Monday, October 27, 2014

2014 Holiday Shopping Guide: Top Ten Comics and Graphic Novel Staff Picks




“Capturing the sights and sounds of the early 20th century United States, Kill My Mother combines the guts and glitz of an Old Hollywood film with spunky characters reminiscent of a classic radio show. With Shakespearean plot twists that you’ll never see coming, Kill My Mother takes you back to an America between wars, just before Prohibition ended and up through the Second World War, introducing you to fierce female characters whose ambitions are life-altering. You’ve never read a graphic novel like this before; Jules Feiffer’s Kill My Mother is sure to become a modern-day classic!!” —Mel Morrow



“My favorite new series! Bursting with raw emotion, suspense, and action. When the Joker tries to kill Lois Lane, Superman decides that the only way to protect Earth is to rule it with an iron fist. Half of the Justice League agree with him and the other half agree with Batman—that no one should have absolute power. Earth’s fate is in their hands!” —Jen Steele



“Don’t be deceived by the trim-size and length of this graphic novel: the story is dense and takes on a range of topics including college life, peaceful protest, police brutality, urban planning, military strategy, world history, and politics of all kinds including gender, sexuality, and race politics. War of Streets and Houses is Sophie Yanow’s experience as an American student at Montreal exploring her identity, studying architecture, and participating in several protests. The scope and depth of this work is incredible—in every panel and with every line, Yanow contributes to a complex tale spanning centuries of settlement, questioning what it means to be one of the many living in any given city across the world, at once anonymous and integral to the communities to which one belongs, raising the question: how do people come to know their place—in any place on Earth? Of all the graphic novels and comics I’ve read, this is by far the most complete, engaging, and altruistic: Yanow is the kind of artist whose work is destined for positive global impact. War of Streets and Houses is a lot of punch in a small package and will change the way you read graphic novels.” —Mel Morrow


“Roz Chast’s cartoons combine everyday minutiae with absurdity and a larger truth. In her first longform work of fiction, she chronicles her relationship with her aging parents offering her trademark humor and great insight into her life and into the readers too. Heady stuff for a book of cartoons. Great stuff!” —Daniel Goldin



“Finally! A book collecting the stories of unsung African-American heroes!! From the wildly successful and charismatic Bass Reeves to the elusive and entertaining stage magician Richard Potter, each chapter of this book fills in a blank in this nation's past. With plenty of signifyin’—and without glossing over the nastier parts that racial politics play—Gill presents a gorgeous collection of stories that will inform and entertain people of all ages. Discovering this collection feels very much like discovering a hidden manuscript containing vital pieces once missing from the tapestry of US history.” —Mel Morrow

 

“Jeff Lemire’s SweetTooth rocked my socks off! Now, in a complete change of pace, he presents a trippy science fiction tale of two very different people in two very different times whose lives are inextricably tied together. Smart, gorgeous, and just the right amount of weird. Lemire is a rock star.” —Greg Bruce
 

“A brilliant feat in storytelling! Philippe paints the images of our planet’s crisis with climate—or really our crises with it. It is literally in black and white—and terrifically researched. Did I say brilliant?!” —Jason Kennedy




“Andre was a legend for more than just his size, and Box Brown does wonderfully in illustrating a highlight reel of Andre’s best stories in the ring and around the world. Definitely NOT for children!” —Josh Davis




“The World War I 369th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed The Harlem Hellfighters, were the first African-American regiment to fight in the war, facing overwhelming discrimination and bigotry. It is sad to learn that these extraordinary men were not recognized or celebrated for their bravery and many accomplishments on the battlefield by the very country and democracy they served to protect. It’s an intense and important chapter of American History masterfully told by Max Brooks—history buff and brilliant World War Z author—in graphic novel form!” —Jen Steele




“Oh delightful beard tale! Bald Dave lives Here (an island surrounded by the sea, surrounded by There), where life is neat and tidy. Everything is normal—he works, draws, and listens to ‘Eternal Flame’ on repeat—until the lone curly hair that won’t stay plucked begins to grow uncontrollably and take over his face. And his house. And his town. And his formerly neat and tidy life! Both grave and whimsical, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins strikes me as the book Maurice Sendak would have written with Theodor Adorno, and reads like a rhyming picture book for adults. More than just a book about a neat freak and his weird beard, it touches on creativity, assimilation, normalization, subculture, media hysteria, government intervention, and the punk revolution. Whether you love, loathe, or are ambivalent about beards—you’ll adore this book!” —Mel Morrow

Monday, September 29, 2014

Ten Crush-Worthy Reasons Why You Should Buy, Read, and Blab about Sara Farizan’s New Young Adult Novel Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel

Eat your heart out, Clark Kent. 


