Category Archives: Books

Book Review: From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, by Caitlin Doughty

The Husband says that I have a morbid fascination with death.

And he’s absolutely correct.

For the longest time, I thought that it was perfectly normal to read the obituaries every day — at 15 years old. (What, didn’t every teenager do that?)

I have a Spotify playlist titled Funeral Songs that I’ve selected as my personal soundtrack for that occasion. There’s a file folder on my laptop with the exact photos I would like displayed.

Maybe it’s the former special events planner in me. Most likely, it’s something embedded deep in my psyche as a result of my father dying suddenly and unexpectedly at age 44, when I was 15. (Hence, the reason for the daily obit readings.) I should probably bring all this up to my therapist at some point, not like we’re lacking for agenda items. Regardless, these are important details that can’t be left to chance. Besides, The Husband says he’s grateful for this vital information because should he wind up being the one in charge of these logistics, he expects to be in no shape to do so.

As well he should be.

Needless to say, I was pretty certain that I was going to love reading From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty and it did not disappoint. Curious to learn more about other cultures’ approaches to death, Doughty traveled to remote corners of the globe (and several United States locales) to observe and participate in rituals that may initially seem bizarre and macabre, but are rich in tradition, dignity and deep meaning.

Let me tell you, this sounds like my kind of trip. I found myself feeling slightly envious of Doughty, getting to experience such Mexico’s Días de los Muertos parade (today is All Soul’s Day, hence the reason for telling you about this book today). She travels to Indonesia for the ma’nene‘, an elaborate annual ceremony where the mummified dead are exhumed after several years, outfitted with new clothes and marched around the village in house-like structures. Who wouldn’t want to see that?!

*adds seeing the ma’nene’ to Bucket List*

In Spain, families rent rooms in oratorios (chapels) and “spend the entire day with their dead, showing up first thing in the morning and staying until the doors close at 10 p.m.,” while the deceased is visible under glass. (Note to The Husband: plan on that for my funeral, please. An all day party sounds perfect.) Green burials are explored in North Carolina; an outdoor cremation on a natural pyre is held in Colorado. A swipe of a coded key card at Japan’s high-tech Ruriden columbarium allows mourners to instantly identify their loved one’s resting place among 600 other souls represented by an illuminated wall of Buddhas.

As I write in my Shelf Awareness book review, From Here to Eternity is my kind of book. Part travelogue, part memoir, and part commentary on America’s corporatized, sterile death industry, Doughty writes with a keenly sharp wit and wry humor.

This one has earned a spot on my Best Books of 2017 List, absolutely. For more, read my full review here.

From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death
by Caitlin Doughty 
W.W. Norton
272 pgs.
2017 

 

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10 Years, 10 Books (#Readathon Challenge)

There’s a fun challenge happening today in celebration of Dewey’s 24-Hour Read-a-thon’s 10th anniversary.

Participants are asked to submit one book recommendation published in each year of the Readathon (2007-2017).

Now this is a #readathon challenge I can do!  All these books are ones I’ve personally read and gave at least 4 stars to on Goodreads.

I’ll even take this one step further. I’ll add a * if it’s a book published that year that I read during a Readathon! How’s that for book nerdiness?

2007

Dog Years: A Memoir, by Mark Doty

2008

Zenobia: The Curious Book of Business, by Matthew Emmons and Beth Kephart *

2009

Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann

2010

The Blind Contessa’s New Machine, by Carey Wallace *

2011

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes*

2012

Helen Keller in Love, by Rosie Sultan

2013

In the Body of the World, by Eve Ensler

2014

History of the Rain, by Niall Williams

2015

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nahisi Coates

2016

Love Warrior, by Glennon Doyle Melton *

2017

Long Black Veil, by Jennifer Finney Boylan

 

 

 

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Ready for the Readathon! (Kick Off Post)

It’s a special day for the book blogging community … today marks 10 years of Dewey’s 24 Hour Read-a-thon, an event occurring every April and October that brings bibliophiles together for a day of reading and talking about books with other kindred souls.

Dewey was a beloved book blogger who founded this event in October 2007. Sadly, she passed away shortly thereafter but I have to think she would have been thrilled to see how her idea of spending 24 hours reading has grown into something that brings people together across the globe.

I’m pretty sure I’ve been participating in Read-a-thon since the beginning. I seem to remember the first one.  However, I looked back at my blog archives and the first time I posted about it was April 2009. Regardless, that’s a lot of years — some more successful and productive than others, but always a fun time, which is the point. In the end, it really doesn’t matter how many hours or books you’ve read, but the enjoyment you’ve gotten while doing so.

I guess that’s true of life itself, right?

