Thursday, November 19, 2015

Mini-Reviews: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and Doing Life

From Goodreads:
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.
Like every honest human being, the thought of death both terrifies and fascinates me.  I'm currently particularly interested in how weird Western culture is about death denial and the lengths we go to avoid facing death - our own or of our loved ones.  Although this book is largely focused around the author's experiences as a crematory worker, she also introduces other ways of dealing with the bodies of the deceased, including natural burial, which I found particularly interesting.  I highly recommend this from both a literary and informational point of view - it's a pleasure to read, fascinating, and the author is a talented writer who does a great job of connecting her experiences with larger picture views about death and dying.
 From Goodreads:
What does it mean to face a life prison sentence? What have "lifers" learned about life—from having taken a life? Photographer Howard Zehr has interviewed and made portraits of men and women in Pennsylvania prisons who are serving life sentences without possibility of parole. Readers see the prisoners as people, de-mystified. 
Just like I'm both fascinated and terrified by death, the thought of imprisonment completely captures me in a truly scary way.  These are all short interviews, a page or two in length, accompanied by photos of men and women who have been sentenced to life in prison.  Through the interviews, the author/photographer addresses the complicated issues of life without the possibility of parole as a sentence from the point of view of those who have committed the crimes.  It's an issue I've considered a lot lately, and I was fascinated to hear how the men and women who are facing that sentence talk about it.

I feel like, as in every other case, there are such good arguments for each position.  I was moved by many of the men and women who wanted to redeem themselves and make something of their lives.  I also noticed how frequently they used language that placed the blame on outside sources - they would refer to "the incident" or "what happened" rather than taking responsibility for their own actions.  The images are, of course, somewhat dated, but the book itself, and the issue of the sentence itself are still current and valuable for readers today.

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