when you ask via the web multiple times for a title to be ready for you to pick up, well, no one looks at it. It’s a cute shop, but could use an online customer service presence.
Aberfeldy Watermill Bookshop & Cafe, Aberfeldy Scotland, UK – www. aberfeldywatermill.com

Reads & Company Bookshop

I work at the TOWNE BOOK CENTER in Collegeville, PA and live in Phoenixville, PA and the two towns are right next to each other. Reads & Company is a brand new bookstore that opened within walking distance of my house. While it’s exciting to have a hometown bookstore, it’s challenging to have one so close by. While we indies are known for supporting each other, sometimes it starts to feel a little close for comfort. Reads feels like a gallery space more than a bookstore, and I look forward to stopping by periodically once it feels more settled into the space.
Reads & Company Bookshop, 234 Bridge Street, Phoenixville, PA 19460 – www.readsandcompany.com

History, Non-Fiction, STEM

The Lion in the Living Room by Abigail Tucker

As my own little lion in the living room has been having a tough go of it lately (2 emergency trips to the vet in the past month…) my curiosity got the better of me (as it often does her) and I looked into why our house cats behave the way they do.

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
The correct reaction to a house cat isn’t “awww.” It’s awe. We house and feed them, caress and obsess over them. How did these tiny creatures become so powerful? Science writer Abigail Tucker embarks on a remarkable adventure through history, evolutionary biology, and pop culture to discover the origins and consequences of our feline obsession. A tour de force of science writing, The Lion in the Living Room is the fascinating story of how cats conquered the world and the human heart.

Review

I have always heard that cats, unlike dogs, cannot be tamed or domesticated. And until I went to college and my roommate insisted on getting a cat, I was firmly a dog person. I’d grown up with a loving mutt, Sandiy (yes, that’s how we spelled his name), and was devastated when he died of cancer when I was 19. I firmly believed when I graduated college, I’d get another dog. Her name would be Hermione, and she’d be a pointer. I had it all planned. Senior year, my roommate Kelly brought home a male Russian Blue kitten whom we named Recchi and taught to play floor hockey. He was a delightfully playful cat, but a supreme troublemaker, and solidified my desire for another dog.

And then I met my future husband senior year, a tried and true cat lover who cold shouldered just about every dog he’s ever met. The summer after graduation he desperately wanted a cat. And, shockingly, a tiny little kitten showed up in his mom’s garage. I thoroughly believe he willed her into existence. Of course, we had to keep her. He nursed her and coddled her, while ensuring that I did the dirty work of taking her to the vet. Ben had just finished reading the five books of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series and the show had just started airing, so we named her Arya. And she lives up to her name.

My cat has resting bitch face. She always looks like she’s plotting my murder and that’s her, now 8 years old, showing her face through the banister posts on the stairs. Hence, the curiosity – is my cat still a killer carnivore and hunter on the inside? The short answer, according to The Lion in the Living Room, is yes. Cats have evolved remarkably little since they first started to co-habitat with humans. They show some telltale signs of domestication, but for the most part, they still very closely resemble their larger wild cousins.

While parts of The Lion in the Living Room can get a bit repetitive, overall, it’s a neat book exploring the evolution and habits of house cats, as well as how different their lives are alongside humans compared to those cats who are still feral. From diet and exercise, to general demeanor, Abigail Tucker knows what her readers are most curious about. After every chapter, I’d look over at Arya, and see everything I read in her behavior. Overall, a very informative and often funny book, the perfect gift for the cat lover in your life, or for someone with the inexhaustible curiosity of a cat!

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback – $16.00 – 9781476738246 – 256 pages – originally published October 2016, this edition published September 2017 by Simon & Schuster – average Goodreads rating 3.61 out of 5 stars – read May 2019