Currently, I seem to be in the middle of a bunch of books that I’ve had checked out of the library for quite some time. (At our library, we have unlimited renewals, so you can practically keep books forever as long as someone hasn’t requested it). Here are the books I have in my Read-a-thon queue and as always, this pile is subject to change throughout the day.

What Happened, by Hillary Rodham Clinton
Yoga Mind, Peaceful Mind: Simple Meditations for Overcoming Anxiety, by Mary Nurriestearns
The Trump Survival Guide: Everything You Need to Know About Living Through What You Hoped Would Never Happen, by Gene Stone
The Black Unicorn, Poems by Audre Lorde
Hourglass, by Dani Shapiro
Happy Foods: Over 100 Mood-Boosting Recipes, by Karen Wang Diggs
Living Mindfully: At Home, At Work and in the World, by Deborah Schoeberlein David
The Feelgood Plan: Happier, Healthier and Slimmer in 15 Minutes a Day, by Dalton Wong
Namaslay: Rock Your Yoga Practice, Tap Into Your Greatness, and Defy Your Limits, by Candace Moore

Clearly, there’s a bit of a theme going on here. (I also just realized there isn’t any fiction — much as I wish that The Trump Survival Guide was.) Like I said, that may change.

To get this started officially, here’s the Opening Meme:

1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today?
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania! It’s a beautiful, warm day outside so hopefully some of my reading time will be spent on the deck.

2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to?
Hourglass, by Dani Shapiro

3) Which snack are you most looking forward to?
Starbucks Very Berry Hibiscus Refresher!

4) Tell us a little something about yourself!

I’ve been blogging for 9 years.

5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today? If this is your first read-a-thon, what are you most looking forward to?

Probably won’t do anything different. I’ve learned that the Read-a-thon works best when I keep it low-key, fun, and minimal pressure. That said, my goals for today are:
1) Finish at least one in-progress book.
2) Rediscover my blogging mojo. I’ve been rather scarce in this space lately and sometimes the Read-a-thon helps inspire me to want to blog more frequently.
3) Have fun!

I’m planning to do at least one update post here, participate in some Twitter conversations (I’m @thefirmangroup) and possibly Instagram and Litsy, too.

Happy Read-a-thoning, everybody!

 

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Sunday Salon/Currently … Summer’s End

Sunrise over Wildwood Crest, NJ ~ June 9, 2017, 5:23 a.m. ~ Photo credit Melissa Firman

Count me among the many who consider Labor Day weekend as the official end of summer, regardless of what the calendar says. As much as I hate to see the longer days and warm weather leave (because I know what follows), I’m fine with saying goodbye to what was oftentimes a challenging couple of months and welcoming a new season.

I’m cognizant that this is my first Sunday Salon/Currently … post since May and likewise, that my posting frequency in general has been lackluster, with only 8 posts since Memorial Day. There are a few reasons for that. Several issues occupying my attention aren’t bloggable, and those that are — say, like the state of the world and daily onslaught of outrage provoked by Twitler, for example — often leave me apoplectic.

But, I really have missed being here more regularly and connecting with those of you who are actually still interested in what I have to say, so I’m going to try and be more of a frequent presence.

Let’s get caught up by recapping the summer, shall we?

June

We took our first family vacation in two years and headed downnashore. (That means the New Jersey beaches for those not fluent in Philly talk.)  Unfortunately, we picked the four worse consecutive days of the entire summer to spend by the ocean — cold, rainy and damp. Just miserable weather. I know, I know … a bad day at the shore is better than a good day at work, but it would have done our souls good to see the sun more than just the morning we left.

The Girl, during a very windy walk on the beach. She’s wearing a sweatshirt I purchased 24 years ago on our honeymoon.

As disappointing as the vacation was, there were some good moments. The sunrise above, for starters. I happened to wake up early and catch it, and I’m so glad I did. The Girl and I also enjoyed several nice walks on the beach, despite being bundled up in sweatshirts. (We walked a total of two miles on two separate days!) We had some great meals and only one not-so-great, and the place we stayed was fantastic.

Gluten free spaghetti with clams, Poppi’s Brick Oven Pizza, Wildwood, NJ

Mozzarella and Pesto Pearls (tomato, basil, mozzarella, pesto) at Panico’s Bistro, Cape May, NJ

Salmon with grilled asparagus over rice. Panico’s Bistro, Cape May, NJ

Rigatoni with marinara. This bowl was huge. Panico’s Bistro, Cape May, NJ

Mussels. Godmothers Restaurant, Cape May, NJ

We bookended the shore trip with stops in Philadelphia to spend several days with family and that coincided with a cousin’s graduation party. The Boy spent the whole day in the pool and was in his glory.

