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review 2017-02-03 04:10
The Chosen - Chaim Potok


Chiam Potok

Hardcover, 416 pages
Published November 1st 2016 by Simon & Schuster (first published 1967)

ISBN13: 9781501142475


I have liked everything that I have read so far of Chaim Potok. The Chosen was the first I read, and I definitely enjoyed it again. What made this even better than reading it the first time was all the back material, photos, new forward, and more that was included in this 50th anniversary collection. Some of this back info was written by Potok himself. As a Christian reading this, I found it interesting to read about the Jewish faith. I find that Potok, while using the characters' faith as a part of the story, still allows the coming of age story, the friendship of and the struggles of each as individuals to be the main subjects of the story line. His main characters are well drawn and complex. I would definitely recommend this book.

****I received this book from Simon and Schuster through Goodreads' First Reads Giveaway.****


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review SPOILER ALERT! 2015-02-23 15:01
All the Light We Cannot See
All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel - Anthony Doerr

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***


One-sentence summary: this isn't just another WWII novel; this is a novel about people and relationships--about what it takes to be a moral human being, about choices (good ones, bad ones, and lack of action), about hands being tied, and how interconnected we all are.


What happens. All the Light We Cannot See is like a double bildungsroman. It follows little Marie-Laure LeBlanc in France, and little Werner Pfennig in Germany from before the war reaches France in the 1930s to the present (2014). They meet in person for only a day in the novel, but from the earliest pages we know that they're interconnected through a web that Mr. Doerr weaves with the grace that only Charlotte has mastered before him. As Madame Manec comments prophetically, "My God, there are none so distant that fate cannot bring them together." (In a small example of how well researched this book is, Doerr slips this expression to us without any fanfare or showing off. It's likely that the French version Mme. Manec is quoting is Il n'y a que les montagnes qui ne se rencontrent jamais, which translates literally to "Only mountains never meet each other." Attention to this sort of detail explains how it took Mr. Doerr a decade to write the book.)


As a six-year old, Marie-Laure goes blind from bilateral cataracts. Her father, who lost his wife when she gave birth to Marie, is a locksmith at the Natural History Museum in Paris. During the day he keeps the museum's keys, fashions its locks and cases for the collection, and makes repairs. Marie-Laure entertains herself in the museum and learns at the hands of kind botanists and scientists who populate the research backrooms. She has a particular interest in mollusks, which she can identify and classify by touch. In the evening, her Papa creates an intricate model of their neighborhood in Paris, coaxing Marie to learn to navigate the city by memorizing this 3-D "map." For her birthday each year he makes a unique puzzle box with a tiny gift or chocolate inside, and gives her a braille novel--once, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, which ties in nicely, if somewhat heavy-handedly, with themes of the ocean and sea creatures.


Meanwhile in Germany, Werner Pfennig and his sister, Jutte, are orphans, cared for by a kind Alsatian house mistress who alternately speaks French and German to them. Werner is mechanically gifted and interested in math and engineering, but when he turns fifteen, he is slated to work in the the same coal mine that killed his father. Jutte is a bright girl who sees through the Nazi propaganda even in its earliest days, when the SS members are just a group of brown-shirted thugs. Werner repairs a radio that he and Jutte have found, and they listen to broadcasts from all over Europe. When they're supposed to be sleeping, they occasionally find the broadcasts of a French "professor" whose wonder at science speaks directly to Werner's heart:

 "Open your eyes," the professor said, "and see what you can before they close forever."

When the Germans are on the cusp of invading Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee--her father has been entrusted with the most precious gem the Museum owns (or an identical copy of said gem, he doesn't know which). It's a diamond--the "Sea of Flames"--which purportedly grants eternal life (and incidentally a miserable curse) to its owner. The curse, to me, is just the hand we are all dealt in life: when you live long and love well, you inevitably experience the pain of losing those around you. Marie-Laure and her Papa end up on the doorstep of Marie's agoraphobic great uncle, Etienne, in a town called Saint-Malo: a gorgeous, walled port city in Brittany, which feels to Marie like it's the very edge of France. She can smell the sea, and she longs to go there to collect her first sea snail, but her father and Etienne won't allow it. Etienne turns out to be handy with a radio, and his dead brother, Marie's grandfather, enjoyed broadcasting science shows to children... 


