The Education of a Coroner: Lessons in Investigating Death by John Bateson

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“Some deaths, on the other hand were just head-scratches, so strange that they almost defied belief.” 

This is one of the most beautifully written books I have read about a coroner. Handled with delicacy and respect for both the living and dead rather than being ‘sensationalism’, Bateson tells the real story of what such a career entails. Without a question, much skill and intelligence is required in solving such mysteries, working in reverse to uncover the truth. But also, a lot of humanity. Ken Holmes worked as both death investigator and coroner in Marin County, California. With a three term career elected as coroner, Holmes had seen everything about death. From murders, suicides, drugs, and auto-eroticism each case had it’s own unique challenges. Controlling scenes are a little thought of task, not just the gawkers, but the dangerous neighborhoods where anyone in ‘authority’ are not welcome. The terrible reality of suicides off the infamous golden gate bridge and why where a body ends up can change the entire direction of solving what happened, a sometimes sad fact. Suicide is not romanticized anymore than any other death in this work, unlike what we read in our fiction or see on television.

Not having all the clues come together can cause years of heartache for family and friends, particularly when someone disappears and their body ends up elsewhere, unidentified as happens in a case, found in the chapter titled The German Tourist. Ken Holmes’ dedication is evident in each case he handled, and his humanity too as the deceased and their survivors have remained in his heart and mind. It is a fascinating and sometimes heartbreaking career, and thank God for people that are able to put aside their natural reactions (such as fear, repulsion) and uncover clues creating a semblance of order in finding the truth of what happened.

It takes courage and strength to go against authority, and just as much to speak to family members weighted down by not just grief but suspicion, distrust and anger. Going with your gut isn’t always popular but vital!  Sometimes the answers are years in coming, but always remained fresh in Holmes’ mind. This is an engaging book dissecting Ken Homes’ fascinating long career. For a brief time the reader feels the weight of sorrow that follows Holmes but too the hope that he can at least provide answers for those left behind, as well as shed light birthing truth for victims that can no longer speak for themselves. Is there ever really closure? Of course not, but we need to know why death came and what is to blame, be it natural causes or death at another’s hand. We need to know the identity of the dead, because there is someone somewhere wondering what has happened to their loved one.

This is an engaging work, and I didn’t feel like I was reading something tawdry nor gory. Do horrific things happen? Absolutely, but it’s not about the carnage, there is a lot to understand and learn. This is one of the best books I have ever read. I can’t and won’t go into a detailed account of any of the true stories within, because this book won’t be out until August and also they need to be handled with delicacy and author John Bateson does a fine job all on his own.

Yes, read it! Fascinating, heart-breaking, moving and beautifully written.

Publication Date: August 15, 2017

Scribner

 

Poetry Will Save Your Life: A Memoir by Jill Bialosky

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“The world is changing, but we seem to be living in our own little stagnant capsule, where everything depends upon the illusion of well-being. I feel a revolution happening inside of me too, but at the time I don’t know what it means. “

Jill Bialosky, author of books such as History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life, The Life Room and House Under Snow here takes memoir using poetry to share episodes of her life. The beauty lives in moments that feed upon poetry.  Or does poetry feed upon the moments? It’s a unique approach to sharing one’s memories, some tragic, others humiliating, but all about loving, questioning, trying to find meaning. Just why do we turn to poetry? How can a few lines encompass an entire state of being, of feeling? Poetry is often an island we find ourselves on after the shipwrecks in our lives, and there are many. It can be a friend whose shoulder you cry on, a curious companion hungry for revelation wondering at the marvels of being alive, as much as the voice of grief or first love.

