Book Reviews

Caitlin Doughty

Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs answers questions of mortality and death


Reviewed by Sabrina Clarke

Most well known for Ask A Mortician [YouTube channel], Caitlin Doughty never strays from strange or hard questions about death. She’s a certified mortician, has worked at a crematory, attended school for embalming, traveled the world to study death customs and the culture within, and owns the funeral home Undertaking LA. She’s been a featured death expert on NPR, SXSW, TEDtalks, and other media, where she talks about the traditional practices that are enforced in the death industry and how they should change. For example, she discourages the use of traditional embalming methods with dangerous chemicals because they are harmful to morticians and the environment, offers ideas for natural burials, and would like to see changes or the creation of laws that ignore the customs of other cultures, disavowing the concept the dead body belongs to the funeral home the second someone dies. It may not seem like it, but she causes a gigantic stir in the death industry. Her idea that everyone should have a detailed death plan is something that most funeral homeowners dislike, as it’s bad for business; these steel-plated caskets don’t sell themselves, and knowledgeable masses may not buy them. It is obvious that the death culture in America in the past 100 years has changed — people fear bodies now and do not know the rights that they have when they die, or what to do when they lose a loved one. In her travels, she answered many questions from fans and audience members, but the most interesting questions come from children.

Death may be unbearably sad and can make you want to shield yourself away from such questions, let alone the answers to them. But Doughty, and many other people like her, believe that death is something that is natural, always happening; science and history and art and literature all come into play with death and death culture, and Doughty never strays from a chance to educate.

The book begins by explaining her career, introducing the reader to her sense of humor, along with the specific way she will be carrying this conversation and journey, and why she feels the need to do so. Each part of the book is dedicated to a specific question that a child asked her directly at book signings or public events. The questions themselves, like the title of the book, seem morbid and macabre, but Doughty answers them as honest questions. The tone of the book is educational and respectful. No question is a bad question in this field, and some genuinely stump her, but she tries her best to answer in an accurate and well-researched way, going down every possible path the questions can lead her. The book is humorous and genuine, answering questions ranging from “Can everybody fit in a casket? What if they’re really tall?” and “Can we give Grandma a viking burial?” While it seems dark coming from the minds of children, they are naturally inquisitive. Doughty at first was confused by how deep the questions became, but soon welcomed it and started taking notes.

Each question gets its own dedicated chapter, filled with illustrations by Dianné Ruz. The book itself is passionate and sincere with its goal to not only entertain the reader, but answer even the most morbid of questions with the respect and in-depth research that they deserve. The book is valuable to those that have questions about death, young and old.

Published by W. W. Norton & Company on September 10, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-393-65270-3
Hardcover 240 pages

Book Reviews

Ocean Vuong

Ocean Vuong creates a new wave with his book On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.


Review by Mulan Matthayasack

Poet Ocean Vuong has seen the world from both ends: Saigon and New England. He’s also seen it from different perspectives: through the eyes of a young Vietnamese boy assimilating American customs, and through the eyes of his mother. He takes these perspectives, these experiences, these family encounters, and he melds them into his first novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous to define not only what it means to be the son of an Asian immigrant, but also what it means to be human.

Vuong opens the book as a letter written to his mother. The prose is lyrical and reads like poetry—instance after instance, memoir after memoir that captivates, compels, resonates, and challenges. The words are sharp but smooth, the images are clear and vivid, as if he is back in Vietnam with his family. He tells of their history prior to their migration and compares their journey to monarch butterflies flying south. He describes his mother as beautiful and strong but also delicate—a rose, like her name.

Vuong expresses what he has learned he must do to “be a man.” He’s scolded by his mother for not being the bigger person even though he was bullied in school for being the smallest. He watches as she struggles with English every time they are at a store, and that triggers him to better himself, to be the family interpreter “so that others would see my face, and therefore yours.” He has to be a man because he is the only man in his family.