Marie-Laure's father is turned in to the occupying forces by a Nazi-colluding neighbor, who spies on him as he measures and sketches streets and buildings to create the 3-D model of Saint-Malo for Marie. From his labor camp, after only a few exaggeratedly positive letters to Marie, Papa is essentially "disappeared." Marie discovers that he has left the diamond inside the tiny version of her uncle's home in the 3-D map, locked inside of it like one of his tiny wooden puzzles. Madame Manec, the woman who cares for Marie's uncle, breaks the rules and takes Marie to the ocean. She also breaks bigger rules and helps the local resistance, with brave Marie acting as the courier.   


Werner has been plucked out of coal-mining obscurity because of his talent with radios, and is accepted into an elite Nazi school that will groom him to be a special operations officer. As part of their routine training, the cadets are forced to do unspeakable things--things that his best friend, Frederick, resists (for which he is nearly beaten to death until he has brain damage). It's a blow to Werner--one that he never seems to recover from--knowing that he was unable to act against what he knew was wrong. It is also, however, what leads him on a selfless quest to save the girl who is trapped in her attic, broadcasting from her radio, and hunted by a Nazi officer in the bedroom below her.


There is a German Sergeant-major, von Rumpel, on the hunt for the Sea of Flames (initially for the Fuhrer's glorious museum, and then because of his own desperate desire to cure his terminal cancer), and a thrilling section when von Rumpel is in the house for days while Marie hides in the attic with only two cans of food and nothing to drink.


There is a ruthless, obedient, but also oddly bighearted staff sergeant, Frank Volkheimer--practically a child himself--who is somehow able to viciously kill people and also have intensely warm feelings and respect and admiration for the pale, gentle radio operator (Werner) he works with and protects.  


This book is never one thing: for a moment I thought it was the classiest Raiders of the Lost Arc ever: the Nazis seek a jewel that the Museum of Natural History owns, the Sergeant-major metaphorically melts of the physical and moral cancer inside of him. For a moment you feel that Marie-Laure is Anne Frank, hiding in the attic, but with a radio transmitter at her disposal. For a very long stretch, it's a love story between a father and daughter:

There is pride, too, though. Pride that he has done it alone, that his daughter is so curious, so resilient. There is the humility of being a father to someone so powerful. As if he were only a narrow conduit for another, greater thing. That's how it feels right now, he thinks, kneeling beside her, rinsing her hair. As though his love for his daughter will outstrip the limits of his body. The walls could fall away, even the whole city, and the brightness of that feeling would not wane.

But this book is much more than a single thing. It's an examination of hope and desolation, strength and frailty, of destiny and self-determination, and the kitchen sink to boot.


The theme of light and vision abounds. The French professor has a radio segment that resonates with Werner and Jutte in which he discusses how the brain--encased in absolute darkness--can see light. Even Marie-Laure, who is blind, understands the power of light for human beings:

This, she realizes, is the basis of all fear. That a light you are powerless to stop will turn on you and usher a bullet to its mark.

Things I loved:
--The way Marie "sees" sounds and smells as colors in her head.
--The way living your life till its natural end, rather than being murdered, sometimes results in mundanity (for instance, Jutte ends up teaching math in a high school), but is still the right of all human beings.
--The way the war gutted everyone who lived through it, and only the next generation is unwounded, and only through ignorance.
--The way Werner and Marie-Laure are "destined" to meet, but only because their story is told after the fact, and we can trace all the threads that brought them together.
--The way, when Madame Manec was feverish and sick, she hallucinated that she was responsible for the world, down to the ants crawling on the ground. So powerful.
Things I didn't love as much:
--Sometimes Mr. Doerr's language flows beautifully, but sometimes he's trying too hard to be beautiful. He needs to let himself just tell the story, which is artful enough in its construction, and worry less about impressing us on a prose level. 
--I worried, which distracted me, about why Marie-Laure never had cataract surgery after the war, when the procedure became common because of artificial lenses. I actually had to call my ophthalmologist to ask her. (Answer: with congenital cataracts in children, if the surgery is performed after the age of ten it does not impart much benefit.) Could there have been a way to tell the reader that it was not possible?
--I had trouble visualizing the attic. At times Marie-Laure seemed to be sitting on beams. But Etienne's radio equipment was on a desk? You might think the poor description is because Marie can't see it (a poetic reason, to be sure), but she "sees" very well with her hands and would know every nook and cranny of it.


