What I’m reading: August 2022

Hi, hey, hello! I have a lot I want to blog about. I simply do not have the brain space right now. There are a fuck-ton of moving pieces in my life right now, which is an actual nightmare for my autistic ass, which does not handle change well and which cannot function without rigid structure, schedule, and routine. So. While I wait for things to settle down enough for my brain to be able to string together coherent thoughts, I’m sharing a few book recommendations for two books that I’ve recently-ish read, and one that I’m currently trying very hard to read (see previous note about lack of brain space).

Photo of the book cover for "On Immunity: An Inoculation" by Eula Biss. The cover is a detail from Peter Paul Ruben's c. 1630 painting "Achilles Dipped into the River Styx," which shows Achilles being dipped into the River Styx, held by his left ankle.

On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss.

I read this book over Fourth of July weekend and let me tell you, it was a trip to read this book when I did. Published in 2014, it references Roe v. Wade—several times—and in a way that assumes it will always be, which was particularly disorienting as Roe was repealed days before I read the book. And by way of addressing the inevitability of a future pandemic, it foreshadows Covid-19. Wild!

Biss is one of my favorite writers. Her writing is gorgeous, and she’s so, so smart. In this book, she merges sciences, medicine, personal history, cultural history, art, mythology, philosophy, metaphor, and ethics to discuss, as the title suggests, inoculation, vaccination, and immunity. In doing so, she highlights our interconnectedness, our responsibilities to each other, and the multidimensional nature of health. The result is, like everything else she writes (essays; books), stunning. My detail-oriented and pattern-recognizing autistic brain loves the connection of dots—the more dots, and the less seemingly related they are at first glance, the better. This book had dots. Lots of them. Big love.

Photo of the book cover for "Body Language: Writers on Identity, Physicality, and Making Space for Ourselves" edited by Nicole Chung and Matt Ortile. The cover shows brightly colored pink, red, blue, yellow, and green human-shaped forms arranged in a kaleidoscopic pattern.

Body Language: Writers on Identity, Physicality, and Making Space for Ourselves edited by Nicole Chung and Matt Ortile.

An anthology of previously published essays (culled from the Catapult archive) that describe and discuss the embodied experience(s) of health, disability, race, gender, sexuality, size, and shape. Didn’t love, didn’t hate, kind of liked, kind of didn’t. Ultimately, I think it’s a worthwhile read.

(I think my ambivalence lies in the book being an anthology, which means that although there’s a unifying theme that each essay is tied to, there’s inconsistency in overall structure, tone, and pace, because each essay is written by a different writer, and every writer has their own style. And, as we’ve established, my autistic brains likes consistency. That’s not the book’s problem, though. The book did exactly what it’s supposed to do. Also: What a great cover, right??)

Photo of the book cover for "All the Living and the Dead: From Embalmers to Executioners, an Exploration of the People Who Have Made Death Their Life's Work" by Hayley Campbell. The background of the cover is black, with a skull surrounded by a black bird, fern leaves, and a small assortment of orange-ish and pink-ish wildflowers arranged just below the center line.

All the Living and the Dead: From Embalmers to Executioners, an Exploration of the People Who Have Made Death Their Life’s Work by Hayley Campbell.

I ordered this book while listening to this NPR interview with the author. It sounded irresistible—and it is. It’s so good. I admit, though, that I’m biased—I have a thing for books that discuss death and dying and the funeral industry (I’ve been around death from a young age—from the death of many acquaintances and friends over the years (cancer, addiction, suicide, murder), to once being married to a man whose entire job every single day for many years was to conduct funerals for military servicemembers being buried in Arlington National Cemetery, to combat-related deaths of friends of friends).

Each chapter is a mini profile a different part of the death industry and a person or people who work in it: embalmers, international disaster response workers, a former corrections officer who was the state’s executioner, a man who owns a business that you can hire to clean a crime or trauma scene (once an investigation is over, the police do not clean up—the task is left to the families/property owners, to either DIY it, or hire a trauma cleaner), a funeral director, the director of an organ donation organization, a death mask sculptor, a bereavement midwife, a person whose job is to dig graves, the operator of a crematorium, and the president of the Cryonics Institute.

I’m about halfway through and so far I’ve found every chapter incredibly fascinating and nuanced. Also, I deeply appreciate that this book highlights the humanity of everyone involved—both the dead and the living.

Five related books that I’ve also read and recommend:

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