Boswellians Jen and Mel were lucky enough to catch bookseller, lovely person, and award-winning author of If You Could Be MineSara Farizan, for a quick interview about coming out, seven-layer dip, and her new novel, Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel. On shelves NOW--go ahead and pick up a copy and prepare to spend the rest of the day getting to know Farizan's newest teen protagonist, Leila!! 


1. Both of your novels—If You Could be Mine and your latest Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feeluse first person perspective. What compels you to write from a teen’s point of view? In Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel, readers awaken to the nuances of Leila’s life alongside her; although they are roughly the same age, Sahar seems more perceptive than Leila. Does this have something to do with where and how they grow up? Is it a young soul vs. old soul thing? [RHETORICAL FAN FIC FOLLOW UP: what if they were a COUPLE?! **MINDSPLOSION!!**]

I’m fairly certain that I am emotionally seventeen, so that’s why I write in a first person voice. There’s also a genuine honesty in a teenage voice that gets chipped away the more “adult” a person becomes.

Leila is definitely more like me and grew up in a similar environment to mine. In If You Could Be Mine, I was also trying to address a lot of different issues and in an international setting. Sahar is more cerebral because she has to clue in the audience to a lot about her country, policies, etc. For Sahar in If You Could Be Mine, Nasrin is her whole world and universe for a long time. In Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel (Gosh I have long titles) Leila is trying to figure out how to get girls to like her and how to like herself. Leila also has a much easier life than Sahar. I don’t mean where they live either, I mean socio-economically and also that Sahar has to deal with the loss of her mother and taking care of her father.

I don’t think Leila and Sahar would make the best couple. I do think they would be kindred spirits and like each other’s statuses on Facebook a lot.

2. If You Could be Mine focuses on Sahar’s character development almost exclusively, yet Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel gives readers insight into the journeys of several complex, nuanced female characters while maintaining a primary focus on protagonist Leila. Is it safe to say you have a feminist agenda in your writing?

Seriously one of the best book covers ever.
Oh I’m for sure a feminist. I would hope everyone would be a feminist because feminism means equality between the genders. It doesn’t mean hating men, it doesn’t mean not shaving your armpits or any other stereotype that’s been associated with the feminist movement. It means women’s voices shouldn’t be silenced or deemed not as important. I hope I have interesting, fully fleshed out male characters too, but I think young women should have a lot of different representations/stories that speak to the complexity of what it is to be a woman in this day and age. It is so important for women, especially teenage women, to know their self worth.

3. On your Algonquin YoungReaders authors page you mention that the most difficult scenes to write in Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel were the ones in which Leila comes out to her Mom. You also say there that coming out is “just a part of the story and not the whole enchilada.” It seems like Leila is faced with multiple coming-out moments: were you trying to show readers that coming out may initially seem like one big moment, but it’s really a milestone moment that kicks off a lifetime of ongoing “outings”? So maybe coming out is not the whole enchilada…because it’s a seven layer bean dip! [<--- Jen's joke, FYI]

Haha seven layer dip! You are awesome. It’s funny, I’ve spent most of my life constantly having to come out, but before coming out as gay, most of it was coming out as Persian and having to explain what that means. It’s usually never with malice when someone asks/asked “Where are you from?” and I know they don’t mean Massachusetts. So my “coming out” is usually something I always have to deal with, as I suspect many other people have to too, for different reasons. 