In sum: a truly beautiful work, haunting in the way it doesn't flinch from showing how unrecoverable war is, for both the dead and the survivors, and how we're so interconnected that--politics aside--no one unequivocally "wins" in the end.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2015-01-21 22:06
Station Eleven
Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***


One-sentence summary: a post-apocalyptic story with blessedly little action/adventure, a well-fleshed out ensemble cast, and interesting commentaries on human existence.


Perhaps one of the best compliments I can give Station Eleven is that it snuck into my thoughts over and over again after I finished it, during those quiet moments of the day--as I was falling asleep, on an early-morning run, or putting dinner together.


The best of YA. This is an adult book, but it would be perfect for ALA's Alex Awards (books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults). It's what I hope for every time I open a YA novel of speculative fiction--a careful piece of work, trying to mine important themes, and not rushed sloppily to press because it has a great hook. 


The author, Emily St. John Mandel, prefers to think of Station Eleven as literary fiction, but it's not really. I mean, yes, it's not a straight-to-paperback-"USA-today-best-seller!" It's not the literary equivalent of potato chips. But it's not exceptionally beautifully written, and appropriately so: the language perfectly suits the story. It's verging on eloquent, but is more serviceable and less wordy; it's not quite spare, but is thoughtful and direct. It doesn't spend much time navel-gazing, because the business of survival doesn't allow that. This is about as pretty as Ms. Mandel allows herself to get: 

She was thinking about the way she’d always taken for granted that the world had certain people in it, either central to her days or unseen and infrequently thought of. How without any one of these people the world is a subtly but unmistakably altered place, the dial turned just one or two degrees.

Brief recap, mostly for myself. The books begin with the death of Arthur Leander on a stage in Toronto. He has had three failed marriages--Miranda, Elizabeth, and Lydia--and is in a new relationship with the young woman who wrangles the child actresses in his production of King Lear. A young man named Jeevan, who used to be a paparazzo, but is now training to be an EMT, leaps onto the stage to perform CPR. Arthur dies, and one of the child actresses, Kirsten, sees it happen. Arthur has been nice to her, including giving her a copy of the first two issues of Miranda's nearly one-of-a-kind comics, Station Eleven. Before he dies, we learn much later in the novel, he had been planning to move to Israel to be with his son, Tyler, who was taken there by Elizabeth. He has one last phone call in which he tells Tyler he loves him. They have a closer-than-usual conversation when Arthur engages Tyler on the topic of Station Eleven. When Jeevan leaves the theater, his best friend Hua calls and tells him a virulent flu has been introduced via a flight from Russia. Jeevan buys seven grocery carts full of food and supplies and wheels them one by one through the snow to his disabled brother's apartment, where they barricade themselves in, waiting out the pandemic. Meanwhile, Arthur's best friend, Clark, has been tasked to call Arthur's ex-wives to let them know about his death. Clark used to be a student actor with Arthur, and was a free-spirit who shaved one half of his head and dyed the other half, but now he consults for corporations, making over the professional behavior of slightly dysfunctional managers. On his way to Arthur's funeral, Clark is stranded in the Severn City airport with Elizabeth, Tyler, and dozens of other passengers. It becomes a small town of its own, and Clark tends to a "Museum of Civilization" to pass the time. Elizabeth and Tyler leave the compound with a cult after four years, Tyler already seeming a bit touched in the head. The book flashes forward and back to several dates, but most of the time we're in Year 25: the twenty-fifth year after the flu, following The Traveling Symphony, which includes Kirsten, her best friend August, her former lover, Sayid, several musicians, and a leader named The Conductor. They go to a town called St. Deborah by the Lake to collect two members of their symphony, Charlie and Jeremy, who stayed behind two years ago to have their baby. But the town has changed and is in the hands of the prophet. The symphony gets in trouble with this zealot, leaves, is followed, and some of them are ambushed. The prophet's dog, Luli, is mysteriously named for Dr. Eleven's comic-book Pomeranian. The symphony makes its way to Severn City, where it is reunited with Charlie, Jeremy, and their baby Annabelle.