I am much reminded of an English teacher that taped quotes and poetry lines all over his classroom. This induced a feeling of euphoria for me, particularly in that moment in time when I was ‘coming of age’ myself, and the world could seem both beautiful and terrifyingly brutal. Those words made me feel less alone, whether they had the bite of sarcasm or a spirited push towards courage. Bialosky takes poetry that was meaningful to her. With Musée Des Beaux Arts by W.H. Auden, she finds a bridge that expresses the dreadful grip of tragedy, the weight of grief in her own life. Yet, poetry is a solitary endeavor, we peck at it and eat what gives us sustenance. Much like any art form, we experience poetry differently from the next person. Poetry can be the cry of the lonely, a plead for the guilty, a roar for the proud… it is fluid and each person has a different perspective than the next. This memoir is an outpouring of an emotional journey and yet it is fluid itself. If you love exploring poetry with a kaleidoscope of one’s life and how much poetry meant to them, this is perfect for you. I particularly think these are some of the best lines written about suicide. “I don’t understand it or know what to do with it. I’m angry. Not at my sister, but at all I don’t understand of the human psyche and the forces that unwillingly impinge upon a life. I don’t know what to do with this knot of fury.” What comes first, the poem or the experience? If you are remembering a poem after something pivotal has happened in your life, was the poem something like a premonition,  portending the future? Or are we simply fishing for meaning in order to organize the mess all of our lives are, to find a semblance of order ? Why do certain images or words brand themselves in our mind returning only after such a moment has passed? Who has the authority to say? Poetry for Bialosky has been a companion, as it is for so many of us.

Lovely.

Publication Date: July 11, 2017

Atria Books

Emma in the Night: A Novel by Wendy Walker

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“I was never able to sit still when this thing was happening between them- my mother silently brooding and my father prancing around like a circus clown trying to cheer her up. It made me feel rage inside because he couldn’t see anything.”

The only thing I imagine that would be worse for a child with such a mother, would be if both parents were narcissists. Maybe their partners come off as ‘weaker’ or maybe they are just kinder beings that are used to wanting to please others, to make people happy and in such a spouse, they will never succeed. This novel is fictional, but it is a reality for some children to grow up with dysfunctional parents- some so used to the cruelty that they don’t know what normal looks like. If they’re lucky, they get away and are able to recover from their twisted upbringing. Just what does abuse look like when you don’t have bruises and all the violence is psychological warfare? Some children learn to move forward through the land mines that they know will set their parent off. Others can’t help but be themselves and are an easy target for punishment. Each child, however, is damaged in their own terrible way.

One night the Tanner sisters disappeared, years later only come comes back. Cass comes home without her sister with a crazy story of being taken and held captive on an island. She can’t quite say where it is, but she swears she must rescue her sister Emma. Dr. Winter must navigate the wild in her story and sort fact from fiction, solid order from the chaos in the tale Cass spins. Just what really happened to the Tanner sister the night they disappeared and the three years between? How much can she trust the story Cass tells, convoluted as it is? There is a baby, her sister’s and a couple who promised to help her. Dr. Winter knows something isn’t right, just as she intuitively feels something is sour with their mother, Judy Martin. She felt it for a long time, it was all there- something toxic in that home. With Cass back, she thinks she will finally have the truth, but the truth is slippery at best and we all have our reasons for lies.

Cass has a story to tell, one full of holes, half-truths, outright lies, swearing she is the only chance they have of finding Emma. She learned about the power of lies, subterfuge at her mother’s cold knee. The Tanner sister’s mother was between them always, poisoning the bond the two should have held fast to in order to survive their twisted mother. One learned to please, the other was punished for not knowing how. This was one of the most solid creations in the story. With narcissists, when children are involved, they know how to snub out one child and praise another. It is damaging and sickening, it is a power, a way to play God. People often wonder how in families one child can be tortured and others treated ‘normally’ but do the others truly escape the same abuse? Isn’t there cruelty in seeing a sibling humiliated, demeaned be it physically or psychologically? Some do what they have to do to dodge being victimized themselves, it’s so much harder for children to be brave, it’s why bullies on the school yard can get nice kids to go along with tormenting other children (at least it’s not me). Parents are the example, we learn how to treat not just the world but our siblings through their own actions. If a parent is a master manipulator, God help the children, because if they begin to become aware of the wrongness of their parent, no one would believe them anyway. If by some miracle someone does, these master’s of deception wear a beautiful face in public that other’s chose to see, rather than the darkness that lurks beneath. This is more real they we admit, this is why your next door neighbor can be a pillar of society and be beating their children behind closed doors. They know how to blend in, we are happy with the costumes people wear, it’s more comfortable than looking past the smiles. Cass just might be able to use this very blindness in people to survive.

Is Cass good? Is she bad? Something in between? Rage can be useful, a driving force- but is it something more she has to protect? What has she done to survive? Can the reader trust her? Can Dr. Winter? Will she be able to help them find her sister, one whom she longed to be and resented for her perfection and mother’s attention? You’ll have to read. This is a twisted, psychological tale.