I think that scene was difficult to write because I was remembering a lot of that fear and anxiety I had when telling my Mom about my being gay. I built it up in my head as this terrifying ordeal, and while it was emotional, and definitely not something that was resolved right away, I had other things going on in my life too. When my being closeted and understanding my feelings became all I thought about, it felt too much. It was consuming and gross. So I tried to write a story that doesn’t necessarily say “It Gets Better” but rather “You are braver than you know.” I’m not sure if that answers the question? And now I’m hungry for dip. Thanks. J

4. We enjoy how Leila and her older sister Nahal are rivals throughout the book until Leila paves the road to change with her coming out, which is when readers discover some of Nahal’s secrets. Do you believe “coming out” is a communal process, that it’s not just the individual’s sexuality that’s discovered and disclosed, but there are corresponding resultant “coming out” moments for the people who play an active role in that person’s life?

That's a table full of awesome right there, Sara!!
The Nahal character was to demonstrate what Leila thinks of as perfection. Nahal is going to be a doctor, studying at Harvard, which is maybe the equivalent of winning a gold medal in Persian parenting for Leila’s parents. So seeing Nahal making her parents so proud and being an example in the Persian community makes Leila feel like a disappointment. When Leila learns more about the people around her, and realizes not everyone is what they seem, she realizes that nobody has it all figured out. And when Leila does come out, it influences the people in her life and makes them change in subtle and large ways. 

And honesty and genuine feeling really changes a dynamic between people. When someone knows you are being yourself, they in turn can be their genuine self in your presence.

5. In Crush, Saskia demonstrates a more sensitive, educated approach to Leila’s cultural background than what Leila is used to from her classmates at Armstead Academy. Leila’s response is that Saskia doesn’t exactly fit in either—finding her at Armstead is “like finding a magical unicorn in a high school full of cattle.” Do you hope your novels open doors for people of all ages—particularly teens—to discussions about complex issues such as race, nationality, ethnicity, education, class, and religion, as well as gender, sexuality, and age?

I think there are writers who have been doing this for years. The late Walter Dean Myers and Nancy Garden come to mind. I have always been obsessed with identity and how we, as humans, perceive each other. I know social issues aren’t always sexy, and I don’t doubt I will be accused of being heavy handed at times or having an “agenda,” but if people don’t talk about these issues, no progress can be made. There are lots of different people in our world, and I would hope books reflect that.

6. What’s the deal with Saskia? You say on the Algonquin Young Readers authors page that she’s a “just a femme fatale sociopath.” Is she acting out because she’s neglected by her parents? Is she really *that* predatory? Trying to re-invent herself in a new context? Is she just bitchy?

ZOMG THIS COVER TOO!!!!
Saskia is a lot of things. She is an ideal, a great beauty, wealthy, exotic, intellectual, everything that we as a society have been taught is important. When Saskia reveals herself, we learn she has moved around a lot, her parents are never around, she focuses on Leila intently and doesn’t grasp when she has hurt someone’s feelings. She is initially charming, but without empathy. Short of killing someone, she exhibits a lot of sociopath personality traits. I know that it’s a common trope, but I wanted a character that looks perfect, and just may be on paper, but is not at all. Especially in high school when we idealize certain people because of their social status, their grades, looks, whatever and until you really know that person, you can’t tell if they are worthy of your admiration. A great many people may be admirable because of what they have or have achieved, but a person shouldn’t be truly admirable until you find out how kind they are. Nobody’s perfect, but kindness above all else is the most important thing within a person. I needed a character that is not capable of kindness, but has so many other traits that upon first appearance make her seem impressive.

7. Do you consider yourself a “lesbian writer?”

I’m a lot of things. Lesbian and writer are two parts of my identity, for sure. I am drawn to writing young LGBT characters, but maybe one day I’ll write straight main characters. My hope is to write about things that effect young people, but these first two books were very cathartic for me.

8. So we hear you’re a fellow bookseller…what’s on your staff rec shelf?

I do work at a bookstore now! I feel like I am nowhere near as well-read as my colleagues. I’m pretty good at shelving mysteries though. [We could totally use some help with that at Boswell, Ms. Farizan. Have you ever thought of living in the Midwest...?] And asking people if they’d like a bag with their purchase. I read a lot of adult non-fiction and just finished Five Came Back by Mark Harris, which was awesome. I loved Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris. My other staff picks in the store right now are Elsewhere by Richard Russo, In One Person by John Irving, and The Time Fetch for the kids, by my pal Amy Herrick. I’m excited to read One Man Guy by Michael Barakiva, Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour, and Glow, the Rick James autobiography.

