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The Mourner’s Dance by Katherine Ashenburg

Death and mourning are experiences that are consistent across cultures; they happen to everyone, regardless of geography, ethnicity, class, and any other variation in experience you can imagine. While there are practices that are remarkably similar across cultures, there are also huge differences – some cultures wear white to indicate mourning, some black; some cultures use raucous wild parties to celebrate the dead, others find only solemn contemplation acceptable. The Mourner’s Dance: What We Do When People Die explores the traditions across history and finds a great deal of similarities, if not in practice, then in sentiment, of mourning practices.

One of the interesting things that Ashenburg documents is the use of mourning clothing, now in disfavor; we may look at mourning clothes as a ridiculous requirement of mourning, and perhaps it was, when widows and other close family members were required to were crepe, a rough and irritating material. But Ashenburg talks to those who long for the external marking of mourning that certain items of clothing used to indicate, so they can avoid being told by strangers to smile when they are experiencing deep pain.

Ashenburg grounds her book in the experience of her daughter, Hannah, who lost her fiance unexpectedly in her twenties. She compares Hannah’s experience to traditional methods of mourning than our less regimented modern Western society. Hannah gathered her friends close, shunning contact with others, as many mourners were given to do in centuries past; she switched her engagement ring from hand to hand on the date of their scheduled wedding, indicating a remembrance of their future wedding, echoing in sentiment the practice of holding a funeral with the deceased’s fiance in wedding dress; and Hannah would weekly gather to look at photo albums of her fiance, much as mourners would engage in rituals prescribed by society for a set amount of time. Hannah found these things intuitively, without the expectations of society to guide her.

As with another Cannonball book of Ashenburg’s, The Dirt on Clean, The Mourner’s Dance is meticulously researched and written, fascinating in its detail. It reflects an aspect of life that many may find boring, or at least less than scintillating. If you find the topic all interesting, the book will not disappoint.

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The Catnappers by P.G. Wodehouse

Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves are classic characters of fiction; P.G. Wodehouse is one of the most revered writers of English fiction, especially humor. Of course, The Catnappers (also known as Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen) is a wonderful comic novel, with Bertie and Jeeves in fine form.

The plot involves Bertie going to a country estate in order to take a break from his unhealthy London lifestyle; of course, he gets embroiled in a plan to throw a horserace by kidnapping a cat (don’t ask), and is meanwhile being constantly pursued by a former friend, Orlo Porter who believes him to be in love with his love, Vanessa. Hijinks ensue, and everything turns out alright in the end.

Perhaps the funniest part of The Catnappers is Bertie’s repeated attempts to return the cat to it’s owner, only to find it has followed him. However, Wodehouse’s wonderful prose creates many comic moments and delights at every turn.

The Walking Dead, vol. 14-15 by Robert Kirkman et al.

The Walking Dead comic series eventually feels overly episodic; Rick and his band of survivors finds a safe place, then they lose it to violence, then they move on for awhile before they find another safe place.

In volumes 14-15, No Way Out and We Find Ourselves, the survivors are dealing with something slightly different; they have found a community where they are actually safe, but they don’t feel safe. They steal guns from them and otherwise plot to undermine the things they have agreed to, in order to ease their trauma-inspired sense that something bad will happen any second and no one can be trusted.

As it works out, something bad does happen, but the people they have found can be trusted. At this point, any reader who is not thinking that Rick is probably the one who shouldn’t be trusted is much too influenced by the fact that he is the main character to see through to his actions.

Of course, Rick realizes his mistake and repents; but how many times can that happen to one person before it becomes completely insincere?

What Einstein Told His Cook by Robert L. Wolke

What Einstein Told his Cook: Kitchen Science Explained is a compendium of facts on different topics related to cooking and food. It has a lot of interesting information in it, but as it has no overarching theme or thesis, is best read in bits and pieces for the value of the trivia in it.

Wolke looks at topics such as salt, fat, and temperature in each chapter, explaining topics in 1/2 – 2 page subheadings that answer a particular question, like “why is red meat red?” “why do we add salt to boiling water?” and “what are trans fats?”

While there is knowledge to be gained – particularly regarding how microwaves work, and whether there is any danger in eating microwaved food – it is ultimately a book that is better as a reference than to be read all the way through.

The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin

The Panic Virus presents some information that may be controversial, at least to idiots: the anti-vaccine movement that has been happening for the last 20 or so years has been totally unfounded by any scientific evidence, and in some cases has been publicly championed by people who are not only not credible, but have vested monetary interests in discrediting vaccines. Meanwhile, the media has been doing their usual craptacular job of reporting the issue by giving fringe lunatics, with nothing but their gut feelings to back up their opinions, equal airtime to people with actual facts and evidence.

Mnookin details the history of vaccines – how they were developed, historical dangers, and the eradication of formerly deadly diseases such as smallpox, measles, and rubella. He looks at historical vaccine scares, such as a vaccine that killed multiple children because the vaccine was not preserved, leading to the inclusion of mercury as a preservative in vaccines today.

