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.
Lines between dream and the reality of an isolated existence become hazy in acclaimed Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s newest novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: A Novel.
In high school, Tsukuru was included in a tight-knit group of friends. Although they were inseparable, spending their free time volunteering and studying together, Tsukuru felt deficient in their presence. Ao, Aka, Kuro and Shiro are each shown with a distinctly vibrant essence. In comparison, Tsukuru felt colorless, yet satisfied to be a part of such a special assemblage. This circle remained unbroken until Tsukuru was ejected from the group during his second year of college. At first, he thinks his friends must be missing his messages but after countless awkward brushoffs from their families, the banishment is clear.
Not having the faintest clue as to why, Tsukuru thrusts himself into an existential depression which wears down both body and spirit. Plagued by fear of actually being a nonentity, he is reduced to an inert husk. In Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, we are taken on an enigmatic journey as an older Tsukuru sets out to discover the truth behind his exile. He soon encounters ghosts from the past, new acquaintances and lovers in an oscillating series of hallucination, memory and restless fantasy. Only Murakami, a master of magical realism, could conjure such pensive yet uneasy visions.
Oliver Harris’ ne’er do well detective Nick Belsey is in trouble again in the novel Deep Shelter. A random encounter with a speeding perpetrator leads Nick to an abandoned bomb shelter. Finding some crates of champagne as well as some heavy duty medically prescribed drugs, Nick thinks this might be the perfect party spot to take a female companion. When he does just this, the lights are extinguished and Nick’s date is kidnapped, apparently dragged away into a warren of tunnels that could go anywhere. Nick soon finds himself in the uncomfortable position of prime suspect and quite possibly in the middle of an extensive government cover-up that leads back as far as the Cold War. With little help and almost no resources, Nick races against the clock to try and recover the woman he lost.
Nick Belsey was introduced in Harris’ previous novel, Hollow Man. He is a likable character and a good investigator, albeit one that makes very bad decisions. Harris handles the element of suspense well, and Deep Shelter starts quickly and moves at a fast pace. The setting is also amazing and Nick travels from the busy streets of London to mysterious locations deep underground, hoping to find a discarded clue that might lead him in the right direction. The writing is solid; Harris has degrees in creative writing as well as English and Shakespeare studies, so readers who enjoy good descriptions and a sharp writing style will not be disappointed. Readers who enjoy this novel may want to try Stuart MacBride or Mark Billingham.
This book will make you a better writer. It will also make you a better collaborator. It will probably make you better at just about any endeavor that involves getting people excited about an idea. Words for Pictures: The Art and Business of Writing Comics and Graphic Novels is a book about becoming a comics industry professional by one of the comics industry’s biggest names. Brian Michael Bendis has written the most popular characters at Marvel in many of their most epic appearances, alongside many touted professionals in the industry.
That last point is the most important. This may be Bendis' project, but it's rarely Bendis' voice alone. The first chapter may be Writing 101 advice, but that stops quickly. Most of the book consists of Bendis interviewing other writers he's worked with on how to put books together, generate ideas and then act on them. From there, he launches into working with artists, from how he tries to bring out their best work to how to get the best collaborative results. What really sells this is that Bendis got 14 artists from the industry to give their side of the collaboration. What gets an artist excited? What's the right level of direction? When does the writer need to back off and let the artist do their job?
The end result is that it becomes clear that there are any number of ways to successfully work together. A springboard is set up for aspiring artists and writers to find their own methods. Bendis pulls a hat trick twice. He doesn't stop with artists. There's an entire section devoted to working with editors. The most valuable section may be Bendis' interview of his wife, who handles the business side of his art. This book could make a successful artist out of a starving one and that's priceless.
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.
Erin Kelly’s Broadchurch invites readers to travel to the quiet British seaside town of the same name where we meet Detective Ellie Miller, fresh off a rejuvenating vacation and excited to return to work where a promotion awaits. She’s not back long before learning that her coveted position went to outsider Alec Hardy, an interloper with a checkered professional past. Simultaneously, readers are introduced to Beth Latimer, a typical mom and friend of Ellie’s, who is slowly reaching the gut-wrenching conclusion that her son is missing.