9. We also hear that you’re a former comic book store employee…got any graphic novels in the works?

7-Layer WHAT?!?!! SCANDALOUS!!
Oh man, that job was great. It was a New England chain of stores called Newbury Comics and they sold everything. Comics, graphic novels, CDs, DVDs, t-shirts, toys, the whole works. 

I admire a great many graphic novel writers, and would love to write one, but it seems amazingly difficult to me. I love Brian K. Vaughn, Garth Ennis, TerryMoore, Marjane Satrapi, SKIM by Mariko Tomaki still makes me wish I could do that. And I love Clark Kent, more so than his alter ego. If you haven’t read Superman for All Seasons or Superman: Red Son, do it now.

10. If you could go back in time, what’s one piece of advice you would give your teenage self? Would it be about the fart scene Leila lives through…was that experience talking? [[insert laugh track] insert emoticon]

I never farted during an audition, thank goodness. 

I would tell my younger self to not be so anxious, but I don’t adhere that advice much myself. I was a lot more outgoing than Leila. I was school president and in a bunch of clubs, but I would tell my former self not to worry so much about the future and what other people think about you. I would tell her she just has to worry about what she wants for herself and go for that. And I’d tell her to not be embarrassed to like a girl. 



Friday, September 12, 2014

The New Novel from Sarah Waters, "The Paying Guests," is out on Tuesday, September 16--Read Our Exclusive Interview.

Next week the new novel from Sarah Waters comes out. This is her sixth novel, following Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, Fingersmith, The Night Watch, and The Little Stranger. Waters was one of the Best Young British Novelists for Granta, and all her books have received strong review attention; three of her novels have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

The Paying Guests has been hotly anticipated by Boswellians. Here's a recommendation from Jen Steele: "In the aftermath of World War I, Frances Wray and her mother must rent out rooms in their house, due to their accumulated losses and mounting debts. Newlyweds Leonard and Lillian Barber are the Wray’s first tenants in their home up on Champion Hill. It's a big adjustment for the Wrays, who come to terms with having "paying guests". Along the way, Frances & Lillian get to know each other, and what begins as a friendship blossoms into something more. Then one day a catastrophe strikes that upends their existence and that of everyone they know. Sexy, gripping, and suspenseful, Sarah Waters is in top form."

Boswellian Carly Lenz called The Paying Guests "A meticulously and beautifully constructed novel full of plot twists, character depth, and striking language." And Sharon Nagel praised the "supenseful and unpredictable story." With such enthusiasm, the three of them got together and asked me* to help facilitate an interview with the author. So we worked with our friends at Riverhead and to our delight, Ms. Waters (photo credit Charlie Hopkinson) was happy to ponder Sharon, Carly, and Jen's questions.

The Boswellians: Can you tell us something about The Paying Guests that's not in the book description?

Waters: It was a tough book to write! - both technically and emotionally. I took a lot of wrong turnings, and did tons of rewriting: I have a pile of discarded drafts that is literally three feet high. But once I'd found the tone I was looking for, it was a very rewarding writing experience, and I've ended up feeling fonder of this book than of any of my others.

Boswellians: What gets you in the mood when your writing books set in another time? Do you listen to any music from the topical time period/era while writing?

Waters: I can't listen to music when I write: I have to have boring peace and quiet. But I did watch lots of '20s films when I was writing The Paying Guests, and I looked at as many images as I could - of street scenes, say, and fashions, food, domestic artefacts. The internet is a wonderful thing for a historical novelist - though it can also be a huge distraction...

Boswellians: Your novels have a certain sexiness to them and your latest novel, The Paying Guests is being considered your steamiest novel yet. Was this something you wanted to explore in-depth? Is it awkward or fun to write love scenes?

Waters: It's fun, but a challenge, because sex is so complex: it isn't just the body that's involved, but the head, the heart, the emotions, and a good sex scene should do justice to all that. Sometimes, too, sex doesn't quite work, or fails completely - and again, an honest depiction should capture that untidiness. But one of the toughest things about writing lesbian sex scenes is that it's all 'she' and 'her': 'She put her head between her legs while she twirled her fingers in her hair', etc. Your characters can end up sounding as though their arms are ten feet long.