After we returned, The Boy went to a social skills camp for kids with Asperger’s. He participated in this program last year and it was a good experience. This summer? Not so much. A rough couple of weeks. It was a completely different group of kids and a new counselor from last summer and the dynamic just didn’t work.

The Girl did a writing camp for a week. This was her third year at this camp, which she loves. She also did another one-day writing camp at Chatham University and now she has her sights set on going to college there and working at the library. (She volunteered one day a week and we got to have lunch together, which was nice and one of the highlights of my summer.)

July   

The Girl and I were in a minor car accident on the 6th. Fortunately everyone was fine. My car was banged up a bit and wound up being in the shop for a month. These things are why one has insurance and I’m very glad we do.

Most of the month was spent dealing with some dental woes that involved several emergency appointments (two in one week), a consult with an endodontist (and potential oral surgery), three sick days from work, and copious amounts of Advil (we’re talking close to 12 per day) with an occasional Vicodin left over from my gallbladder surgery thrown in. It all just got resolved three weeks ago — with a root canal, not the aforementioned more extensive oral surgery — and this past Friday night, one of my crowns fell out. Here we go again.

August 

The Girl participated in Girls Rock Pittsburgh, a week-long camp where those who identify as girls and are tweens through age 18 learn an instrument, form a band, write an original song, create merchandise, take part in workshops (confidence building, healthy relationships), and record and perform their song in public. The Girl was initially reluctant to be part of this program but it turned out to be a fantastic experience. She played the drums and we’re now the proud renters of a drum set and an electric guitar for the next year.

Reading 

Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, I read 15 books.

Cocoa Beach, by Beatriz Williams
The Heart’s Invisible Furies, by John Boyne
The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance: Poems 1987-1992, by Audre Lorde
The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, by Cherise Wolas
The Grip of It, by Jac Jemc
Anything is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout (audio)
The Fifth of July, by Kelly Simmons
The Bedlam Stacks, by Natasha Pulley
South and West: From a Notebook, by Joan Didion
Ageproof: How to Live Longer Without Breaking a Hip, Running Out of Money, or Forgetting Where You Put It, by Jean Chatzky and Michael Roizen (audio)
From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, by Caitlin Doughty
Big Love: The Power of Living with a Wide Open Heart, by Scott Stabile
The Floating World, by C. Morgan Babst
Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, by Derek Thompson (audio)
Heather, The Totality, by Matthew Weiner

This weekend is pretty low key. Time to bring on fall.

 

 

 

 

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She Persisted: 13 Women Who Changed the World, by Chelsea Clinton

“Sometimes being a girl isn’t easy. At some point, someone will probably tell you no, will tell you to be quiet and may even tell you your dreams are impossible. Don’t listen to them. These thirteen American women certainly did not take no for an answer. They persisted.” 

So begins She Persisted: 13 Women Who Changed the World, written by Chelsea Clinton and illustrated by Alexandra Boiger, a picture book for readers of all ages.

The book was inspired by Senator Elizabeth Warren’s impassioned, vocal opposition to Senator Jeff Sessions’ confirmation for Attorney General in February 2017 — and the resulting backlash and instant meme from Senator Mitch McConnell’s response to her. (“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”)

For each of the 13 women highlighted in She Persisted, there’s a brief biography (“she persisted” is included in every description) and a poignant quote accompanied by soft, inviting illustrations. While some of the most famous names in history are included (Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller, Oprah Winfrey), there are others whose accomplishments might not be as well known (Clara Lemlich, Maria Tallchief, Claudette Colvin). All represent diverse individuals who have made groundbreaking achievements and discoveries in fields such as medicine (Virginia Apgar), journalism (Nellie Bly), politics (Margaret Chase Smith), sports (Florence Griffith Joyner), education (Ruby Bridges), science (Sally Ride), the legal profession (Sonia Sotomayer) and more.

There are, of course, countless more women whose tenacity and dedication resulted in remarkable, life-changing contributions to our world — which is exactly the point of this book that celebrates “all women who persist every day.” For young people, She Persisted serves as both women’s history lesson as well as motivation for dreaming big dreams and staying determined when those ambitions seem difficult or are met with backlash from others.

For grown ups, it’s a reminder of how far we’ve come — especially when current events seem otherwise.

Click image below to purchase She Persisted for yourself or to encourage a young person to dream big and never give up. (As an Amazon Associate, I will receive a very small commission from your purchase to help to support this blog and its content.) 

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Two Perfect Late Summer Reads

With the turn of the page to August, it seems like summer’s pace has a way of intensifying. What better time, then, to savor what remains of this time through a perfect summer read that offers just the right blend of substance without being too heavy and dark.