Some themes explored: 


1.How important is art in our human lives? Un-subtly, Ms. Mandel has her caravan of musicians and actors emblazon their vehicle with the Star-Trek phrase, "Because survival is insufficient." But more subtly, art is everywhere. The towns they visit want to see productions of Shakespeare; music and theater are viable ways of supporting yourself after the apocalypse. Clark's museum curation is not just concerned with artifacts, it has become art--that's what red stiletto heels become when the world has collapsed. Miranda creates her comics in the absence of an audience, for the sake of doing art:

“What’s the point of doing all that work,” Tesch asks, “if no one sees it?”

“It makes me happy. It’s peaceful, spending hours working on it. It doesn’t really matter to me if anyone else sees it.”

A testament to the purity of art: Miranda doesn't even sign her work, using her initials, "M.C." instead. And a quarter of a century after Miranda's death, Kirsten and Tyler are still captivated by her art.


2. The ephemeral nature of existence. There are only hours between when Miranda learns of Arthur's death--the man she "once thought she'd spend the rest of her life with"--and she herself is dead. 


3. The illusion of control. Expiring on a lounge chair on the beach, Miranda imagines the ships off shore have not been infected--the crew might live. But we know from seeing the web of deaths that survival isn't something you can plan on. Clark's entire existence highlights what is important in life: his job is rendered completely meaningless by the collapse. (Almost as a relic for his museum, he completes the last "360" report he was hired to write--about a man who is surely dead, for bosses who are dead, and a company that no longer functions.) His museum collection is the definition of obsolescence. His private thoughts are spent on Robert, his boyfriend who has probably died. Similarly, Arthur's existence, even though it pre-dates the flu, was spent burdened with fame when it turned out it was really love he was after.


4. The impermanence of life. Arthur explains his desire to become an actor: “First we only want to be seen, but once we’re seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.” But we readers have seen 99.9% of the population disappear, and all the mechanisms for remembering them are gone.


5. The importance of relationships, and the essential goodness of human beings. We can't live without each other, but love always leads to loss ("What I mean to say is, the more you remember, the more you've lost."). Sigrid Nunez's review of Station Eleven in The New York Times complained that the future wasn't bleak enough in this book ("readers may wonder why few bad guys have made it to year 20....the hairs never rose on the back of my neck"), but that's missing the point of the novel. This is Year 25 (not 20), and the survivors have mostly figured out how to live and let live. The worst is behind them. It's never portrayed as easy: Jeevan hears gunshots from the apartment in the first weeks of the pandemic; every town has a sentry; everyone carries a weapon; people on the road sleep in shifts; Kirsten has killed four people. But Ms. Nunez should do the math: the virus killed 99.9% of the population, which means not many people even survived the pandemic, and fewer still survived the violence afterward. For instance, if there are 300 million people in the United States, that means only 300,000 survived the Georgia flu. How many bad guys do you want to have in a population that small and that spread out? I think Ms. Mandel is saying that when everything is wiped out, the population distills into small pockets of brutality among the otherwise essential goodness of humanity. That sounds about right to me.


We're comfortable watching characters die. I was surprised by the fact that I was okay with watching important characters die. Part of this is due to the pervasiveness of those themes above: the world is an impermanent place, and as a reader you get used to that fact. But part of it is the structure of the novel. Arthur is a main character, and he dies on the first page. We've got that out of the way; we've lost him before we care about him. Then we grow to care about him later. This is true of many of the characters: we know ahead of time that they're gone. The implication is that the "getting there" (to their deaths) is what life is about.


We're comfortable not knowing what happened to characters. We're also okay with not knowing everything about everyone. It fits with the the blackout of information that the characters experience, and also with those themes of loss of control and impermanence. We see a whole group from the Severn City airport fly off to L.A., never to be heard from again. We see people on the hillside to the south of the airport who have figured out electricity again, but we don't know who they are or whether Kirsten will find them. There is a lack knowing how Elizabeth (the prophet's mom) died. We're comfortable not knowing what Kirsten has forgotten from her childhood: watching her brother die of an infected nail-puncture in his foot is enough of a hint that we can guess her amnesia covers something much worse. We don't mind not knowing who the other two tattooed knives represent on Kirsten's wrist. We don't care that we've never met Victoria of "Dear V" fame.