Boswellians: In the world of lesbian fiction, your writing of lesbian relationships has a rare, more literary feel than the average lesbian pulp, do you feel that portraying lesbian relationships as similar to straight ones makes that divorce from lesbian pulp easier? Also, The Paying Guests has a Patricia Highsmith feel. If you were writing The Paying Guests in the 1950s, do you think you'd have felt more pressure to conform to "pulp" standards or do you think you would have been able to write lesbian relationships in such a literary way?

Waters: I'm not sure that I portray lesbian relationships as similar to straight ones, exactly - or perhaps you mean I treat them with the sort of respect, honesty and attention that we're more used, in books and films, to seeing devoted to heterosexual lives? Yes, that's definitely something I aim for. As for the Highsmithy feel of The Paying Guests - thank you! Patricia Highsmith is one of my favourite authors. I'd like to think that if I'd been writing in the 1950s I would have had the courage to write in an ambitious, non-pulpy way about lesbians - she did, after all, with Carol. But I know that I've only been able to write in a relaxed manner about lesbians because so many other authors did it first, before me.

Boswellians: In your books, some of your lesbian characters live openly and some are closeted to all but their closest confidantes. What we liked about Frances is that she's true to her nature. Given the conservative attitudes in postwar England, do you think any gay people were able to live openly or were they all shunned? Is it possible that Christina and Stevie were living openly? (Help us settle a bet- Sharon says no and Jen says yes)

Waters: It was a really interesting time for gay people, because attitudes were changing, and sexual knowledge was spreading. Yes, society was conservative, and fictional portrayals of lesbianism from the time (e.g. in Clemence Dane's Regiment of Women or Naomi Royde Smith's The Tortoiseshell Cat) are pretty damning. But in real life, with the right resources behind you, it was clearly relatively easy to meet and form communities, to find lovers and sympathetic friends: look at biographies of women like Katherine Mansfield, Vita Sackville West and Daphne du Maurier and her sisters and you'll see that they had lesbian relationships in very unproblematic ways. Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge were part of a confident lesbian network. And Sylvia Townsend Warner and her lover Valentine Ackland lived together very openly in their small Dorset community. So I think that Christina and Stevie are living pretty openly, too, but benefiting from the fact that only some observers would understand them to be lesbian, while others might consider them to be simply arty, or eccentric, or two young spinsters sharing a flat. It depends what your idea of 'openness' is... So, Sharon and Jen, I think you are both right.

Boswellians: What was your influence for The Paying Guests? Was there any particular novel or writer that directly influenced you?

Waters: There wasn't a particular writer, no. One thing that struck me about the period was what a mish-mash of voices it was. The 1940s, for example, has always seemed to me to have a very distinctive idiom; but the '20s was much more diverse. So I just read all sorts of literature from the period - novels, plays, poetry, letters, diaries; highbrow, middlebrow and potboilers - and let it all seep in.

Boswellians: If you could, which time period would you prefer to live in: Tipping the Velvet or The Paying Guests?

Waters: The Paying Guests, no contest - simply because, as an unmarried woman in the 1920s, there'd be more ways for me to live independently. I think I'd have more chance of meeting other lesbians, too. And the clothes would weigh less!

Boswellians: In reading The Paying Guests, we felt like we were sucked right into the pages and were right there next to Frances, especially with the courtroom scenes. How much research did you have to conduct regarding the British Justice System for part three?

Waters: Tons! I really had to know what I was talking about, even if I never got to use all the details. I had in fact visited the Old Bailey in the past, so that was a good starting-point. But I had to get a handle on the whole legal process, as well as police procedure and stuff like that. Newspapers were a great help, along with transcripts of celebrated trials. I did so much research into it all, in such a short space of time, that I'm sure at one point I could have done a good job of defending you in court, if I'd had to.

Boswellians: Your couples seem so different from each other but they manage to fall in love. Do you enjoy writing "opposites attract" romances? They do seem to be enjoyable to read.

Waters: Well, I think it's partly something to do with writing lesbian love stories. Just because the lovers are of the same sex, it doesn't mean that there aren't going to be other differences between them - differences, say, of class, that might have a huge impact on how they feel about themselves, their bodies, their desires, their expectations and ambitions. The Paying Guests is the first time I've portrayed an affair between a lesbian and a married woman, so that was interesting. Frances is posher than Lilian, so has that class advantage. But oddly, her background weighs on her, too, in a way that Lilian's does not; and Lilian, as a wife, has a status that Frances lacks as a spinster. I like thinking about how those sorts of dynamics play out in a relationship. They're what give a love affair texture, and bite - don't you think?