Here are two books that I recently reviewed for Shelf Awareness that would be perfect for summer days at the beach, by a lake or wherever you seek rest and relaxation.


Cocoa Beach sweeps readers across war-torn Europe to the tropical landscape of Central Florida in this breathtaking family drama set amid the backdrop and aftermath of World War I.  Bootleggers, bandits, criminals and conspirators are in abundance here, along with unconsummated marriages, grand estates and deception galore.

This was the first book I read by Beatriz Williams (who I also had the pleasure of interviewing for this piece in Shelf Awareness) and it won’t be the last. If you enjoy historical fiction spiced with romance and danger, Cocoa Beach is definitely where you want to be.

Cocoa Beach by Beatriz Williams
William Morrow
2017
384 pages

Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo captures the silver screen era with such luminosity that it is easy to forget that these are fictional actors and actresses. Evelyn Hugo’s seven marriages have been tabloid fodder for decades, but now that she is approaching 80, she intends to reveal all about the one true love of her life and hires a relatively unknown writer, Monique Grant, to pen her biography.

I’ll admit to judging The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by its cover, assuming this was going to be a light, frivolous romance. I was wrong. It’s a fast-paced read with much more substance here than one might think.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Atria Books
2017
400 pages

Visit Shelf Awareness for my full review of Cocoa Beach (as well as to read my interview with Beatriz Williams) and my full review of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.

I am an Amazon Affiliate. Some links may take you to Amazon’s shopping pages. By making a purchase, I will receive a small commission which helps to sustain this blog, its content and its author.

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currently … may 7

The Girl and I were at Barnes & Noble yesterday when I spotted this in the Philosophy section. (“Damn, someone took my working title for my memoirs,” I posted on Facebook.)  She had money left on a gift card from Christmas and desperately needed Sarah J. Maas’ newest, A Court of Wings and Ruin. She is a huge fan of Sarah’s books and finished nearly 100 pages before bedtime.

I didn’t purchase How to Become a Really Good Pain in the Ass, mainly because I’ve become a master at such, thanks to the nonstop political bullshit these days. I activated ResistBot on my phone after the House passed Tr**pDontCare this week (so freakin’ easy; text RESIST to 50409 and it walks you through a few easy steps to send faxes to your representatives). I’ve been a little lax on my phone calls but I’m stepping them up. I’m beyond furious (not to mention terrified) about this. Hopefully the Senate will do what they say and either reject this or craft something new or both because too much is at stake.

The Husband is back home now after spending the past week at his parents’ house in Philly. He was there to do what he could to help out with the ongoing Family Situation, which isn’t much. Although this week went rather smoothly here (I could have done without the lingering migraine early in the week — the same one that sidelined me from last weekend’s Readathon — or the tornado warning we had, which probably caused the migraine) it reminded me again of how much we could have lost had Thanksgiving 2015 not had the outcome it did.

Reading

I spent much of this week highlighting almost every page of The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World which I read for a freelance writing assignment. Honestly, I probably would have read this at some point if it wasn’t for this piece. More on that when I can say more, probably later this week or next.

Reviewing

In case you missed my post yesterday, my review of Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan was published in the 5/5/2017 edition of Shelf Awareness. Love that cover and the novel itself is pretty fantastic, too. Dark, gothic, and suspenseful, it’s a fast-paced, engrossing read about a group of college friends whose lives change forever when they decide to explore the dilapidated ruins of Philadelphia’s notoriously haunted and creepy-as-hell real life former prison, Eastern State Penitentiary.

Listening
My commute has been slightly better in the mornings but it’s still about 15-20 minutes longer because of the damn construction on my main route. I’m trying to look at it as a positive: more time for podcast listening. Best episodes this week were:

This American Life, “The Beginning of Now” 4/28/2017
We’ve all heard and read countless news pieces about why the 2016 presidential election turned out the way it did. This one is a little different. It explores the machinations behind a 2015 congressional race in Virginia that attracted the attention of some of the current powers-that-be in the White House and it’s absolutely maddening and fascinating.

Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin: “Brian Reed Thought ‘S-Town’ Could Only Ever Be a Cult Show 5/2/2017
Great interview with Brian Reed about S-Town.

The Minimalists, “Pittsburgh” 4/25/2017
I’m new to The Mimimalists podcast. This episode is from their tour, which started in Pittsburgh.

On Being with Krista Tippett: “Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant – Resilience After Unimaginable Loss” 4/24/2017
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, and psychologist Adam Grant discuss their book Option B, about finding resilience and coping with change in the face of loss and other significant events.

Hope your Sunday is going well!

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