Vuong also addresses the problems Asian women face through the experiences of his mother and grandmother. His mother is discriminated in the States for being yellow, but back in Vietnam, was discriminated for not being yellow enough because of her white father. This is relevant to current generations, because it’s a common issue most children of interracial couples have. Likewise, his grandmother was shunned by her own mother for not sticking to tradition, for leaving an arranged marriage, because “a girl who leaves her husband is the rot of a harvest.” It may seem like another tale of an ungrateful, unhappy girl, but with Vuong’s words, readers understand it’s actually a sad reality.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a powerful book that makes us consider our relationship with our own mothers, and asks us not to take even the smallest things for granted. “Care and love,” Vuong writes, “are pronounced clearest through service.” The novel makes us recognize the concerns nearly every immigrant family has, and makes us question what we can do to resolve them. But most importantly, it makes us want to not repeat history, but also not erase it.

“Maybe then … you’ll find this book and you’ll know what happened to us. And you’ll remember me.  Maybe.”

Published by Penguin Press on June 4, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-525-56202-3
242 pages

Book Reviews

Ross Gay

Ross Gay defies genre to craft essays that speak truth to shared experiences of life in The Book of Delights


Review by Margaret Smith

Ross Gay, known for capturing the joyful experiences of life as well as the sometimes painful, debuts 102 new instances of the like in his collection of essays, which spans the time of a single year, “The Book of Delights.” Always choosing to see the delight in what can be masqueraded as sorrow, Gay spins words into short, fully realized moments that often don’t last more than two pages.

Always capturing life as it happens, Gay launches the anthology of essays with the line “It’s my forty-second birthday.” In every endeavor in this quaint collection, he takes us with him moment-to-moment—from his garden to the local woods of childhood, from the sidewalk of Trump Towers to his humble home. The book is not one streamlined plot but, rather, a multitude of them, with each entry ending by a date—timestamping it in the history of his authorship of narrative and life itself.

Gay’s precision in moments that may seem of no importance to others at first glance, zeros in on a connection to something greater. Such as in entry number nineteen, “The Irrepressible: The Gratitudes,” in which an amaranth plant is growing in the crack in the concrete, which leads his eye to a chain link fence, to a bumble bee, and to further free association, leading him then, finally, to say, “This is why I study gratitude. Or what I mean when I say it.”

The ever-present inspirations across Gay’s work are that of joy and nature. And while these are alive and well in this book, he pivots still to memories of days past, specifically regarding family. Moments of his father come quite often even if they stay for only a moment. Images of a young Gay on the play ground or in his local woods gives context to an author who seems to have always focused on what was, or is, extrodinary in moments of comfort, of confusion, of curiosity.

Chosing to ground his reader’s in the real before contemplating the theoretical or even imaginative, Gay uses the easily recognizable making nothing, not even the most complex of thought processes, inccessible to his readers. Even the unfamiliar to the author, perhaps a wave directed at him from a stranger, becomes our shared familiarity with him soon after.

But as is life—and Gay is sure to remind us of this—not all that begins in joy can end in such, or at very least, cannot always be continuosly sustained. In entry fourteen, “‘Joy Is Such a Human Madness,’” pages detailing a fall bike ride to a bakery become soworrful when, moments later, Gay writes, “Not to mention the existential sorrow we all might be afflicted with, which is that we, and what we love, will soon be annihilated.” But rarely ever to leave on a sour note, he finishes, “What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying. I’m saying: What if that is the joy?”

The way the book is woven to leave at the threshold worries and doubts brings the reader to a sense of fulfillment; this fulfillment comes to fruition again as he closes with how he began—on his birthday, on the anniversary of a year well spent. He leaves his audience here, on this day, to go onward and bear a curiosity that leads us through the ruts of despair and into the fields of enlightened thoughts.

Published by Algonquin Books on February 12, 2019
ISBN: 9781616207922
288 pages (Hardcover)

Book Reviews

Anne Valente

The Desert Sky Before Us


Review by Gabriela V. Everett

Award-winning author Anne Valente is not afraid to confront the aches of life; her novels explore tragedy on both personal and social scales. The Desert Sky Before Us follows two sisters, Rhiannon and Billie — a former race car driver and arsonist —who take to the highways in a journey to scatter their mother’s ashes in Utah. Their mother, having passed away three months before Billie’s release, leaves them instructions and geographic coordinates to visit as they travel, leaving clues as to her motivation for sending them on their trip.