Thank you to Sarah Waters and to Jynne and Liz at Riverhead for coordinating this. The Paying Guests is on sale Tuesday, September 16, at Boswell and, to use an old-fashioned tagline, wherever fine books are sold. Why not pre-order a copy from us? And to get another take on the novel, read Michael Dirda's review in The Washington Post.

*I'm just the secretary for this post, which is why it is in The Boswellians.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Introducing Your Boswellians: Todd



1. What do you love about working at Boswell Book Company?

It smells nice here... like toasted walnuts and hope.


2. What’s your absolute most favorite of all the things in Boswell right now?

There's a friendly umbra who whips about the store and plants more smiles in a day than I see almost anywhere. Maybe there are that many in the smile factory, but I wouldn't bet the house.

3. What’s your absolute most favorite of all the books ever?

Favorite. Favourite. Favorite. Favourite. I kinda like the ouuu sound in my head, even though it sounds the same aloud. Similar to theatre or colour. (I'm avoiding your question.)

4. What’s on your staff rec shelf?

Terrail's stuff! (We share a shelf.) Also, there are books from presses of all sizes: Paradise & Elsewhere (Biblioasis); Inappropriate Behavior (Milkweed); Woke Up Lonely (Graywolf); and One Man Guy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Macmillan).

5. For which writer—living or dead—would you take a bullet?

I would grab a bullet out of the air for Alan Heathcock. He'd name it and pet it and make it get over its past.

6. With which character can you most relate?

Sid Geeder -- from Po Bronson's Bombardiers. (BTW: PO! Stop writing all that nonfiction and return to the Dark Side!)

7. Someone wrote your biography – what is the title?

Distillery Tour.

8. If you were a super hero/ine, what would be your name, what’s your power, and who would be your arch-nemesis?

IF? So, what would my *other* name, power, and arch-nemesis be, you mean. Hmm... 

Name: Litotes; 
Power: Fathoming the Double-Slit Experiment; 
Arch-nemesis: Quantum Light.

9. Which band or artist would you drop everything to party with?

Jamie Cullum.
 

10. What’s your spirit animal?

I Googled this, and a website told me the answer = Butterfly. Or Owl or Hummingbird.


11. Forget “you are what you eat.” We’re talking draaanks—what beverage are you?

Bourbon or whiskey on the raaacks. Actually, probs that green smoothie from Odwalla.


12. Now we’re talking…dreams. What’s yours? 

Oh, I'm not ready for him to hear that!

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Book Review from Boswellian Mel: On Fire for Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory

I mean, come on--look at this jacket design!!

If you read nothing else this year, read Caitlin Doughty's debut collection of essays Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessonsfrom the Crematory. It’s not what you think. Perhaps you see that word—crematory—and wince. Perhaps you’ve had a rough year and death looms large. Or you don’t want to jinx a splendid year. Or just don’t like to think about death. This book is surely morbid and depressing, right? Wrong!

Now, I won’t go so far as Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is the MOST UPLIFTING THING you’ll read all year. Instead of a cheerleader, Caitlin Doughty is a firm realist. Her voice is that of the friend you go to when you want the unflinching truth. She does not revel in death. Nor does she abhor it. Rather, she approaches death with a scholar’s focus and the passion of person who has found her calling in the industry.

One part memoir to one part anthropology-meets-sociology study, Doughty is frank in her portrayal of the many aspects of the death industry with which she has been involved. Her flair for the written word makes her descriptions of some tasks—from embalming a corpse in advances stages of decay to shaving babies—easy to imagine and difficult to shake. This is exactly the point. Most people in this country believe death is a frightening, abstract thing that should be overcome, but when the battle is lost—preferably behind closed doors—professionals are required for the clean-up. That’s not fair. Doughty feels it’s time for people in the US to face death. Given that it is the one thing everyone on this planet has in common—we’re all terminal from the day we’re born—death should be the one thing we can count on to bring us together.

Doughty--labor of love.