Mnookin then moves on to the evidence that vaccines cause autism, the most common complaint cited by anti-vaccine activists. To be blunt, there is literally no evidence to support this idea. The evidence cited by the anti-vaccine camp is that diagnosed cases of autism have gone up as vaccination rates have gone up, and that many cases of autism are diagnosed after children receive vaccines. Mnookin shows how the increased diagnoses of autism have gone up due to factors such as changes in the diagnosis, which led to more people being diagnosed, and diagnosis as autistic those who were previously diagnosed with schizophrenia, mental retardation, and language difficulties; meanwhile, causation is not correlation, so there was no evidence to begin with. The other main argument – that vaccines precede autism diagnosis – is so ridiculous that, while Mnookin does dismantle it, it is ridiculous on its face: many things frequently come before the development of autism, such as birth, learning to crawl, learning to eat, teething; none of these things cause autism. Many things come almost exclusively after vaccines; mental illness, substance abuse and dependence, venereal disease. These things are not thought to be caused by vaccines.

While Mnookin’s book is excellent – well-written and extensively researched, with interesting anecdotes and case studies sprinkled throughout – it is somewhat terrifying that it was necessary to write. Nevertheless, it is a wonderful example of sciological science.

Trauma Stewardship by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky

First things first: Trauma Stewardship is part of the canon on secondary trauma. It is about how people who are caregivers and activists manage their work, in healthy and unhealthy ways, and how they can move towards dealing with the trauma of those they serve in ways that do not deplete their energy and destroy their lives – or choose to get out. It may be because she’s from the area, but people from Washington State tend to get a little breathless when you mention Laura van Dernoot Lipsky.  It seems that someone is either pressing a concept from the book onto you, or is praising the woman behind it, who often does trainings for caregivers and social workers.

The book is totally up to the hype. The phrase ‘secondary trauma’ may conjure up an image of a privileged middle-class person who turns a blind eye to the troubles of those they serve, while meanwhile thinking their problems – there are 2 things on when I am gone and I can’t record them on my DVR! – are bigger than the problems of the homeless, poor, severely mentally ill, abused, or in crisis folks that they serve. Thankfully, this is not the case.

Lipsky first talks about what burnout means; it does not mean that a service provider is a bad person, or lacks compassion – it means they are not able to even see the good anymore.  She talks about institutional reasons why this happens, and how it leads to poor service. She carefully and compassionately lays out the features of burnout. This section is where service providers themselves will either nod knowingly, or get defensive, because we have experienced most of the aspects of burnout to some degree.

Lastly, Lipsky gives a path to finding a self-sustaining way to remain in service. Like most actual good advice, it is not clearcut or easy, and requires a lot of introspection and soul-searching. Lipsky does not give a simple answer, but rather asks questions to help you find an answer. She also acknowledges that sometimes it is better to get out, and does not see this as a weakness, or as giving up – as many social service providers do.

Lipsky also provides case studies throughout the book – stories of service providers who either had healthy ways of doing their jobs or had to learn them, are still in their jobs, or left for other ones. These stories help to make it an endlessly fascinating and useful book.

Fables: The Mean Seasons + Homelands by Bill Winningham et al.

Fables is definitely my favorite of the comic series I have started this year, in my attempt to remedy my biggest pop culture blindspot: comics. I have also checked out The Boys, Transmetropolitan, and The Walking Dead, as well as graphic novels Blankets and Maus. The series have their own particular problems, which fans of other serialized mediums will also recognize as frequent stumbling blocks – mainly, how do the creators keep the conflicts of the series fresh without rehashing the same old ones? How do the characters grow in interesting ways without becoming so different they are not the same characters the reader grew to love?

Fables seems to be able to find a balance between the two extremes – changing too quickly so that the premise of the story becomes obsolete, or stagnating – mostly because it can tell so many stories. Snow White and Bigby (the big bad wolf) can fall in love, and they can be kept apart for awhile by partly their own circumstances, and partly their own decisions, because the creators can sow the seeds of other relationships that may become as meaningful. It sidesteps the usual pitfall of sitcom couplings – a couple is obviously going to be together, but ridiculous contrivances keep them apart – by keeping the other storylines in play.

In The Mean Seasons, Snow gives birth to six babies that cannot pass for human, so they are exiled to the farm. Bigby isn’t allowed at the farm, so he cannot be around his children and leaves Fabletown. She seems broken and fragile, and he is wounded and feels he has no choice to retreat. Homelands picks up the larger storyline of the series more thoroughly, as Bigby is hunted down by Mowgli to perform a mission. He infiltrates the homelands of the fables to either start a war or end one, as he puts it, and in the process discovers the identity of the adversary.

By creating interesting personal stories of the fables – in past and present this series manages to make the larger storyline – a seemingly all-powerful adversary who wants to destroy them – seem threatening and imminent, but keep it at a slow burn. It’s a masterful use of pacing to tell a story, and I am hooked.