Some things I admired:


1. The small things, like seeing Kirsten as a nearly translucent blond waif as a child, someone Miranda judges will become a groomed, perfect, pampered adult. But we know that she has become a battle-weary young woman, missing teeth, and tattooed with symbols representing the people she has been forced to kill. We also learn of the cast's diversity almost incidentally.


2. I enjoyed the way the chapters had little reverence for time and chronology, and "gave away" past and future information: we read chapter openings like, "three weeks before X died, he was in a hotel lobby..." This technique gave a sense that people are both alive and dead at all times, which ties in nicely with the notion that memories are all that preserve us after we're gone.


3. Pieces of this book pop into my head at random moments, which always means there's more fodder there than at first glance. I awoke this morning thinking, "How did Jeevan help his brother to die?" And "What was Ms. Mandel trying to say with the dust-free child's tea set?" The fact of Arthur being on the cusp of reaching out to Tyler before he died--the reader knowing that Tyler may have grown up entirely differently--is more poignant on reflection.


4. I like the way we quickly see that many of the characters will be linked somehow. But they're not overtly linked, just delicately intertwined. It's a nod to the web of human relationships across the globe. Ms. Mandel doesn't stress the connections. I found myself hoping for Clark and Kirsten to figure out their mutual attachment to Arthur (and I was worried Clark would die before they had their talk the next morning), but Ms. Mandel saw no need to show us that conversation, and I admire that. We just know, later, that they've planned that Kirsten will always leave one rotating Doctor Eleven comic with Clark for his Museum of Civilization as she passes in and out of Severn City. 


5. I appreciated the way the prophet died, with no giant, bad-guy climax. Like most everyone else in the world, he died in a way he (and we) least expected.


In sum: This book hits the sweet spot for me--speculative fiction and a strong hook, but with thoughtful attention to writing and themes. This is what I want more YA novels to be like. A favorite of 2015.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2013-11-25 14:00
Far Far Away
Far Far Away - Tom McNeal

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***


One-sentence summary: Excellent at a prose level, this is a book that is indecisive about whether it's MG or YA, and has a snoozer of a quiz show in the middle of the action.  


MG or YA? Normally I fully believe in writing a book for all ages. To some extent, age classifications are a fabrication of marketing and sales departments, not something authors should necessarily concern themselves with while they're writing. But this book was inconsistent in its emotional pitch. The ancient Jacob Grimm is arguably the main character. He grows and changes the most, and his ultimate catharsis (or abreaction) is inextricably linked with the resolution of the story. His struggle involves figuring out what is "undone" in his life--an emotional need that I think won't resonate with middle-grade readers. Meanwhile Jeremy is a fifteen-year-old whose thoughts and feelings could easily be those of an eleven- or twelve-year old. His romance with Ginger is tame and inessential (they could have been the sort of buddies that boys and girls often are in middle-grade novels without altering the narrative flow at all). Sophisticated YA readers might find the faux-fairy-tale atmosphere of the town and dumbing down of the Grimm tales (and the scholarship surrounding it) to be frustratingly simple or annoyingly stylistic.


Is Ginger a Manic Pixie Dream Girl? I thought Ginger's "How are things in Johnsonopolis/Bliksville/Burpotopia" tic was part and parcel with an unfortunate tendency toward being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl--a trait she only really shook for me at the very end of the novel. She slides strands of her red hair through her lips, calls Conk "Conky-poo," and even jokingly describes herself as "brainy, athletic, teenage love goddess." This is typical language surrounding Ginger:


She knuckled Jeremy softly on the shoulder. "Was that gig freakishly fabuloso or what? Less than four hours' work and we get a great breakfast, a great lunch, and some serious loot in our boot!"


At one point she runs off into the woods "like a frisky deer in the meadow." I recall that even as she wakes up from a sedative, after being abducted, and in a dungeon, the first words out of her mouth are the too-clever "Whoa! Headache from hell!" or something along those lines. The only thing saving her from the technical definition of a MPDG is that McNeal hastily gave her an "inner life" (her grandfather is negligent, nay emotionally abusive), and she does have her own goal of getting out of town and going to college (I think she mentioned that once). She settled down finally in the "winsome" department (Jacob's word for her) as things got dark toward the end. Thank goodness for the dungeon and threat of death.

