Caitlin Doughty grew up in Hawai’i, and early on became “functionally morbid” with death. As a girl, she witnessed a shocking accident at a shopping mall, which cemented her desire to better understand the afterlife, which she parlayed into her college study of medieval death rituals. In her book debut Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, Doughty brings this difficult but universal subject to light. Despite the dark and sometimes gory content, she conversationally illuminates her year at Westwind Cremation and Burial in Oakland, California, and what she has accomplished since. If you never before knew the methods (and secrets) of “dignified” body disposal, you will after reading this exceptional book.
Doughty sprinkles her text with plenty of food for thought, whether it be historical and cultural tidbits about death, body disposal and mourning in cultures throughout time and worldwide, or when she gives her strong opinions about what we in America are doing right and wrong when it comes to handling our mortality. She daydreamed that one day she would open a funeral practice called “La Belle Mort,” which would take the unnatural aspects out of the process, but instead make for an open discussion about death and the hereafter. A chapter focusing on women’s roles in mortality culture includes a passage reminding the reader that “every time a woman gives birth, she is creating not only a life, but also a death.”
The author discusses corpses of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the stillborn to the elderly, the suicides and the drug overdoses, those who died surrounded by loved ones and those who died alone. Host of her own YouTube series, Ask a Mortician, Doughty also discusses how unfortunate it is that so few people know the law with regard to their loved ones’ corpses, nor do they have a plan of action. A timeless memoir, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is both eye-opening and could start important topical discussions that too few of us are having.
Most home cooks are now acquainted with at least one family member or friend who is vegetarian, or may be vegetarian themselves. Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough, authors of over 20 cookbooks, have now published Vegetarian Dinner Parties: 150 Meatless Meals Good Enough to Serve to Company. In an extensive, chatty and humor-filled introduction, the pair discuss the value of dinner parties and the fallacy that these gatherings are in the midst of a comeback — it is their assertion that they’ve never gone away. They also admit to being “lapsed vegetarians,” but encourage the use of vegetables and fruits as the stars of any meal course. As they learned upon putting together this book, many of the recipes could easily be turned vegan, and over 40 percent of the dishes are fully vegan. The men also give suggestions for easy tablescapes and music to enhance any dinner party.
The authors describe the importance of prep work, and divide the book into seven courses that “follow the arc of a dinner party:” cocktails and nibbles, small plates, soups and salads, pastas, large plates and desserts. But they caution that there is no need to have all or even most of these courses depending on the guests, the hosts, the kitchen and time. Among the recipes themselves, there are helpful hints that indicate what part of the process can be done ahead of time, what can be skipped if time and/or ability is limited and what potential garnish and beverage would go best with each dish. Additionally, a suggestion is made as to how, within a full dinner party, the recipe would best complement other recipes in the book.
Weinstein and Scarbrough’s take on vegetarian cooking is very 21st century in its outlook. As they worked to perfect the recipes, they quickly realized that there is no need to hide fruits and vegetables with heavy creamy sauces or cheese, or to relegate these ingredients to sidekicks for a historic protein. Instead, the fresh, bright elements shine through as the brilliant features of the party.
Award-winning photographer Traer Scott brings nocturnal wildlife to vivid life in Nocturne: Creatures of the Night, her fascinating book of animal portraiture. A detailed introduction explains the processes that Scott went through to compose and best feature the animals, including how her husband constructed black foam core boxes to provide fully black backgrounds for the smaller creatures. She also describes in detail the experiences of corralling a little brown bat on to its “stage”; the short, vivid life of a luna moth and how she felt obligated to photograph and release it humanely; and the first defense porcupines use when feeling threatened – a pungent odor she found herself covered in when going for the perfect shot leaving her barely able to breathe.
The bulk of the lovely book, of course, is the stunning photographs themselves. Each portrait of the featured beings comes with a short explanation of some of the animal’s more captivating nocturnal behaviors. The author also conveys that the habitats of too many of the animals presented are being destroyed as humans encroach on their environment. From the well-known, such as species of owls, bats and raccoons, to the various felines, snakes and amphibians that stalk the darkness, Scott’s photographic subjects glow with life. The fur, scales and feathers of the studies catch the light against the black, becoming brilliant and almost tangible. An easy-to-hold size makes Nocturne a beautiful package to pore over with amazement at the photographs and the animals contained within.
At turns hilarious and poignant, Sisters marks Raina Telgemeier’s latest autobiographical graphic novel reminiscence of her childhood and adolescence. This family story is a companion of sorts to her earlier Eisner Award-winning Smile. The events of a fateful summer of her early adolescence are clearly depicted in episodic arcs which show the early days of two young artists. As the book opens, Raina, her younger sister Amara, and little brother Will are packing camping supplies with their mom as they travel from San Francisco to a family reunion in Colorado. This road trip doesn’t go quite as planned, of course, and the journey plainly displays a long-seething sibling rivalry between the two girls. In flashbacks, Raina’s initial desire for a baby sister quickly turns sour when Amara’s personality doesn’t match Raina’s expectations.
And there are other issues at play here as well – Raina’s father has been laid off from his job, and her parents’ relationship suffers because of it. A string of ill-conceived pet adoptions, culminating in a snake escape, adds another wrinkle of tension among the family members. But the concerns are limited compared to the amusing situations Raina finds herself in. Telgemeier’s signature vibrant line-drawings are deceptively simple, and her characters are portrayed with expressive detail. The full-color illustrations make for an appealing package which is easy to follow, given the non-linear chronology. Readers can easily empathize with the Telgemeier family and their frustrations and triumphs. Sisters is a quick, pleasurable read, and the book will become a sure-bet for siblings dealing with conflict.
Mexico City author Adi Alsaid ties together the stories of five distinct young people in Let’s Get Lost, his much-buzzed about, captivating road trip novel. Using an unconventional but ultimately wholly satisfying structure, the author first introduces us to Hudson, a young man in Vicksburg, Mississippi, who seems to have his life planned out. But then a carefree, plainspoken 17-year-old named Leila appears in her red car (with red interior) at the repair shop his father owns. Everything in Hudson’s life changes after spending a few short hours with Leila.
And this is ultimately Leila’s story, which the reader is told in bits and pieces as she meanders toward her ultimate destination of seeing the Northern Lights in Alaska. In Kansas City, she encounters Bree, a shoplifting runaway with a dark backstory; later in the Twin Cities, Leila saves Elliot from what could have been a life-ending decision on his prom night that didn’t go as he’d planned. On the way northwest to Alaska, Sonia needs Leila’s help after circumstances set into motion an international comedy of errors involving wedding rings, Mounties and Tim Horton’s donuts. Finally, Leila reaches Alaska, and the reasons for her bittersweet need to see the Northern Lights become as brilliantly clear as the Aurora Borealis itself.
Alsaid’s novel brims with young people on the cusp of discovering their potentials, which makes it a great read for teens looking for inspiration in their own lives. It will also appeal to adults with a sense of longing for open-ended days free of responsibility, when life’s options seemed limitless.