Book Reviews

Virtual Book Club #4

It’s been a while since we’ve had a virtual book club meeting. I’ve been on a non-fiction kick, which is unusual for me.

When my grandmother died, I accompanied my mother to the funeral
home to deal with the particulars of a small service and a modest
container for the ashes. The paperwork contained all sorts of charges,
and the lawyer in me could not resist interrogating the funeral director
about the precise nature of each one.

The director did not enjoy answering these questions. He did spend a lot of time inquiring into our business, like what we planned to do with my grandmother after the cremation. He did not find it particularly amusing to learn that my mother
intended to store my grandmother in the laundry room with my grandfather,
who had died eleven years earlier. He tried desperately to offer us alternatives, most of which involved his charging my mother a monthly fee to keep the ashes somewhere, when she had already proven to herself that they could coexist peacefully with the Tide for free.

In light of this experience, The American Way of Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford was full of information. Mitford is a wonderful writer. The chapter about embalming has been included in textbooks as an example of fine, witty prose. The book examines all aspects of American funerals, especially the ways in which the funeral parlors maximize profits by preying on bereaved families.

This book is an updated edition of a previous book, which apparently got all the funeral directors in America riled up at Mitford. She clearly enjoyed educating Americans about their rights, and bore the mortuary industry’s wrath with good humor.

By the time I finished the book, I had reminded Bill several times that I would like all of my useable body parts donated to science and the rest cremated. I’ve also put the book in his reading pile. I think it’s a must read. Everyone will have to deal with this industry sooner or later. It’s best to read and learn about it now and be amused than wait until you’re weepy and desperate.

It’s rare that Bill and I read the same books, mainly because he doesn’t read many outside of work. We’ve been trying to change that, and Jon Krakauer has been the key to our success. Bill and I both enjoyed his adventure books,

Into Thin Air : A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster and Into the Wild. The latter book is about Chris McCandless, who wanted to live on his own in the wild. He severed ties with his family and moved west, and eventually ended up in Alaska, where he died. Krakauer traces his journey and interviews the people he met during his travels.

The book reveals a huge difference in the way Chris was perceived by his friends in the west and by his family and friends back home. In particular, he had a difficult relationship with his father. While the book is interesting on the surface as an adventure story, it was equally absorbing to us as parents, and as Chris’s contemporaries. Bill in particular was touched by the fact that the family cooperated with Krakauer to make the story complete, although it doing so revealed trouble within the family.

After I’d read two Krakauer books, I decided to read his last one so I could check him off my list. That’s the only reason I read Under the Banner of Heaven : A Story of Violent Faith. It was a fabulous book – I couldn’t put it down. It was different from Krakauer’s other two books in that it focuses on a murder committed by Mormon fundamentalists, not an outdoor adventure. Krakauer originally went to investigate the murder, but got so caught up in things that he ended up writing a book that traces the entire history of the Mormon religion. However, he makes every development seem exciting, not dry.

While I was on the subject of Mormons, I read Leaving the Saints : How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith by Martha Beck, a book recommended by a friend. Beck grew up in a family headed by a man who was a well-known Mormon apologist. The most interesting parts of the book to me were those where she explained what life is like as a Mormon– the schooling, the clothing, the sacraments.

Of course, as you can tell, neither book would be the book to read if you’re actually thinking about becoming a Mormon. Krakauer focuses much of his tale on the more “colorful” Mormons, and Beck is no longer a member of the faith, for reasons I will let you discover. But if you want to learn a little about Mormonism while reading a good story, each of these books meets that requirement.

Both books drew a lot of press, from Mormons defending their faith, from ex-Mormons agreeing with one author or the other, and so forth. You can see some of this dialogue when you read the reviews of the books. What I found most appealing about the books, however, was that reading them forces you to think about the concept of faith, what you believe, and why you believe it.

One of the books on the bestseller lists these days is Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven Levitt. Bill’s favorite section was “How is the Ku Klux Klan Like a Group of Real-Estate Agents” (hint: he could have compared the KKK to funeral directors.) I thought the chapter that identified the “blackest” and “whitest” names, and what parents are trying to say by picking a particular name, was fascinating. Those who enjoyed The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference will probably enjoy this book.

Bill is going away for a couple of days and I set out several books for him to take: The Alienist; (it wouldn’t be a vacation without it!);
The 9/11 Commission Report;

Angels & Demons;

Howard Hughes: The Untold Story; and

A Civil Action.

I’ll let you know how his reading goes.

Some of you may just now be getting in on the book club action. You can read past reviews (including reviews of many of the books Bill is thinking about reading) at the first meeting, the second meeting, and the third meeting.
As always, I welcome your suggestions as well.


  • Sandra Miller

    LOL Anne, we must be on the same wavelength lately… I just finished reading Wives and Sisters by Natalie Collins. She’s a former Mormon who writes a tale that would be a bit unbelievable had one not read Under the Banner of Heaven first (which I had done just this past summer). Wives and Sisters is a work of fiction, but the author draws on her own experiences within the church to create an amazing portrait of life within the mainstream Mormon community– and of how those who follow that faith respond to acts of violence and sexual abuse when perpetrated by members of the fold– fascinating and chilling.

    On Jennifer Mitford: I haven’t (yet) read the book you mention, but years ago I read The American Way of Birth (back when I was teaching birthing classes). It’s an amazingly well-written probe into american obstetrics– Mitford discusses our infant mortality rate (shockingly higher than MANY other countries), inequalities that exist in the maternal healthcare system, widespread use of unnecessary and often dangerous procedures, and much, much more… An excellent, eye-opening read.

    Right now, I’ve just started reading Anna Quindlen’s One True Thing. So far, I’m finding it well written, but a mighty heavy read (a daughter is summoned home to care for her dying mother).

    I think I’ll keep this Mormon streak going a bit longer, and pick up the Martha Beck book. Thanks for the tip!

  • Jeni

    Wow, a fabulous list! If you liked *The American Way of Death Revisited*, I want to recommend *Stiff: The Curious Lives of Cadavers*. My husband said it was perhaps a bit tedious toward the end, but I thought it was hilarious. For another non-fiction, humorous read, try *The Sex Lives of Cannibals*, which is a travelogue about a guy’s move to a tiny, barely civilized island.

    In other, fiction news, if you have not yet read *Peace Like A River* by Leif Enger, READ IT NOW. No, seriously. I have yet to meet a person (Christian or otherwise) who has read it and disliked it. It is wonderful. I’ve reread it even more times than the *Harry Potter* series or *Lord of the Rings*.

  • Carmen

    I am about 200 pages into the newest Diana Gabaldon book, after finishing my reread of the one before it. I can’t read anything else right now, I can’t even DO much else until I finish this. I’m trapped.

    Happily so.