When a boy’s body is discovered on the beach, word spreads quickly through the small town. Ellie and Hardy arrive and immediately realize the death was no accident. Anguished mom Beth races to the scene only to learn that the dead boy is indeed her 11-year-old son Danny. As Ellie and Hardy work together to solve this devastating crime, they must also deal with two distraught families and a shattered community. The investigation intensifies, and it becomes clear that the killer is someone close to home. No one is immune from being cast a suspect, including Beth Latimer and her husband. This is a gripping, dramatic story set in a seemingly sleepy town that is bubbling with secrets and lies.
Kelly’s novel is an adaptation of the first season of the hit British drama Broadchurch, available on DVD. In October, FOX will begin airing Gracepoint, a 10-part reworking of the British drama set in California but interestingly featuring the same lead actor, David Tennant.
Throughout her career, author Mary Jo Putney has received multiple RITA nominations and awards, two Romantic Times Career Achievement Awards and the Romance Writers of America’s Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013. She also has something in common with many of our readers — she’s a BCPL customer! In Putney’s new book Not Quite a Wife, which recently hit The New York Times Best Sellers list, fate brings a couple back together for a second chance at love.
Putney recently took some time to answer questions for our Between the Covers readers. Read on to learn more about her new book, her advice for aspiring writers and her favorite things about Baltimore.
Between the Covers: Describe Not Quite a Wife in one sentence.
Mary Jo Putney: A long-estranged couple who never stopped loving each other must come together again to see if they can rebuild their marriage.
BTC: You’ve written in several genres throughout your career, but you’re probably best known for your rich historical romances. What about the Regency era inspires you most? Do you find yourself researching less now or does each book and its characters demand its own research?
MJP: The Regency was a time of change, a transition from the old regime world into what has become our modern world. The industrial age was shattering the old feudal/agricultural structure, the ideas of the enlightenment were leading to better education, more equality and individualism and reform moves like abolition and eventually women's rights. There was also the creative Romantic revolution in writing, painting, music and other areas of life. Plus, a great war against a continental tyrant: Napoleon. It gives writers so much to work with!
The amount of research varies. By now, I've developed a fairly broad foundation of Regency knowledge, but every book will have some new topics to research. For example, in Not Quite a Wife I was looking at things like Bristol's historic role in the slave trade and the development of steamship service on the Thames as well as studying maps of London's dockyards. That's part of what makes writing historical novels so interesting.
BTC: What’s a typical work day like for you? Is there such a thing as a typical work day?
MJP: Days can vary enormously! I'm more owl than lark. After breakfast, I sip coffee and check email. Three mornings a week, I go to Curves to exercise, since sitting at a computer too long is hard on the body and I need to stretch. I spend time on blogging — I'm part of a long running blog, the Word Wenches, and we all contribute regularly. (They're a great group, both as writers and as friends.)
I also spend a fair amount of time working at re-publishing my older books. I love that it's now possible to make all those backlist stories available as e-books. But the closer a deadline is, the more time I spend actually writing new work. Everything else gets pushed out!
BTC: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
MJP: Read, read, read! You need to thoroughly understand the genre you want to write in, and what you love to read and to write. You also need to work on the craft of writing. No matter how good a natural storyteller you are, you must also have enough writing skill to tell that story well. For romance writers, I recommend joining the Romance Writers of America. It's a large group with a lot of classes and opportunities to find critique. The local chapter is Maryland Romance Writers, and I've been a member since two months after I started my first book.
BTC: What are your favorite things about living in Baltimore?
MJP: I love the variety and history of Baltimore and Maryland. The people are nice, the weather provides four distinct and generally pleasant seasons, and there's lots of social and historical texture. Since I didn't grow up here, there are still things I'm learning despite having lived in Baltimore for many years.