I learned from Smoke Gets in Your Eyes that a typical American funeral home is invested in driving a wedge between people and death. Bodies are embalmed and covered with makeup to look “natural” so grieving families aren’t shocked during viewings, and then buried in metal coffins to stave off decay. There are infinite ways to “personalize” death—if you can afford them. In this day and age, you can even order a cremation online: have the cremationist pick up the body, prepare it, process it, and deliver the ashes to your front door. For a price, a person can choose not to face death. These are the supplies our death denying culture demands.   
Once upon a time, every house included a “dying room,” usually at the front of the house. We have replaced these with “living rooms,” filled the space used for death at home and quiet reflection with TVs and couches, and people are trundled off to nursing homes and hospitals to die. Whereas once people could die in the privacy and familiar surroundings of their own homes to be cared for by loved ones upon death, today most Americans would rather leave death to professionals. Caitlin Doughty believes—and I agree after reading Smoke Get in Your Eyes—that this is a sad state of affairs.

My problem with this hands-off approach to death is the same problem I have with hospital intervention in birth: if a person wants to handle life-alterings event in the comfort of their own home, they should be allowed to. I’m not saying that amateur hour is nigh—just that professionals shouldn’t intervene or control intimate moments if the family doesn’t want them to. If a person wants to handle the preparation and burial of someone they love, they can! It is safe and legal to wash and dress the body of a deceased loved one. There are laws in this country against home burial (check with your state, county, and district), but if you want a loved one to die at home and you want to grieve with them, and to wash and dress the body for a particular ritual, this is perfectly within your legal right. To say this another way, if your loved one is dying and they don’t need a hospital, they don’t have to die in a hospital—they can die at home. This is the crux of the revolution…because many of you might be thinking that if your loved one is dying, they must certainly need a hospital.

The Marilyn Munster of the Death Industry. 

You may be tempted to write Doughty off: she’s young, vivacious, healthy, perky, pretty, optimistic, and neatly groomed, so what could she possibly know about death? Doughty is all these things, and she certainly has her critics. But Doughty is also whip smart. She’s the founder of The Order of the Good Death, a salon gathering thinkers from myriad fields to discuss the death revolution. She keeps a blog and posts regular “Ask aMortician” videos on the Order website. In Smoke, we learn that Doughty is a woman who understands that the best way to change the industry is from within. She completed mortuary school, despite differing views on some of her instructors’ messages and practices, to validate herself to critics who interpret her Polly Anna demeanor as naiveté and lack of industry experience. Doughty is the Marilyn Munster of the Death Industry. She doesn’t fit in with traditionalists—and this has nothing to do with her looks. Rather, she is out of place with traditionalists because she believes a revolution is necessary. After reading Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, I agree wholeheartedly.

Caitlin Doughty’s mission is only beginning with The Order of the Good Death, “Ask a Mortician,” and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. One aspect of this work is to address the myriad misconceptions about death and dying that are so pervasive in the US. Another piece of the puzzle is to address the funerary rites our culture deems acceptable. Did you know that there are midwives who specialize in helping families cope with grief? Yeah! They’re called death doulas. Did you know that you don’t necessarily need to be embalmed or cremated? Nope! You can choose a “green burial,” which is placement in the soil at a green burial site, covered in just a simple shroud or a biodegradable vessel (like a wicker casket). No headstone necessary: should your loved ones want to visit your grave, they can take a GPS waypoint at the green burial location or plant a tree that will then absorb your decaying body as nutrients. Artist and designer Jae Rhim Lee has even developed something called an Infinity Burial Suit, which is a black garment laced with infinity mushroom spores. Cultivated with the amazing ability to break down the tissues of the human body, these mushrooms can even process toxins and heavy metals.

More than a treatise detailing her views on death as a mortal working in the death industry, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is a collection of recent scientific and sociological developments dealing with death, as well as a chronicle of some little-known traditions and beliefs about death. The writing comes from a place of passion and intellect; in these pages, Doughty feels like a friend and mentor. She does not condescend. She does not flaunt her knowledge. Nor is she flip about her work, as some of the more “traditional” morticians who have criticized her would have you think. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes may be the most important book you read in your lifetime. It’s paradigm-shifting, conversation-starting, life-altering stuff—buy a copy for yourself and several to share with friends and loved ones.