The book opens with Rhiannon in her Mustang, waiting for Billie to be released from Decatur Correctional Facility. It is both the aftermath of loss and the start of reconnection, as Rhiannon has not seen Billie in six years. Valente creates a pensive mood as former correctional inmates wait for rides that may never come to homes they no longer know — all while Rhiannon drifts in and out of how her sister has been changed by her incarceration.

 Various documents bookend chapters: notes on nature preserves, an interview with Rhiannon after a NASCAR race, and articles questioning a string of mysterious plane crashes. These snippets highlight the emotional nuance Valente uses in her work, and it reads akin to poetry.

 Forgiveness comes to the forefront of the work, and the distance between Rhiannon and Billie is summed up: “Rhiannon knows the word sorry will never find its way from Billie’s throat. . . .” In pursuit of closure regarding their mother’s death, they equally face the same concerning themselves and their truths.

 Valente writes with a prose-like structure, crafting lines that bite: “He could turn away. Go home. Call her ugly. Call her worse.”

 Her style generates an atmosphere of disconnect for the characters — fitting, given they have all been separated for long periods. Dialogue exists without quotations, similar to a description or recollection. It emphasizes their slow-to-heal journey, and by the end of the book, the sisters find a quiet unity.

 These characters are lovingly flawed; they are human, motivated by their desires and occasionally hurting each other with their drive. They are sketches of people you could encounter in a coffee shop — real, trying their best to reconstruct their lives and stay afloat in a world that offers more questions than answers.

The Desert Sky Before Us is a hybrid. Its form allows room for large metaphors and reader interpretation and makes you hunt for answers, much like Rhiannon and Billie as they scavenge for their mother’s clues on the road. The book is not a handbook or simple slice of life but a peek into the endurance it takes to find peace after you have been aching alone.

Published by Harper Collins
ISBN: 9781432865658
545 pages

Book Reviews

Lauren A. R. Masterson

Love of the Sea


Review by Elijah Abarabanel

Lauren A.R. Masterson’s Love of the Sea is a young adult, fantasy, romance novel about Asrei, the headstrong, exiled crimson-haired mermaid-princess of Sulu, who is determined to retake her kingdom and Cormack, the reluctant crown-prince of Paradine. Cormack possesses a profound love and curiosity for the world beneath the waves, a love and curiosity that his father and temperamental cousin, Peter, worry takes precedence over his princely position. Cormack has turned away every princess that his father has brought before him, but when he finds Asrei washed ashore, he is immediately enchanted. As he falls in love with her, he begins to wonder whether he is more loyal to his kingdom or his heart’s desires.

A blatant rejection of the tropes that Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid established, Masterson (a.k.a Little Alice) takes her corresponding characters, Asrei as the little mermaid and Cormack as the prince, and effectively turns them on their heads. No longer is the mermaid a lovesick maiden of the sea; she’s a conniving woman willing to do anything to get what she wants. No longer is the Little Mermaid the one who must consider giving up everything to be with their beloved, this burden now falls upon the prince. The sea-hag is no longer a temptress or a devil to bargain with.

It’s in this aspect of role reversal that Love of the Sea finds success.

The medieval setting is handled well by comparison, perhaps being one of its best features besides its main characters: rich in detail but never excessive. If Masterson introduces history, it always has a reason to exist­­­, other than adding a pointless backdrop. Pieces of folklore that are discussed early in the book will appear sporadically and in ways that are always relevant to the plot at hand. It’s well handled.

Love of the Sea seeks to subvert tropes of fairy-tale romances. For readers who enjoy a nice twist on a classic fairy tale will surely find some joy in this novel.


Publisher Info:
Published by Ink Smith Publishing on June 7, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-947578-12-8
261 pages


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Complete Book Review archives can be found on Allium, A Journal of Poetry & Prose‘s website.