The Quiz Show. The quiz show damaged the already faltering pacing. (The book starts out too slow, and the darker denouement with Sten needed to happen much sooner.) It's questionable why the quiz show was included at all. Was it to show that Jeremy is scrupulously honest? To prolong his financial suffering? Moreover, the Disney-Snow-White question was much too simple to be the third part of the final, most difficult three-part question (and is one of the things that lodges this book in MG territory). The staff of Uncommon Knowledge would never have dreamed that Jeremy was unfamiliar with the movie versions of the tales, and a question like that would not have been included in the final round. McNeal could have avoided that "baby" question by having any of the contemporary academic research included in the quiz. Jacob Grimm knew about his work and his life, but not necessarily about what current Literature Studies have to say about both.
Two Book Bookstore. The actual books in the Two-Book Bookstore were a slight red herring for me. I thought Jeremy's grandfather's memoirs were going to be important to the plot. There's a bit of a tease there: Jeremy mentioned that he skimmed them when he was too young to be interested, and Jacob pointed out he couldn't read them unless Jeremy turned the pages. Why wasn't this a regular bookstore that was simply struggling in a small town? I suppose it was to add another of those whimsical touches that McNeal uses (e.g. the town that's hard to find, but once you find it you never forget where it is) to make the contemporary setting reminiscent of a fairy tale. But to me it's problematic to include plot points for "atmosphere" rather than as something that is essential to the narrative.
Fairy Tale Town. In general I thought the almost arch atmosphere of the town plays a part in making it feel somewhat too "young" in tone (despite having an ancient, adult narrator with a very adult problem) and possibly damages the point of the novel. I like the way McNeal is using Jeremy's story to show us that scary things happen in real life--mothers leave and die, fathers become hermits, people are not what they seem, children get abused and killed--just as they did in the old fairy tales. What an excellent premise, especially given that the original Grimm tales were relevant and real to the people who told them so many years ago, even if they seem dated or quaint to us now. But to be YA, and to resonate with contemporary readers the way the old tales resonated with readers in rural villages two hundred years ago, I think the town of Never Better (ugh, dumb name) should have been more of a real place to us. I would have preferred that the kids had acted like real teenagers, not like innocents, and the baker hadn't looked like Santa Claus, etc. Basically, stop trying to make a real place seem like a "fairy tale" place, because fairy tales weren't even written that way. Trust the reader to see the parallels in their modern society. 
Apropos of nothing.  Can you walk into a man-sized oven full of billowing flames and die without screaming?  


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review SPOILER ALERT! 2013-10-12 21:03
The Undertaking: Life Studies From the Dismal Trade
The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade - Thomas Lynch

Beautifully, poetically written. An important contribution to the discussion of death (which is not addressed enough in this country). 


I was most fond of Lynch's personal take on mortuary science: for example, how being an undertaker caused his father to see danger in every activity his kids engaged in; how the worries his father had, and the stern lectures he gave his kids of what can happen to you if you're not careful aged as the children aged.


There were some political essays that were less successful. In his diatribe about Jack Kevorkian, Lynch loses focus on Kevorkian as a borderline sociopath, and (perhaps because Lynch is Catholic) condemns all assisted dying without seeing any other sides to the issue. The discussion about abortion was written passionately, but with such winding language, it was surprisingly difficult to understand his point. 


I really loved his story about pooping in the field at his Irish family's very rural homestead, and the notion that sanitation has in some ways removed us from the baser things that make us human--the things that might make us live with and understand death better. I also loved the picture he painted of our past history in America, where you were born at home, you fell in love in the parlor, you gave birth at home, you aged in your own bed, and you were laid out on ice in your parlor before you were buried. Funeral homes, embalming, and impersonal machinery that lowers caskets into holes after the families have left the cemetery remove us from death, as if it's something dirty to be avoided or ashamed of.


This book is also secretly a celebration of small town life, and of the changes that communities go through over the years as they grow and modernize.

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