Publication Date: August 8, 2017

St. Martin’s Press

 

 

 

Mrs. Fletcher: A Novel by Tom Perrotta

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“Birthdays, holidays, weddings, graduations, funerals – they were all too loaded with expectations, and the important people in her life rarely acted the way they were supposed to.”

The above quote could be true for any of us and the people in our lives. Things never seem to go just as we expect them to. The story begins with Eve and the last day with her son before he leaves for college. 46, divorcee and her only child is flying the coop leaving her to herself and just what the heck is she going to do with that ‘self’? Who is that self when she isn’t mother? Apparently, she is a total MILF, according to a text message. Her life feels stagnant, what is more dusty and depressing than working as an Executive Director for a senior center, how is someone her age to feel taking college classes surrounded by fresh young students?  But not everyone finds her crusty and old, not by far. That the class she is taking is taught  by a transgender professor takes this novel to even stranger territory but it works! How does Eve become addicted to MILFateria.com, a porn site dedicated to the erotic side of middle aged women? Well you have to read, because before long these ‘fantasies’ become more reality. Eve is going to explore and re-discover she is still a sexual being. Some of these moments are downright embarrassing, as she seems to read signals wrong and later feels shame for letting her freak flag fly. Some people will be terribly embarrassed by her sexuality, it has something to do with how we see mothers, I think. Old women (which at 41 and a mother of college aged young adults I suppose I now am) aren’t supposed to be sexual creatures, right? Something to question there, I think.

Brendan is waking up to the real world while at college, discovering it’s not going to be all wild times, the days of partying hard, discarding girls and acting like a general pig isn’t going to work anymore. Times they are changing and this isn’t the college experience he hungered for. He is the sort of guy we warn our daughters about, the ones we regret ever being attracted to.  The reader is privy to his attitude early on when Eve overhears a sexual encounter between him and his current (maybe ex) girlfriend.

With a full of  cast characters, as his novels always are, no one exposes all the things we don’t want others to know about ourselves quite like Perrotta. My favorite novel by him is still Little Children because damn if everyone isn’t a wreck. It’s strangely comforting to realize that inside, the majority are sloppy and disturbed. I personally loved Eve’s thoughts when her ex and his new woman have a child with Autism, because her initial feeling is so ugly, petty… human. It’s such a small moment in the novel but yes, I imagine that is exactly the sort of reaction many burned women would have.

This porn site is really confusing her, and to make things more complicated a 19 year old boy, a kid her own son went to school with is hot for her. For a lonely woman, the temptation is such a taboo (forget that men have been hooking up just in this very way since the dawn of time) and yet… “His desire- the simple fact of it- exerted a kind of gravity on her that she hadn’t anticipated, and found surprisingly difficult to resist.”  Will she or won’t she? Hmmmmm…… Some people are going to stop reading once they touch on the sexuality. It just makes some people incredibly uncomfortable and hey, that’s okay. I can’t fathom being remotely attracted to ‘boys’ my children’s age, yeah they’re adults at 18 but that’s a flimsy argument. But that’s me. She explores an attraction to a woman too. Yet it’s a provocative subject and that a man has taken a woman and written from her ‘sexual’ perspective makes the novel that much more interesting. More so with her being middle aged, not such an easy character for a man to possess. We women are complicated, darn it we are!  So how did he get into the female psyche? I do not relate to her mess, per say but I could easily get into her head and understand why she is doing everything she is. I think this book is more an exploration on sexuality than some big moving metamorphosis. I didn’t love it, but I wanted to see where Eve would end up. Brendan is a bit of a depressing character, because if he represents all young men of this current generation, then lock up your daughters.

I couldn’t help but laugh at Eve’s desire/repulsion for Julian- because it’s so ridiculous and yet, how come it’s not seen as such when the sexes are reversed? There were parts of the novel that pulled me in and yet, I felt equally disinterested in others. It was always humorous, but I didn’t particularly like anyone. He writes the hell out of characters, that cannot be denied. I think I wanted more story, and it sometimes felt more about being taboo with too much thrown in. It’s still good just not quite what I like to read. Eve isn’t so shocking, which is hard to believe for some. The world is full of all sorts of sexual proclivities that would disturb others, she is just a woman who is suddenly alone and ill defined in herself. In fact, her son is more of a shock than anything she can get up to. What people decide to do behind closed doors… well, I am far more offended by his disgusting behavior towards women.

