Bodies, by Susie Orbach
I picked up this book at the Strand, thinking it would be like Mary Roach's Stiff, but maybe I should be concerned that my first thought upon seeing a book titled, "Bodies" was that it was about dead ones. The bodies she discusses in this short book are very much alive, however, and this is a somewhat dry account of what it means to have a body (and all of the cultural and emotional issues that come with it). There wasn't too much new information here for me—the bits about infant attachment and mothering were interesting—but she never got too deep into any of the subjects to really hold my interest.
I can't get enough of memoirs from people who work in the death industry (funeral homes, crematoriums, morgues, etc.) but this one was a bit underwhelming. I was not familiar with his blog, but the perspective of a 5th (on his father's side) and 6th (on his mother's side) generation funeral director seemed promising. I did like his positive outlook, but about half of this (short) book is about God and spirituality. I'm personally not religious at all, but I'm also not against those who are—this book was just a bit too heavy on preaching and too light on real world anecdotes for me.
From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, by Caitlin Doughty
Back in October, I attended a book launch event for this book at Green-Wood Cemetery, where Doughty read some excerpts and then signed books ("to my future corpse," she wrote in mine). But then I took a break from reading about the death industry because—shocker—it was bumming me out. I also assumed that there wouldn't be much new information in this book for me after having read so much about death practices around the world (I was reading Death's Summer Coat when I attended the signing), but thankfully I was wrong.
I loved Doughty's first book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes about her time working in a crematory, and since then she's opened up her own non-profit funeral home in LA, founded The Order of the Good Death and became an outspoken advocate of the death positive movement. This is a quick read, but Doughty manages to be hilarious while maintaining an obvious respect for death rituals around the world and the people challenging our own death industry here in the US.
Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes that Fought Them, by Jennifer Wright
I just want to say right away that I loved this book. I was reluctant to start it because I worried that a long book about plagues would be a slog to get through (even for me, a person who regularly reads long books about similar subjects), but from the first page I was hooked. It's interesting to me that this book seems to either have five-star or one-star reviews—people either loved and related to Wright's humor and first-person interjections, or they hated them and wished she was more scholarly and dry.
Maybe it's the millennial in me, but I laughed out loud several times and never once found myself thinking, "boy I wish this book was more boring!" I've read a lot about diseases and the history of medicine (including entire books on the Spanish flu, lobotomies, Typhoid Mary and the Incas), and while there was a lot overlap, there was also a lot of new-to-me information. I don't think Wright's writing style or voice gets in the way of the facts, but instead got me so involved in a book about plagues that I actually missed my bus stop one night by several blocks because I was so enthralled.
I was vaguely familiar with the story of the Bielski brothers from seeing the movie Defiance ten years ago, but it was definitely something I wanted to know more about. The subtitle of the book does a good job of summarizing the story, but it was the smaller details that I found the most interesting—day to day life in the forest camps, the differences between the brothers' personalities and what happened to everyone after the war ended.
This is definitely a case of true life being just as interesting and every bit as epic as any work of fiction and the Bielski brothers are so heroic that at times it's hard to think of them as real, flesh and blood humans. But they were real, and after the war they (and some of the people they saved) ended up in Brooklyn—driving a truck, owning a gas station, opening a luncheonette. It broke my heart to learn that they struggled in their later years, anonymous in a sea of immigrants, and it boggles my mind the arc that one human life can traverse. The brothers may not be as famous as Oskar Schindler, or have received as many accolades, but there are countless descendants of the Bielski group alive today because of the brothers' bravery and convictions and that is nothing short of epic.