BTC: What can readers look forward to from you next?
MJP: I've been writing a Regency historical series called the Lost Lords. All the heroes attended a school for boys of "good birth and bad behavior." Basically, as kids they were square pegs in round holes, and the school not only taught them how to adapt to society without losing their souls, but how to build deep friendships as well.
The sixth book in the series, Not Quite a Wife, has just been released, and I'm working on the book for next year, Not Always a Saint. Though the different characters show up in different stories, basically each book stands alone by focusing on the romance of just one couple.
Thanks for having me here! Since BCPL is my local library, this is a particular pleasure.
Stuck. That's what Nora Webster is since her beloved husband Maurice died. With four children, the 40-year-old widow is mindful of the hole in their lives while trying to eke out their existence in the small Irish town where everyone knows your business. Set 40 years ago amidst Ireland’s religious unrest, Colm Tóibín’s newest novel, Nora Webster, is a quiet and eloquent study of the power of transformative grief and the new way of living that only Nora and her family can define.
Protective and no nonsense, Nora knows it's now her role to run a household that includes two growing boys and two daughters on the brink of adulthood. Through the careful, keen observations of family and friends, we get to know and sympathize with Tóibín's stubborn and private protagonist. While people swirl around her, Nora can only ponder the course her life has taken, the decisions she has made, the actions she has regretted. She is not the only one grieving. All the while her children, especially her boys, Conor and Donal, wait with unmet needs. When she does unwittingly nudge toward a passion that stirs her, contentment is slow to insert itself.
A recurring Man Booker Prize finalist, Tóibín is the author of six previous novels including the provocative Testament of Mary. Here he offers up the richest of character portraits in Nora and her family while smoothly glancing the social, religious and political issues of the day. Complicated and contemplative, reflective and fluent, Tóibín probes Nora's mind with a subtle psychological deftness until we, too, feel as intimate with her as those in her orbit. It is confident, undramatic prose that takes us to Enniscorthy, Tóibín’s birthplace, and to the solitary effort of learning to live again. Fans of this highly regarded contemporary writer will not have to wait too long for his next book; On Elizabeth Bishop is due out next April.
Once, Bell Elkins dreamed of escaping her West Virginia hometown of Ackers Gap, with its looming mountains and desperate poverty. But after living in the highest corporate echelons of Washington, D.C., Bell realizes that pursuing justice for the rich and powerful provides little professional satisfaction. Instead, she returns home to become the county prosecutor for Rathune County. Bell is forced to deal with the aftermath of her traumatic upbringing in Julia Keller’s latest novel, Summer of the Dead.
Bell’s older sister, Shirley, has been paroled from prison after serving a 30-year sentence for killing their father to prevent him from sexually molesting Bell. Through one horrifically violent act, Shirley gives Bell a chance at a decent life. Bell knows she owes Shirley, but her sister is angry and out of control.
While trying to heal her damaged relationship with her sister, Bell has two murders to solve. In one, an old man everyone liked was inexplicably bludgeoned to death in his driveway. In the other, a middle-aged man was killed while walking in the woods at night. There are few clues, and no obvious reasons. What little information is available leads Bell to the home of a retired coal miner and his daughter, Lindy. Lindy struggles to protect her damaged, sometimes violent parent by re-creating the mine her dad finds so familiar and comforting in the basement of their ramshackle home. As her father descends ever-deeper into dementia, Lindy discovers long-held secrets that reach into surprising places, proving that while everyone may know your name in a small town, that doesn’t mean they know you.
Julia Keller was a reporter and editor for the Chicago Tribune for 12 years, where she won the Pulitzer Prize. She was born and raised in West Virginia, and her immediate experience brings authenticity to her sense of place and characters. The first Bell Elkins novel, A Killing in the Hills won the Barry Award for best first novel. Readers who enjoy strong female characters or a rural setting will especially enjoy this series.
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.