With the subject of  the transgender character… I wonder how differently people will read this book say… 15 years from now.  I won’t reveal much more about this novel, there are deeper reviews on goodreads and with this book not out until August, I don’t want to spoil anything. This book is one for the adults.

Publication Date: August 1, 2017

Scribner

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

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“This woman had decided that I was dirty and deviant. Handmaiden to the underworld.”

Why is it so shocking to read books about such subjects as death or work in a crematorium? In all our ‘modernness’ we have built sky high walls to keep out suffering, death, decay, and illness. People used to die at home, surrounded by family, now they can do it in clinical settings- which seems terrible to me. I can take it further, we don’t want to see homeless people, or get involved in trouble our neighbors have so many turn a blind eye to abuses, crimes…because we’ll go blind if we see the underbelly of things, most especially our own fragile, mortal bodies.  So we chose blindness in the present anyway. Tuck it away nicely, sweep our ashes under a rug, toss the body somewhere sterile, and magically it will come out nice and packaged, the way we like things. We can’t even really handle decay while alive. We have creams for our wrinkles, surgery for our deformities and unflattering cellulite, we can’t handle anything that reminds us that we are aging.

There is always something ghoulish about death for most people and Cailtin Doughty may seem to some a deviant, a handmaiden to the underworld but she isn’t. She is curious and if you too enjoy or suffer (as you will) from epistemophilia then why not learn about the strangely fascinating world of the crematorium? Much like people who wonder how surgeon’s can open us up and dig around, many wonder how anyone can bear witness to death and worse, the disposal of corpses. Corpses are just people, my friends, which you too will one day be. Of course, throughout history we didn’t always have reasons to trust those who dealt with the details of death. Certainly the macabre stories we have read, or heard told have left a stain in the industry. Who in their right mind would want to work in such a field? Well, and what if no one did?

This book was so much fun, even when I was cringing and feeling shocked or sad for the terrible things that befall the living (which includes all of us, though we don’t like to tread that terrifying territory of thought) I found myself thinking differently about death. What a business! How strange, the way we paint death and hide from it with our pretty cemeteries and posh send offs. It’s more for the living than the deceased though, isn’t it? All this ceremony so we can bare being ‘self-aware creatures’ that have to accept death with life. It’s the price we have to pay, we all have a one way ticket, no one gets out of here alive, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause– okay, okay I’ll stop. Death is a loaded subject, surely only those whose thoughts turn to the morbid care to know the details. Really? Why?

This book matters to anyone who has lost someone, or will. Because we all do. It does matter who handles the bodies of our loved ones and how. I was shocked by some of the strange facts, as we are reminded by the author, death used to be present and far less shocking. Children often didn’t survive before the advance in medicine, bodies used to pile up around us- don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we’re not up to our ears in our neighbor’s and friend’s bodies but something has happened in the Western World where we are almost ignorant of it. Sometimes understanding a process makes it less terrifying. There are moments when I felt my heart sink, and others when I shook my head in disgust- not because of our fine narrator’s actions, just the reality of the details. In fact, reading about it takes the ‘romanticizing’ out of death. Our bodies are fascinating, and gross sometimes too.  You can’t see the human form more truly than how it looks at the end, there is no hiding for Caitlin.

I have to agree completely with her view that ‘our fear of dying warps our culture and society, and she calls for better ways of dealing with death (and our dead)’. We are terrified of it now that it’s packaged nice and tightly. This is a freshly intelligent book, yes I used the word fresh in a book about the subject of death. Full of interesting facts I quite enjoyed reading, and yet handled in a dignified manner. She takes the subject that gives so many people the heebie jeebies and through her wit and humor makes it less shocking.  Absorbing, engaging, provocative and always interesting. I wish I had read it sooner.

Available Now

W.W. Norton Company

The Marsh King’s Daughter: By Karen Dione

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“I was the chink in his armor, his Achilles’ hell. My father raised me and shaped me into a version of himself, but in doing so he sowed the seeds of his own demise.”

There was a time when books about young abducted girls seemed to be on the shelves so much that I felt like every book I read was the same. Of course it was mirroring what had been happening in reality, young girls returned home after being ‘kept’ by disturbed men. I found myself avoiding several of the novels, but what pulled me in with this is the story is from the perspective of the child born between the victim and the abductor who has learned to exist in the wilds. I was born two years into my mother’s captivity. She was three weeks shy of seventeen. If I had known then what I do now, things would have been a lot different. I wouldn’t have adored my father.’ Helena doesn’t know much of anything about the outside world, how is she to understand her father is a bad man, that her mother was taken against her will? Learning to live in the wilds on the knee of a brutal father doesn’t make her love him less. She loves, worships her father and feels distanced from her seemingly cold mother. How could she possibly wrap her mind around why her mother doesn’t seem to love her as much as her dad? How is she to understand that other world her mother belongs to and her longing for it? Helena is strong, she can take beatings, she hunts without fear, she is a feral child where her mother seems weak compared to she and her father. It is only later, through a slow painful dissection of her time in the cabin as she tracks her escapee father that she will come to understand her mother’s love.

Helena keeps her true identity hidden from her husband and children. She has done everything she can to cover her past , never telling anyone that she is the infamous Marsh King’s daughter. Too, she has changed her looks so her father could never know where she ended up. Not once visiting him in prison, though torn between a twisted love for the only father she ever knew, she has found a way to exist among others in her own way. In order to do this, she’s had to murder a part of herself and disappear. This is the part of the book some people won’t understand, how a child can love a brutal person, how even someone born in captivity could possibly have good memories threaded through with the bad. Helena is her father’s daughter, “Everything I know about the marsh that’s worth knowing, this man taught me.” For parents, it’s easy to twist a child, to win their love. Closed off from the rest of the world, how can anyone know any different than the love that’s served on the table? How can a child long for food she has never tasted? Helena’s father is a broken, twisted man with serious mental issues. How could she possibly understand her mother’s fear and weakness (and never see until long after she is gone the strength and love that was at the edge of her fear) when she was forbidden from filling her child’s head with the truth, with stories of where she came from and her abduction? Helena is loyal to her father but there comes a time when his brutality goes too far and her mind finds a way to make her see that her father is a ‘bad bad man’.  As she grows and his lessons get far more severe, something inside of her sours and turns on her father. This is the rip in the world she knew, this is the turning point where she loses everything and must learn to live in the ordinary world, a place as foreign to her as outer space.

I love what Dionne did here. Who would come from the wilds and suddenly be happy in our modern day comforts, how would such a child make easy friendships, know how to navigate the social world? They wouldn’t. This clever author thought of these things. Even as a mother and wife, she needs her solitude, her time with the land. The wild child still beats inside of her. When news reveals that her father has escaped, Helena knows she can find him and if she doesn’t- there will be bloodshed. She must get to him first, to keep her husband and children safe because no one can hunt like the Marsh King.

She has made a life for herself, having never settled in with her mother and grandparents after their escape/rescue, feeling only like a bad seed, a reminder of everything her mother suffered. She is the child of the pedophile/child abductor, there could be no hope of love from her grandparents. “There’s a stigma to being the offspring of a kidnapper, rapist, and murderer that’s hard to shake.” She still has a wild streak, the marsh still lives inside of her. Torn between two worlds, she cannot live in the safe suburban world that her mother is from.

As she hunts her father down, one has to wonder if she is strong enough to conquer the Marsh King. There is a terrible weight within her, things she had to do in their final moments at the cabin that the reader learns slowly. More than a thriller, it’s a heartbreaking psychological novel. The natural world and her affinity for it was very much the heart for me. She is as wild as the marsh and I’m a sucker for novels about people surviving outside society. Everything she learned came from her father’s bent mind, and there lies the confusion and chaos in her heart, that she still feels love on the edges of her soul for someone who doesn’t deserve it. There was love in her mother too, it just dawned on Helena too late. Read it, it’s brutal and dark yet there is a resilience in Helena’s nature and a lot of fight! Readers won’t always love Helena, and will feel horrible for her mother, but this isn’t her story! You can be assured that Helena is exactly as one would expect such a child to be, with everything she was born into and the world she later was delivered to.

Publication Date: June 13, 2017

Penguin Group

Putnam